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Accessible Routes and Other Pedestrian Ways

Accessible Routes and Othe Pedestrian Ways


Janis Kent, Architect, FAIA, CASp © July, 2015. Updated February 2021

Over the years people use various terminology referring to areas where pedestrian move – circulation path, accessible route, path of travel, and accessible means of egress. But the question is, are all of these terms inter-changeable or do they have some nuance of difference in their meaning? The answer is, they do overlap each other but there is indeed differences between each of the terms. It would be good to understand the differences since the ADA Standards has further requirements for each of these categories and limits some of what we can do within each.

Circulation Path

Circulation path is a general term. It can be common-use circulation path within an employee work area, which has several specific exceptions, or just a circulation path in general. Circulation paths are where pedestrians move from one place to another and does not necessarily mean they are accessible. Circulation paths thru vehicular ways and unpaved paths are required to either be designed to be accessible or have an accessible route nearby. Stairs are considered vertical circulation paths which obviously are not accessible although there are requirements such as tread/riser dimensions, nosing profiles, and handrails. If a vertical circulation path leads to an accessible area or element, there is to be an accessible route within the same general area whether lifts, elevators, or ramps. The accessible route can overlap the circulation path or be separate in the same area. Compliant protruding objects can project into a circulation path.

Circulation Path.  An exterior or interior way of passage provided for pedestrian travel, including but not limited to, walks, hallways, courtyards, elevators, platform lifts, ramps, stairways, and landings.

Common Use.  Interior or exterior circulation paths, rooms, spaces, or elements that are not for public use and are made available for the shared use of two or more people.


Accessible Route

Accessible Route is also a general term and basically describes a route taken by pedestrians that is accessible. With a few exceptions, the accessible route connects the accessible parking spaces, accessible passenger loading zones, to the public right of way and public transportation stops with the accessible building entrance, to accessible elements and spaces both on the site and within the building including each story and mezzanine. If spaces and elements are connected by a circulation path then for the most part they are also required to be connected by an accessible route. If spaces or elements are accessible they are to be on an accessible route. Accessible routes are to coincide or be in the same general area as circulation paths. Accessible routes are comprised of walking surfaces with a 5% maximum slope, doorways, ramps, excluding flared sides of curb ramps, elevators, and lifts. Revolving doors, gates, and turnstiles are not part of an accessible route. An accessible route is considered a volume of 80” minimum clear height. The minimum width is 36” per ADAS whereas in California it is 48” on the exterior, 44” on double-loaded and 36” on single-loaded interior routes. There are further width requirements for ‘U’-turns, doorways, and passing spaces. Protruding objects can not reduce the required minimum clear width of an accessible route.

Accessible.  A site, building, facility, or portion thereof that complies with this part.


Path of Travel

Path of Travel applies to alteration and existing buildings. It not only includes the area where pedestrians move, such as corridors, hallways, lobbies, sidewalks, ramps, parking access aisles, walkways, doorways and elevators, but by definition it also includes the restrooms, phones, and drinking fountains. Generally a path of travel connects an exterior approach to an entry to an altered area. The required width and height meet the same requirements as for accessible routes. The term path of travel is used when providing an approach to an altered area that is required to be upgraded using 20% of the adjusted construction costs for proportional spending.

A path of travel includes a continuous, unobstructed way of pedestrian passage by means of which the altered area may be approached, entered, and exited, and which connects the altered area with an exterior approach (including sidewalks, streets, and parking areas), an entrance to the facility, and other parts of the facility.

An accessible path of travel may consist of walks and sidewalks, curb ramps and other interior or exterior pedestrian ramps; clear floor paths through lobbies, corridors, rooms, and other improved areas; parking access aisles; elevators and lifts; or a combination of these elements

For the purposes of this section, the term “path of travel” also includes the restrooms, telephones, and drinking fountains serving the altered area


Accessible Means of Egress

An accessible means of egress is a continuous way of egress travel from within a building that provides an accessible route to an area of refuge, a horizontal exit, and to the public way. This is defined in the 2000, 2001 Supplement, and the 2003 IBC per ADA and allows the use of exit stairways, platform lifts, and evacuation elevators along with horizontal exits or areas of refuge. Do note that proportional spending for path of travel does not apply to an accessible means of egress system unless that means of egress is also the approach to an altered area.

Accessible Means of Egress.  A continuous and unobstructed way of egress travel from any point in a building or facility that provides an accessible route to an area of refuge, a horizontal exit, or a public way.


So as you can see, the terminology is similar and does overlap, but has some important differences. Circulation path is general for a pedestrian way. It is not necessarily accessible but does need to have an accessible route in the same vicinity if it is not overlapping and if it leads to an accessible space or element. An accessible route has specific minimum requirements in order to be accessible including no projecting objects into its minimum required clear width. Path of Travel is the terminology for alterations. It includes the concept of an Accessible route but it has a broader definition including other elements as part of proportional spending for alterations. Accessible Means of Egress is about fire and life safety exiting and does not use the term accessible in the same manner as the preceding definitions. Do note that this is a summary. There are a number of further requirements and exceptions for each term. And, with the exception of the term Accessible Means of Egress, the requirements above do not take into account occupant loads and their affect on the widths of pedestrian ways.

Thanks to L. Smith and M. O’Brien for the topic request. If you have a topic you’d like to request, please email me.

Nothing in this article constitutes legal or design advice for a particular project or circumstance. Be aware that your local City or County may have additional requirements that are different or more restrictive than the State or Federal requirements. Also, this article is an interpretation and opinion of the writer which may vary for a particular project or due to other circumstances. It is meant as a general summary – current original regulations should always be reviewed when making any decisions and specific advice by a qualified professional should be secured for a particular project or circumstance.