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Accessible Path of…Exit…Route…?

Erick Mikiten, AIA, LEED-AP

As architects talk about accessibility, three terms often get caught in a bit of a mash-up, as they did in my title: Accessible Route, Path of Travel, and Accessible Means of Egress. Here’s a brief summary to help you see the differences, followed by a more detailed explanation:

Accessible Route

This is a general term for the floor surface or exterior surface that allows someone with a wheelchair or other mobility aid to get from one accessible part of a building or site to another.

Path of Travel

This is a subset of Accessible Routes; it’s used only in California Building Code (CBC) Chapter 11B in relation to alteration projects.

Accessible Means of Egress

For this phrase, think of Egress as the focus; it’s about getting out of a building in an emergency, and may not be the route or path people use to get in.

Now let’s get into more detail:

Chapter 2 (Definitions) of the CBC describes Accessible Route as “a continuous unobstructed path connecting accessible elements and spaces of an accessible site, building or facility that can be negotiated by a person with a disability using a wheelchair, and that is also safe for and usable by persons with other disabilities. Interior accessible routes may include corridors, hallways, floors, ramps, elevators and lifts. Exterior accessible routes may include parking access aisles, curb ramps, crosswalks at vehicular ways, walks, ramps and lifts.”

An Accessible Route should not be confused with a “Circulation Path,” which is a more general term for all the paths pedestrians use to get from one place to another, which can be the same elements as the Accessible Route, but can also include elements like stairs and landings, which are not accessible elements.

The Accessible Route on your site starts at Site Arrival Points, which can be accessible parking spaces and/or passenger loading zones, public streets and sidewalks, and public transportation stops, and extend to the accessible building entrance. If you have multiple Site Arrival Points, they all need to have an Accessible Route to the entrance. If you are not otherwise providing pedestrian access (a site with only vehicular access), then you don’t have to create a separate Accessible Route.

Next, Path of Travel: This is the code terminology, but think of it as “Accessible Path of Travel” because it is specifically intended to be accessible. As stated above, this is a subset of Accessible Routes applicable to an existing site, building, or facility that’s used to approach, enter, or exit an area.

The Path of Travel extends from the area of work (alterations or addition) to the building entrance and may include Site Arrival Points (sidewalks, streets, parking, and passenger loading zones on site). Inside, the path may also include certain building elements such as toilet and bathing facilities, telephones, drinking fountains and signs serving the area of work. Next time one of your colleagues talks about the Path of Travel in a new building you’re working on together, you can gently correct them and explain that they mean Accessible Route.

An Accessible Means of Egress (Section 1007), is a subset of a general Means of Egress (MOE), Chapter 10 which consists of three components: 1)The Exit (typically a door leading outside, or in a multistory building an enclosed exit stairway), and the paths on either side of it. Those are: 2) the Exit Access (the path from anywhere in the building to the Exit), and 3) the Exit Discharge (the path from the Exit to the Public Way, generally a street or alley).

Those components might include both accessible and inaccessible elements. For example, people may enter a building through a lobby and elevators, but in an emergency, the elevators may not be usable and are not part of the general Means of Egress. In a multi-story building, the occupants have to exit using the stair. Although the stair have usability aspects to them (rise and run requirements, gripable handrails, etc.), they are not part of an Accessible Route, so an Area of Refuge may be required, except in buildings equipped with an  automatic sprinkler system.

There are situations where the Means of Egress are not accessible, such as exiting from an upper level or basement. In those cases people who can’t use stairs need to be protected from a hazard. In most cases, an automatic sprinkler system provides this. If the building does not have an automatic sprinklers system the ability to get to the safety of the stairwells or to an elevator may be required. This would be an “Area of Refuge” under section 1007.6. In this case, both the enclosed stairways and elevator may need to be provided with an Areas of Refuge, which are designated areas outside the required exit path where people can await assistance. Two-way communication is required so that people in these areas can contact rescue personnel.

Similarly, the Exit Discharge on the exterior side of the Exit may sometimes open directly to an alley with no space for a ramp, or have other conditions such as steep terrain that is not wheelchair-accessible. So the code requires either an Area of Refuge inside the building or an Exterior Area of Rescue Assistance separated by the building by at least a one-hour wall. This is often preferable to the interior Area of Refuge, as it is open-air (no potential trapped smoke) and people with disabilities awaiting assistance are more visible to emergency personnel.

Kerwin Lee, AIA

Kerwin’s Comments: Means of Egress for people with disabilities has always been a second thought in the code. Early requirements for people with disabilities was to get them into a building, with no requirements for getting them out. It has only been recently that the code recognizes elevators as not only usable by the Fire Service to access a building, but to use for evacuation and even part of a required means of egress for high-rise buildings. What is not covered in the code is having evacuation plans, especially for people with disabilities. The worst thing in an emergency is to see everyone leaving the building and potentially leaving a person with disabilities behind.