Does improving accessibility boost local economies?

ADA compliance can be costly for communities — but the financial benefits may be bigger.

A cracked sidewalk. A train platform without an elevator. A busy intersection with no audio signals. For many people in our region, these are more than just inconveniences. They mean being unable to make it to a job or school, canceling a trip to the local commercial district, or delaying a visit to the doctor.

Physical barriers prevent people with disabilities from moving around the region — and that can have a significant influence on our economy.

Accessible infrastructure creates economic opportunity by connecting people to jobs, education, and services. Communities that are accessible are welcoming to everyone — residents, visitors, and shoppers. People with disabilities in the U.S. have about $500 billion in annual disposable income, which they are more likely to spend in communities that are accessible to them.

Of the 8.6 million people in northeastern Illinois, over 800,000 have a disability. The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) is working to improve accessibility across the region not only because it benefits those with disabilities — but because it benefits everyone.

Improving and maintaining accessibility is vital to creating more economically prosperous and livable communities. But to truly understand the financial benefits of accessibility, we need more research.

The costs and benefits of accessibility

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibits discrimination by state and local government entities, requiring that physical facilities, programs, and services are accessible to people with disabilities. For example, installing ramps, curb cuts, accessible parking, tactile warnings, and signage can help reduce physical barriers.

But improving accessibility takes money and time — and studies have shown that lack of financial resources is a key reason for ADA non-compliance. At the same time, not meeting ADA requirements can be costly. Non-compliance lawsuits against state and local governments have resulted in large settlements. In 2015, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, settled for $15 million and agreed to install accessible elements, and in 2018, Portland, Oregon, settled for $113 million and agreed to upgrade its sidewalk ramps.

These settlements reveal the very real financial consequences for municipalities that fail to comply with the ADA. However, there is another equally important consideration: the benefits of accessibility.

While the costs to implement accessibility improvements are known, little research has been done to understand and quantify the financial benefits of accessibility. This is partially because there is no established and consistent method to monetize the benefits of accessibility improvements. Not knowing the financial benefits of accessibility distorts the full picture when conducting a cost-benefit analysis.

What does current research show?

The little research that has been done shows that the financial benefits of accessibility improvements can significantly outweigh the costs.

In the United Kingdom, a study found that new accessible features at transit stations had a benefit-cost ratio of almost 2.5. A project in New Zealand found that making a crosswalk accessible resulted in a net present value of NZ$ 1.27 million. Another study found that the demand for accessible tourism in the European Union has the potential to generate up to €537 billion of GDP, an amount that employs 12.1 million people.

Accessibility considerations aside, we know that general investment in transit systems brings about economic benefits. Transit improvements increase access to the labor force, increase disposable household income, and decrease traffic, congestion, and pollution. These benefits cannot be overstated. In fact, the Metropolitan Planning Council found that in the Chicago metropolitan region general transit investments — which can include accessibility improvements — yield an expected return on investment of 21 percent, at minimum.

Behind the numbers, there is also the human impact. Cindi Swanson, a Naperville resident, lost her vision two decades ago. She and her family moved to Naperville’s downtown so that Cindi could walk to complete errands, and so that her son, who has Down syndrome, could easily access his job. Cindi worked with local officials to highlight areas that were difficult to navigate, whether as a person with disabilities or an older adult with increased mobility challenges. Her work led to changes in the environment that now make it safer and easier for Cindi — and many others — to move around their community, travel to work, and support local businesses. “I want my son to go out and be engaged in the community,” she says. “If you can’t walk or it’s too dangerous to walk, there’s a lot of home sitting.”

Let’s work together to show the benefits of accessibility 

We know that the economic benefits of accessibility are real, and that accessibility offers a wealth of untapped economic potential. But more research must be done to quantify those results. We also know that we cannot do this work alone and are interested in engaging with partners across the region. If you have ideas or resources, and would like to partner with CMAP on this important research, contact accessibility@cmap.illinois.gov.

To learn more about our ADA program, trainings, and resources, visit our page.