The Curb Cut Effect

When a solution intended to help one group helps multiple groups.

Curb cuts go by different names, but around the world they are the small inclined ramps in the sidewalk that provide easy access to the street. Without curb cuts, people in wheelchairs have to either rely on strangers to help lift them up/down between the sidewalk & the street, or they have to wheel along until they find a driveway (which could mean traveling in the street with moving cars). For some, the simple act of crossing the street can be fraught with difficulties.

The first program to install curb cuts was in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the 1940s. Jack Fisher was an entrepreneur, a disabled WWII veteran, and a Harvard educated lawyer who worked to get hundreds of fellow disabled veterans access to medical & financial assistance. It was because of his time with his clients that, in 1945, he worked with the city to get curb cuts and rails installed around the downtown, which gave a wide variety of people easier access to the businesses of Kalamazoo. The intention of the curb cuts was to enable the disabled (veteran or otherwise), but the program had unintended benefits.

A curb cut with truncated domes surface

The Curb Cut Effect

The curb cut effect is when a design intended to help one group turns out to help multiple groups. The curb cuts were designed for the physically disabled in Kalamazoo but turned out to also benefit the elderly, they help delivery people rolling shipments to and from trucks, people pushing babies in strollers, runners, people dragging suitcases, etc.

We can see the curb cut effect again with closed captioning. What was designed to assist the hearing impaired unintentionally benefited others. Now viewers in loud spaces can read what’s being said on TV, viewers who are new to a language can follow along more easily, shows & movies with strong accents are easier to understand, etc.

The final episode of Seinfeld, in close captioning, being viewed from Times Square

The curb cut effect can be found all over. The flexible straw was designed by Joseph Friedman to help his daughter drink from a glass, but now they also help people with mobility restrictions too. Gender neutral bathrooms may be for the safety & comfort of trans & non-binary users, but they also shorten the wait time for women while also providing men with more baby changing stations than traditional men’s rooms do. Optical character recognition (OCR) was designed to digitize text and help the visually impaired read books, but now the technology also allows everyone’s phones to look at text in other languages and translate it on the fly.

A rising tide lifts all ships

The curb cut effect shows that helping one group can spill over into helping others. If nothing else it is good to help others get fair access to the things most people already have. With the curb cut effect, an investment to help one group can reap a greater return on investment.

Despite this, intentionally spending resources to help just one group is often resisted in society. It can be seen as playing favorites, or creating dependencies on government handouts, and that helping just one group is to act at the exclusion of helping others. Most of this opposition comes from political conservatives who tend to have less interest in fairness or helping minorities. American conservatives are more likely to think of financial assistance intended to help the disadvantaged as creating a “welfare state”, despite (paradoxically) that they themselves are the number one recipient of government handouts. What the curb cut effect can show is that, if helping others isn’t reason enough towards charity & goodwill, at least you might also be helped in the process.

More on “Less is more”

The idiom “Less is more” is by German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. “Less is more” was at the core of his design philosophy.

“Less is more” is about simplicity. It’s that keeping things to the absolute essentials is more effective than including extraneous additional elements.

Mies

Ludiwg Mies van der Rohe was born in Germany in 1886. His architectural career started by apprenticing at various design firms but it was in Berlin in the early 20th century that he gained greater exposure to the new progressive ideas of the age. This gained even more momentum after World War I. People in the Weimar Republic were living in a world of increasing industrialization, fast-paced metropolises, and greater reasons to turn away from traditional views. The old constructs of thinking were from a bygone era that weren’t compatible with the modern industrialized world. It was in this environment that Modernism was born.

Modernism embraced new ways of thinking. As people struggled to find their place in a world broken by the old regime, modernism explored new ways forward. It found it’s way into design, art, literature, philosophy, music, and other fields as experimental new ways that were alternatives/rejections to the rules of the past.

Modernism was at the center of Mies’ architectural thinking and he quickly became a leader in this new school of thought. While serving as the third and final head of the famed Bauhaus design school, Mies realized the political climate in Germany was becoming increasingly hostile and emigrated to the USA in 1937, eventually settling in Chicago. It was in Chicago that he worked the rest of his life creating some of his masterpieces in modernist thought such as the Farnsworth House.

Less is more

His entire approach to architecture stripped designs down to the absolute essentials; removing classical architectural decorative ornamentation entirely. It was from this design philosophy that “Less is more” was born. It was a utilitarian approach where a design is more powerful the less you add. Basically a design is better the less stuff you add to it. Keep it simple.

Ornamentation served no functional purpose so it was omitted. It took Louis Sullivan’s idea that “form follows function” to the extreme. A building’s visual style should take a backseat to its purpose.

While celebrated as a design visionary and as a father of modernism, Mies’ aphorism of “Less is more”  has taken on a life of its own where it is arguably more famous than he is.