Socioeconomic benefits and costs of universal design

Access and inclusion are considered a “good thing” until someone asks, “what will it cost?” Rarely does anyone ask “what does doing nothing cost?”. Many of the benefits are on the social scale, but are difficult for orthodox economists to measure with their current tools. So what to do about it? A report from Norway looks at studies of the socioeconomic benefits and costs of universal design and accessibility.

There is a risk that a disproportionate emphasis is put on the costs and benefits of universal design rather than its broader societal benefits.

Part of the front cover of the universal design and socioeconomic analyses report. It shows a blue city tram with a person about to board.

The Nordic nations are really keen to implement universal design policies. The high priority that Norway gives universal design makes it an international leader. Other Nordic countries are yet to show the same commitment. The report maps international socioeconomic analyses and related analyses. Although using different methods, the studies emphasise cost-benefit analysis.

Why do an analysis?

Cost-benefit analyses are commissioned for different reasons. There are four main types:

1. regulatory impact assessments to analyse the potential socioeconomic consequences of new legislation and regulation related to universal design or accessibility;
2. business case studies of the profitability of investing in universal design and accessibility;
3. cost-benefit analyses as part of an assessment of reasonable accommodation, primarily with regard to discrimination legislation; and
4. research projects examining the effects of accessibility measures in general, or of specific measures, or their benefit to different target groups.

What do they look at?

Most of the analyses are about housing and the built environment with a focus on legal access requirements. The studies mainly focus on the consequences in terms of participation, employment, risk of falls, and health benefits for people with disability.

Street scene of Oslo showing footpath dining and 2 cyclists.

In the transport sector, studies mainly looked at travel time and willingness to pay more to improve accessibility. Business case studies dominate the field of information and communication technology.

Costs are usually easier to measure in monetary terms than benefits. Assumptions based on hypothetical reasoning, such as accessibility results in increased employment, lacks evidence.

From the conclusions

Many studies indicate there are significant benefits for people with and without disabilities. However, evaluating these benefits against quantifiable costs entails other variables.

Regulatory impact assessments of new legislation lacks data for calculating different effects. Specialist consultancy firms often carry out these assessments as government staff lack expertise.

In other studies, new knowledge emerges but with different methods. Designing these studies and collecting data is a constant challenge. Measuring the benefits of universal design in its broadest sense is even more difficult than measuring statutory access requirements.

It is at least as important to study why people choose not to use, say public transport, as it is to study the benefits for those who do. Any cost-benefit analysis of universal design and accessibility must be accompanied by what constitutes a cost and for whom.

The report presents areas for improvement and development including the ongoing exchange of experience and knowledge.

The title of the report is Universal design and socioeconomic analysis: A survey of analyses and literature. The main part of the report is in Swedish, but the English language summary begins on page 105. Included in the list of documents at the end is the Australian Building Codes Board Regulatory Impact Statement on accessible housing.


What do measures for increased accessibility for people with disabilities cost? And what benefit do the measures provide? What analysis methods are there to evaluate the effects of increased accessibility? This report presents a survey of socio-economic analyses carried out in the Nordic countries and internationally.

An accessible society is a priority goal for the Nordic countries’ disability policy. The concept of universal design has become increasingly central to the Nordic countries’ work.

Calculations of the costs and benefits of measures for increased accessibility are requested by authorities and companies as well as organizations. The report presents studies, methods and analyses to evaluate the benefits and costs of various measures within universal design and accessibility. 

The focus is on cost-benefit analyzes and impact studies. The mapping has been carried out via a literature search, surveys to experts and two workshops. A total of 45 studies and seven literature reviews are presented in an English-language appendix. 

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