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Lifts vs Elevators – Pros and Cons

Lifts and elevators


Janis Kent, FAIA, Architect, CASp © January, 2021 (expanded)

The question has come up several times of why and where one would use a wheelchair lift versus an elevator and what would be the advantage of one over the other, presuming there is a choice. While elevators require larger clearances inside the car and additional space for the machine room and equipment, wheelchair lifts are restricted as to who can use them as well as height for travel and speed. There is also the cost factor where elevators cost more for installation as well as maintenance than lifts.


The first question that might come up is – when is a lift allowed to be used instead of an elevator? For new construction, there are 10 locations that a lift can be used as a component of an accessible route; 1) to performance areas and speakers platforms; 2) to dispersed wheelchair spaces in assembly areas; 3) to non-public incidental spaces; 4) judicial spaces; 5) existing site constraints (lift can be placed on interior or exterior); 6) within multi-level mobility guest rooms and dwelling units; 7) amusement ride load and unload areas; 8) play areas for components; 9) team and player seating areas; and 10) boating and fishing piers – listed under 206.7 Platform Lifts. If there is also an accessible route leading to other components or areas not listed above, then a lift most-likely can be used as well. These limitations do not apply to existing facilities. And to note, we are not discussing specialty lifts such as van lifts or pool lifts. The following information will give you an overview and is based not only on the ADA Standards but also ASME A18.1-2003 Safety Standard for Platform Lifts which is the latest version approved by DOJ. The 1999 edition can also be used.

Vertical Platform Lifts

A wheelchair lift can generally have a vertical travel distance of 5’ maximum. The sides and gates are to be 42″ minimum in height. This is for a typical open wheelchair lift. If this is being used in a judicial space, the vertical travel distance is limited to 2’ maximum but the clearance inside the lift is increased. If you need to have a height differential greater than 5’, you are talking about an enclosed platform lift which can have a vertical travel distance of up to 14’ maximum. Both the 2’ and the 14’ travel distance are stipulated per a later version of ASME18.1.1. A wheelchair lift is limited in its use to a person with a disability and their companion, whether or not their companion is able-bodied. In other words, no one else can make use of the lift, nor is it meant to be used for work or freight. In fact, a lift is to have an informational sign stating No Freight inside the platform enclosure itself.

Inclined Platform Lifts

An inclined lift is to have a clearance height of 80″ minimum when entering, traveling, and exiting the lift. Although ASME allows a 60″ clearance during its travel if there is a folding seat, this is not an option under ADA which requires 80″ minimum for the full distance. Inclined lifts are limited to a 45° angle maximum. An informational sign also stating No Freight is to be provided inside the platform enclosure itself. An inclined lift is acceptable if it has a platform as part of the lift, meaning someone is not required to transfer from their wheelchair onto the lift but can remain in their wheelchair.

Inclined Stairway Chairlifts

There is also an inclined stairway chairlift. This type of lift has a seat, but it has not been approved by DOJ to be used in places of public accommodation or public buildings since it requires someone to transfer to the lift seat.


Elevators also have several different types. Generally they are more costly than lifts and take up more space, but on the other hand they tend to move quicker and do not have limitations on who may use them. There are more maintenance requirements for elevators than lifts which can also add to the cost factor for consideration. To meet ADA you will also need to follow ASME 17.1-2000 edition with the A17.1a-2002 and A17.1b-2003 addenda.

Passenger and Freight Elevators

A passenger elevator takes people to different floors and is typically sized by number of passengers and speed depending on building height. A freight elevator is meant to transport material and freight as opposed to people and is generally sized to carry heavier loads.

Destination Elevator

A destination elevator is a type of passenger elevator that does not necessarily stop at each floor. It can be a 2-stop elevator that goes from the ground floor to the top floor where one just gets on and off. Or it can be a programmable passenger elevator where one enters their floor destination at the lobby controls and the controls will calculate and tell you which elevator to board, grouping people with similar floor destinations. In high-rise, high traffic buildings, this is meant to reduce both wait and travel times for elevator cars and be more energy efficient.

Limited Use/Limited Access Elevator (LU/LA)

A LU/LA elevator is a more limited means of vertical travel than a passenger elevator and has a maximum travel distance of 25’. It has less spatial requirements than a passenger elevator and a longer travel distance than an enclosed lift. Maintenance is not as frequent as passenger elevators. These are allowed to meet accessible route requirements both in buildings where the elevator exception is allowed as well as where lifts can be used, and within multi-level mobility dwelling units – see the exceptions under 206.6 Elevators.

Residential Elevators

There are also requirements for private residential elevators that are installed within multi-level mobility dwelling units and those have their own requirements.

In Summary

There are other considerations of cost, and maintenance, and even who would most-likely be using the vertical circulation. Depending on distances and space available, pedestrian ramps can be used instead of a mechanical means of vertical access. A platform lift with standby power can be used for egress if it meets requirements as listed under the ADA Referenced Standards.

And one other item to be aware of – the doors/gates for a lift follow the same requirements for clearance, thresholds, and slopes in required clear floor spaces as other low-energy power-operated doors/gates. Many lift manufacturers have a small sloped ramp leading from the lift down to the landing (if installed with no pit). These typically deploy down several inches and are steeply sloped. But this does not meet the required threshold profile nor level clear floor space requirements of 2% maximum slope, hence the lift does not comply for access. And, if you do not believe that, have a look at 410 Platform Lifts, specifically 410.6 Doors and Gates, which directly points you to 404.3 Automatic and Power-Assisted Doors and Gates, specifically 404.3.2 for Maneuvering Clearance and 404.3.3 Thresholds. So be aware of what you specify, what you install, and what you accept.

Thanks to C. Kluger 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.

© Janis Kent, FAIA, Architect, CASp 2021