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Why do our cycling and walking innovations end up being bad for disabled people and what can we do about it?

We need to find out more about how disabled people use streets

Ross Atkin
20 November 2019
Illustration: Ross Atkin
Illustration: Ross Atkin


We have spent the last decade transforming our streets. We say we are tackling car dominance and encouraging walking and cycling, but many of the design innovations we are using are bitterly opposed by disabled people, who say they turn streets into no-go zones and take away their independence. 

For the last ten years I have been trying to understand how disabled people use streets. I’ve been doing this by following disabled people around (with their consent) as they negotiate streets in different UK cities, and collecting their views and experiences.

Across five research projects for organisations like Transport for London, Guide Dogs, CABE, York and Bath councils, I’ve shadowed 85 people, with a huge variety of capabilities and mobility strategies. I’ve seen first-hand the issues different groups of disabled people face getting around on streets and I’ve tried, often unsuccessfully, to explain these to design practitioners and improve what ends up getting built.

There can be a tendency amongst people, both campaigning for and designing improvements aimed at pedestrians and cyclists, to dismiss the feedback they receive from disabled people as just ‘opinion’. This skepticism often extends to explanations based on qualitative research of the kind I do. ‘Show me the data’, they often say.

As a non-disabled person I am also extremely wary of speaking for a community that I am not part of. I wasn’t able to organise and run a participatory research project just to gather quotes for this article so, before writing, I did the next best thing, and sat down with Alan Benson, the Chair of Transport for All (TfA), a pan-impairment charity that campaigns on accessibility issues and is run by its members. Alan spends a lot of time hearing from disabled people about street design issues and working with disability groups to work out what good and bad infrastructure looks like, through his work at Transport for All and as a member of the Richmond Active Travel Group.

Ross Atkin is a designer and presenter on BBC2's The Big Life Fix, and will be speaking about cycling and walking design at Cycling and Walking Innovations 2019

These are some of the issues that we need to talk about…

Opposite concepts, the same effect..

This applies equally well to two design trends that I had always thought were conceptually opposite.

The first is the removal of infrastructure, in order to deliberately create a situation of ambiguity between different street users, which is usually associated with the term ‘shared space’. The second is the creation of additional infrastructure to accommodate cyclists, which can put them in conflict with pedestrians, most often around bus stops.

The people for whom areas are hostile simply avoid them, creating the problem of ‘how do you measure the absence of something.’

Ultimately that is why it is (and always will be) difficult to come up with hard data on how many people have been excluded by a particular street design. The lack of data does not mean it is not an important issue, however. This is particularly true for issues around bus stops because, for people who already find it difficult to travel significant distances on streets, the bus is often their last means of independent mobility. If you exclude them from using the bus you take can away their independence entirely, which is a hugely damaging thing to do.

I have written in detail about the issues with the basket of design features associated with Shared Space, so wanted to devote the rest of this article to the interface between bus stops and cycle infrastructure (which Alan has indentified as says ‘the biggest problem at the moment) and address some of the most common questions that come up.

The objective risk from cycles is much lower than from motor vehicles, so surely conflict with cycles is not a big problem?

Any conversation with a blind or partially sighted person about how they get around on streets will reveal the extent to which their capability to do so is bound up in their confidence. Just stepping outside independently requires a degree of confidence that many people with significant sight loss do not possess.

This may not be as intense an issue for other disabled people, but it is still an important consideration. As anyone who has done a bungee jump knows, the degree of confidence we feel doing something has very little to do with the objective risk and everything to do with our subjective experience.

The idea of subjective feelings of confidence are not new to people who work on cycle infrastructure. Arguments based on subjective safety are frequently used to justify the installation of certain kinds of highly-visible infrastructure over other interventions that might decrease objective risk but score less well when attempts are made to quantify subjective safety. There are entire branches of research devoted to doing this by crafting questionnaires, collecting information on near misses and even putting participants in computer simulations of streets.

Conversely, very little effort is made to understand how changes to street design affect the subjective safety of disabled non-cyclists, or to collect and understand near misses. Alan believes that even actual collisions go unreported: 'At TfA we don’t believe that the incidents of pedestrian-cyclist conflict are being properly reported or recorded. Near miss people just have a row in the street. Even when there are comings together people will seek medical attention later, not at the time. We know our members have had incidents and later gone to hospital because of the injuries. I believe the same is true for cyclists.'

There is another issue that has come out very strongly from my shadowing work that is pertinent here - What a disabled person, particularly a person with sight loss, considers a near miss with a cycle is often much less near than what the cyclist (or an observing traffic engineer) considers a near miss.

When traffic engineers do quantitive work on safety, hundreds of hours of footage is typically collected, usually of areas where it is already believed there are problems. Even so once the count is done, often only a handful of significant events are observed.

With these kinds of ratios I would be extremely unlikely to have observed a near miss of any kind whilst out doing qualitative work, shadowing 85 disabled people, for an hour or two each, on routes where we were not looking specifically for cycle conflict. In practice I have observed multiple events that the person I was shadowing considered a near miss with a cyclist, in some cases multiple such events during a single journey.

If blind people can get across side roads so why can’t they get across the cycle track to the bus stop?

In a way this is a more specific version of the previous question asked by someone who is unwilling to take a disabled person’s assessment of their own subjective safety at face value. Answering it requires understanding the strategies blind and partially signed people use to safely get around our streets, as well as the data on how cyclists tend to deal with pedestrian conflict.

The first thing to understand is that many blind and partially sighted people will take routes that minimise their exposure to non-signalised road crossings. This can include making significant diversions to cross at signalised crossings rather than informal ones, or even zebras. It can also include minimising the distance they need to travel on foot, which is one of the reasons access to buses is so important to them.

The next important factor is that, whilst motor vehicles are undoubtedly more dangerous than cycles, blind and partially sighted people have effective strategies for dealing with vehicles. If they are going to cross a road without a controlled crossing many people will make sure they cross as far as possible from the mouths of the road to maximise their chances of hearing an approaching motor vehicle. At zebra crossings they will quite often wait until they hear the sound of the idling engine of a vehicle waiting for them to cross before attempting to.

Obviously the spread of electric vehicles presents a major challenge to these strategies with is why Guide Dogs have campaigned successfully for regulation to ensure EVs emit a minimum sound level of 56dB. Approaching cycles can also be very difficult to perceive in this situation (and also on signalised crossings where we know compliance for cycles is much lower than for motor vehicles). In a street layout where cycles share the carriageway, there is a large amount of space available for an approaching cyclist to avoid a crossing pedestrian without conflict. This is impossible on a 1.5 or 2 m wide cycle lane, meaning the best case scenario in a conflict situation is either a near miss or a cycle travelling on at the footway at fairly high speed.

We cannot exclude women, children, older and disabled people from cycling

Whilst it may not be as complete or conclusive as many people like to believe it is, there is no point in denying that there is an evidence base that suggests the presence of segregated cycle infrastructure (which necessitates managing the interaction of cycles and pedestrians at bus stops) seems to encourage a greater proportion of women, children, older and disabled cyclists to use those routes, relative to unsegregated ones. This evidence is used to construct an argument that not building such infrastructure on any street with more than a trickle of motor vehicles is excluding these groups, which is as bad, or worse than any effect the infrastructure has on disabled pedestrians and bus passengers. As the group of people advantaged by the infrastructure is perceived to be larger than the group disadvantaged, this is viewed as an acceptable trade off.

This argument is flawed because it assumes moral equivalence between the offer of a choice of mode for one group and independent mobility for another. The people that will be encouraged to cycle by the infrastructure would have got to their destination by another mode (here in London kids, older and disabled people all travel for free on buses), but the bus was the last option for the people who are excluded by the infrastructure. Exclusion for them means a complete loss of independence and should never be done consciously in order to provide a lifestyle choice to someone else.

It works brilliantly in the Netherlands...

I have not done any research with disabled people in the Netherlands so I have always found this question hard to answer. I’d always assumed disabled people had the same issues with the designs they have here but, as a society, they had different priorities.

We know from the statistics that most Dutch cities have higher private motor vehicle use than we do in London, we know they own more cars per capita and that, despite living much closer together, they drive about the same number of miles every year as British people do, so I had always assumed they had a strong desire to accommodate private motor vehicles in cities. We know many more people cycle than walk so I had assumed they would always feel comfortable putting the needs of cyclists ahead of those of pedestrians. I still did not underrate how a country we usually view as socially progressive, would do something that disadvantaged disabled people in this way.

Alan had an illuminating explanation. 'In the Netherlands they haven’t adopted the Social Model [of Disability]. The problem is not seen as the environment, the problem is seen as the person. The fact you haven’t seen the cyclist isn’t a problem with the environment, it’s that you are blind. That is now starting to change but they’ve had decades where that was the orthodoxy.'

The Social Model of Disability; the idea that people are disabled by a lack of consideration of their needs in their physical and social environment, was invented here in the UK and is built into legislation like the Disability Discrimination Act and its successor the Equality Act, as well as the Department for Transport’s Inclusive Transport Strategy.

As Alan points out: 'The Social Model has grown up here in the UK over the last 44 years. I see  it now spreading around the world, into the Netherlands and Europe. But the cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands predates it. Once this inequality is established it becomes normal. Disabled people can’t take the bus. The evidence of the absence.'

We need to work this out together...

Despite all the issues created for disabled people by cycling and walking innovations over the last decade, Alan remains optimistic. ‘The Healthy Streets Agenda needs to work for everybody. Everybody benefits, including disabled people. We’re not against the principle, we just don’t believe there is enough creative thought and impartial analysis to get it right. I believe there is a solution out there but I don’t believe that currently we are going to get there because the engineers, supported by the cycle lobby, think what we’ve got is good enough.’

Our best shot at transforming our streets in ways that work for everyone is to understand how what has been built so far has affected different people. The only way to do this is to listen to and engage with those people. Unfortunately, like many political issues at the moment, this seems increasingly difficult to do for people on both sides. Alan has not had a good experience online whenever he has tried to explain the issues Transport for All members have experienced with cycle infrastructure.

'Whenever we put anything out about cycle infrastructure, the aggression and insults we get back impact on people’s mental health. There are personal attacks, and that’s not constructive. Yes, it’s definitely making things worse. I think there are two reasons. There is a vocal disabled people’s lobby and when you get two vehement lobbies against each other it just turns into a fight. That certainty that the cycle lobby feels that ‘this is the solution’ doesn’t help in solving the problem. Coproduction is essential.'

For me, we are only going to get healthy, inclusive streets by doing good, thorough design. That means understanding the needs of different users (which is hard to do if we are abusing each other  online), being clear about what our objectives are and creating designs that meet those objectives with the best trade-offs between different people’s needs. In some situations the best trade-off will be segregated cycle infrastructure (with much more effective ways of managing pedestrian and cycle conflict) but no sensible designer would assume the same design would be the best solution in every context. We have many other ways of making our streets better places to walk and cycle, most obviously with drastic reductions in motor vehicle volumes through road closures or pricing. That is a political fight worth having.

Ross Atkin is a designer and presenter on BBC2's The Big Life Fix 

Ross is a designer and engineer based in East London. He maintains his own design and development practice where he works with software developers to create new products that span the digital-physical divide for leading UK manufacturing companies. As a researcher he has focused on making streets more accessible for disabled people with projects for Guide Dogs, the Royal London Society for Blind People, The City of York, Bath Council and Transport for London. He is also a presenter on BBC2's The Big Life Fix programme.

From an early age Ross was fascinated with making things and was lucky enough to be encouraged in this pursuit by his father, who worked in manufacturing, and two really fantastic Design & Technology teachers. He trained in Mechanical Engineering at The University of Nottingham and Industrial Design at the Royal College of Art. 

Ross is inspired by all the people who let him into their lives to help him with his research, in particular the large number of disabled people who have let him follow them around on the streets.


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