A continuum of mobility

The way debates around the division of space in urban areas are framed – how much space we should allocate to private motor traffic, to public transport, to walking, and to cycling – presents walking as an ‘essential’ mode, one that all of us engage in, while by contrast cycling is almost always an optional extra, something that’s nice to have, but not all that important.

For example, we wouldn’t dream of building a new road scheme without footways that are suitable for the children or the elderly to use – or without footways altogether – yet it’s extraordinarily common for new schemes not to bother including any cycling infrastructure at all, even in places where cycling is already a relatively established mode of transport, despite the conditions.

A brand new road scheme in Westminster, London. No cycle space included.

What this means in practical terms is that cycling as a practical transport option is limited to the small proportion of the population willing to cycle in motor traffic-dominated environments, further reinforcing the impression that cycling is something that does not need to be designed for, because very few people are using cycles to get about. It’s a vicious circle.

Depressingly these assumptions are built into Transport for London’s latest Healthy Streets guidance – it is only ‘walking’ that needs diverse representation, and needs to include people with disabilities, without any mention of cycling under ‘all walks of life’.

From TfL’s Healthy Streets

But when we look at places where cycling has been designed for, where it is as just as much an integral part of highway design as footways, we see that, in reality, cycling infrastructure coexists alongside walking infrastructure as part of a continuum of mobility.

The combined ‘walking and cycling’ space in the Netherlands is really just one space – a space for human-scale transport, conveniently subdivided according to speed, with humans travelling at under 4mph using one part of it, and humans travelling faster than 4mph using the other part of it.

Footway and cycleway combined is just space for human-scale mobility, divided according to speed

In Britain, save for a handful of locations, we don’t have this ‘expanded’ space. We have slow, footway space, and we have fast, motor traffic-dominated space. People in wheelchairs and on mobility scooters, and people with mobility issues in general, face a stark choice – they either have to adapt to traveling like pedestrians, or they have to try and cope in motor traffic-dominated environments. Their options have been limited.

We also lumber what little cycling infrastructure we have with what I would call ‘able-bodied’ barriers – impediments designed to slow fast, able-bodied cyclists, but that disproportionately impede (or thwart entirely) people with disabilities, or who are less able-bodied. This includes things like the vicious speed humps appearing in the Royal Parks in London, as well as zig-zag barriers and gates – both things that don’t do a great deal to slow down your average, able-bodied cyclist, but represent serious obstacles to those with disabilities.

Able-bodied people can easily slalom through bollard forests like this, without losing much speed. But they are a serious obstacle – even a total barrier – to many other people

So rather than seeing walking as something innate, that everyone does, with cycling just as a hobby or an optional extra – a mode of transport that people don’t have to use, and from which they could switch to other modes if they find it too difficult – we should start removing the distinction between those two modes altogether, and treating them with equal importance.

To British ears this might sound ridiculous – how on earth could you suggest ‘cyclists’ should be treated with equal importance to frail, elderly people, or disabled people, who can’t possibly cycle!  We even see letters written to newspapers claiming that the interests of the elderly and the disabled are being trampled over by ‘the cycling lobby’. But ‘cycling’ is only seen as impossible or impractical to British people because we have designed it out of our roads and streets, and because we have a very limited view of who can actually benefit from cycling, and from cycling infrastructure. As Isabelle Clement points out, this is entirely backward.

Take the Alinker – a Dutch vehicle designed to assist people who have difficulty walking.

Is this cycling? Is it walking? I’m not really sure. In reality it’s a bit of a combination of the two, a wheeled vehicle that allows people to ‘walk’ along at cycling speeds. It’s really quite wonderful to watch, but it’s hard to imagine where this kind of vehicle would work in Britain. It’s probably a bit too fast for use on the pavement, yet at the same time I can’t really imagine many elderly or disabled people venturing onto British roads on an Alinker. Yet in the Netherlands it’s quite obvious where it would go; on the cycling infrastructure. This is just one example of why we should accord equal importance to ‘cycling’ infrastructure as to walking infrastructure.

It’s also very easy to forget that cycling itself is actually a mobility aid, much the same as an Alinker.

My grandmother – who has had both her hip joints replaced, in her late 70s – was cycling until she was 89, making the one mile trip to the farm shop down the road, a distance she would struggle to cover on foot. (She has unfortunately now had to give up cycling because she can’t dismount quickly enough when she encounters a difficult situation). Cycling made her life easier, and this is undoubtedly the case for countless other frail, elderly people in Britain – cycling could be making their lives easier too, but we haven’t designed our environment to allow it, resting on lazy and tired assumptions that cycling is only for the fit and able-bodied. Yet spend just a couple of days in the Netherlands and you will see elderly people – who are often carrying with them visual evidence of how they might struggle to walk – happily cycling about, still retaining independent mobility into old age.

And this isn’t just true for the elderly – it’s true for people who have illnesses, like Parkinson’s Disease.

Or people with other kinds of physical impairment.

The only reason we believe that cycling is simply not possible for disabled people is because we have designed that kind of cycling out of our roads and streets. In reality cycling is just as possible – if not more possible – than other forms of active travel for disabled people. Cycling is easier than walking for many people, and ‘cycles’ for them are a mobility aid, just as much as a wheelchair, or a mobility scooter, or a strollers. We just have a narrow view of their potential, basing it only the kinds of cycling that we see on a day-to-day basis, not on the kind of cycling that is possible.

And even for those people who apparently look like ‘normal ‘cyclists, their disability may not even be apparent. Cycling – wonderfully – allows them to travel around like everyone else.

The moment finally came, the one I dreaded, the one where someone saw me taking my bike off my bike rack, parked in a handicapped spot, and assumed I was faking to reap special benefits.

“That’s disabled parking,” a dry stick of a man whined, keeping the world safe from miscreants one comment at a time. “I know,” I answered, although I wish I had said, “you would make a lousy detective.”

From time to time stories of people scamming handicapped parking privileges make the news. Law enforcement checks permit numbers against records, and levy hefty fines.

Born with a congenital spinal defect, but looking and feeling more or less able-bodied until a few years ago, age and mileage have conspired to make me what I think of as ably-disabled.

Disabled enough to have lost my ability to walk or stand without provoking nerve compression, but able enough to ride a bike. Go figure. It has to do with shifting the load off lower lumbar vertebrae. My bike, unbeknownst to most people, serves as an assistive device. I ride, but also use the bike as a rolling cane — a fancy two-wheeled walker.

Already, 15% of disabled Londoners cycle, only slightly less than the 18% of non-disabled Londoners who cycle. And in the UK’s most cycle-friendly city, 25% of disabled people are cycling to work. But this could obviously be higher. The potential for cycling to assist in helping disabled people gain more mobility is huge. 19% of UK people have a disability, and mobility impairment is most commonly experienced impairment – 57% of all disabled people. We should be designing environments that work for these people, whether their preferred mobility aid is a cycle of some form, or a mobility scooter or powered wheelchair, or even an Alinker. And that means building what is conventionally called ‘cycling infrastructure’ but in reality is just human-scale mobility space, separated from slower-moving space.

This definitely is not about walking vs. cycling, but about creating space for a variety of forms of mobility that transcends that distinction, separating only according to speed. Rather than seeing walking as innate, and cycling as just a hobby, we have a continuum of mobility – just different forms of human-powered mobility that should all be accorded equal importance, and designed for appropriately.

 

 

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8 Responses to A continuum of mobility

  1. nuttyxander says:

    On the healthy streets indicators I think it’s important to remember that there is the mapping from the Healthy Streets Check up to the ten indicators. And a lot of them overlap, they are not exclusive. The indicators alone shouldn’t really be driving design. Though it seemingly still isn’t either finalised or published the bits of draft floating around do seem to show a better inclusivity of cycling. e.g. screenshot on http://camdencyclists.org.uk/2016/10/talk-by-lucy-saunders-at-october-2016-meeting/ from the Hackney 2016 presentation of the check in early draft.

    That said, it would be better if the language in the high level parts of the check was fully inclusive in all modes.

  2. Bmblbzzz says:

    I know the bollards in your photo! And even as an able-bodied cyclist, they make me slow and dab at best, if not stop and start again. I’m not sure they’re even wide enough for all mobiscoots or trikes to get through. I guess disabled cyclists feel the intersection of a few attitudes here: the ‘special-making’ of cycling, the invisiblising of disabled people, and the idea of disabilities as all or nothing. We are miles ahead of most of the world in the enablement of disabled people but still need to make progress.

  3. Pingback: A continuum of mobility | As Easy As Riding A Bike

  4. awjreynolds says:

    Reblogged this on CycleBath and commented:
    Something I feel BaNES Council and particularly councillors do not get. You think you are slowing down speeding cyclists or making exits safe, but every damn time, you’re just excluding people with really bad mobility issues.

  5. Ken says:

    It’s not just things like speed bumps and bollards that slow down disabled cyclists, it’s the cycle path sizes themselves that can be an issue. So often bi-directional paths are built that aren’t wide enough for a handbike and an upright bike on the straight sections, and two approaching handbikes would be stopped dead. Further, the corners can be too tight to allow a handbike to round them even while using the full width of the path.

    Of the two handbikes I have, one is nearly the full width of most bi-directional cycle paths. This is even worse when you consider the side-by-side tandems that are in use for for people that need an assistance rider.

    You might think that there aren’t enough handbikes in use to justify wider and broader cyclepaths but that is where the need really is. Riding a bike on your back with your head less than a metre off the ground can be terrifying in traffic. Even in more upright handbikes you may have very little visibility to the rear, unlike on an upright and that can, and is, very off-putting to new disabled cyclist.

    The lack of sensible cyclepaths for disabled cyclists not only prevents them/ us form enjoying something that everyone else can do, but it eliminates one way we can keep fit minimising the burden on the NHS, it eliminates an opportunity for disabled people to reduce their carbon footprint, and it eliminates a massive opportunity to feel a sense of freedom that comes with being able to ride a bike in stead of being on crutches or in a wheelchair.

    The lack of sensible places to ride a handbike no doubt is what is preventing the numbers of handbikes from increasing in all but the most dedicated disabled riders. In fact, I know of someone who has a handbike and doesn’t ride it because they are terrified of mixing with cars on it. I ride with cars all the time but I’ll freely admit that that’ it’s not for everyone, and you have to be quite experienced and trained to be able to do it safely, knowing that you are probably even less visible to cars than any upright bike.

    • Bmblbzzz says:

      I wonder whether the problem is really that there aren’t enough handibikes for the width problem to be an issue; or that people (rather, the official bodies responsible for funds) don’t consider disabled people’s individual mobility anything other than lowest priority.

      • Ken says:

        If you’re talking about disabled access, then one handbike (not handibike) is sufficient to require consideration for the width, after all, it’s a matter of disabled access. It’s likely that the official bodies planning the paths don’t think that disabled people (can) cycle or haven’t even considered it. But, I would guess that even considering it would require the belief that disabled people can cycle. Surely, though, with the recent successes of the Paralympic Games there would be an awareness, mind handcycling was all but ignored on the television broadcasts. And there is a whole group of individuals that need even more space than a handbike, that are not of the ‘Paralympic Stylings’ and are even more in need of off the road riding facilities with full access.

        Regarding your comment of considering disabled people’s individual mobility anything other than the lowest priority, I would say that it’s probably quite true. Britain does seem to be severely behind the times in considering or acknowledging that disabled people can, want, and need to do things. But so often we are hampered by obstacles that are insignificant to an able-bodied person. And disability is considered quite a low priority, despite various laws. We are even often placed below ‘historic preservation’ even when it is applied to buildings that are so far away from historic preservation that no one would even notice.

        So, it’s probably a combination of awareness and consideration. One is easy to solve, and I’d be happy to ride my bikes anywhere I need to in order to bring awareness to the need for disabled access. The other… one can only hope. Ideally, I’d like to take each cyclepath, road designer, and politician out on a number of different handbikes, or other bikes for disabled people with the requirement that they act and experience the ride in just the same way a disabled person would (unable to; manoeuvre in the available space, get off their bike, lift the bike over a gate/ post, reach gate or crossing signal button) just so that they can know what it’s like, only then will they be able to properly understand and consider the needs of disabled cyclist, of which there are a lot of.

  6. MJ Ray says:

    I mashed my toes at the weekend. Could barely walk. Couldn’t push a car accelerator pedal. Could still cycle, a bit lopsidedly.

    How do we get more disabled people calling for space for cycling? As it is, most don’t cycle because there’s not space, so it doesn’t seem to figure in disability rights campaigning, even though it seems to be a pretty obvious good thing with few downsides, especially for mobility scooter users.

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