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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.