The Accessible City

By Chris & Melissa Bruntlett

 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a reccurring theme appeared every time a city suggested removing on-street parking in favor of low-car environments with extended sidewalks, pop-up bike-lanes, and patios; all in an effort to accommodate physical distancing and safer movement through its streets. Namely, the negative impact that would have on the disabled community: creating more space to access high streets and retail hubs using human-scale modes would lead to inaccessibility. Essentially, cars created equitable access.

At the core of this belief is the presumption that everyone living with a disability has access to an automobile and uses it as their main mode of transportation. This overlooks the fact that many living with some form of disability cannot legally drive, depending on the type and severity of their condition. Additionally, it assumes people living with a disability want to be dependent on a car (or someone else to drive it). This couldn’t be further from the truth. In a 2008 paper, Dr. Rachel Aldred identified that 60% of people living with a disability in the UK do not have access to a motor vehicle. When you compare that to only 27% of the general population, it begins to become clear that presuming the disabled community can only access the city through car travel is not only flawed thinking; it is completely false.

The continuing focus on designing cities around the automobile is creating disabling environments; places where only the most able can enjoy the public realm independently and unimpeded. The fact is, as so eloquently phrased by Dr. Bridget Burdett, principal researcher at MRCagney in New Zealand: “Every person is on a continuum from strong to weak, from tired to energized, from depressed to exuberant, and from pain free to experiencing chronic pain.” At any point in our lives, we may find ourselves living with a disability, a lesson Melissa learned earlier this year when she unexpectedly broke her leg. Auto-centered ideas, like thinking everyone with a disability has access to a car, are ableist ideas, and assume autonomy of movement—not being dependent on others to get around—is not a value equally desired by the disabled community.

Beyond presumptions of access, since the dawn of the automobile, transport planning has focused largely on the journeys we regularly take. They are easily counted, as they are visible in traffic volumes, public transport ridership, and physical observations of street activity. However, much like how this approach tends to focus on the office commute — ignoring care trips and trip-chaining — it also omits the trips people don’t take. This is particularly problematic for the disabled community.

By only focusing on the trips they see, cities critically forget to take into account the impact disabling environments have on the people for whom leaving the house is a struggle. The impact of inaccessible design that forces people to travel convoluted, uncomfortable routes that take far more time than direct routes. The impact of public transport schedules with reduced service during off-peak hours that don’t take into account the non-“nine-to-five” job. These are factors that cause people — particularly those living with a disability — not to make the trip at all. The impact of those forced choices are myriad: reduced physical and mental well-being, feelings of isolation and social disconnection from their community, higher rates of depression, and so on.

The key to addressing this issue and ensuring a more equitable approach to transport planning for people with disabilities is simple: Talk to them! Policies that incorporate Universal Access Design principles are certainly a good start, but unless planners and designers are actually conversing with the people these decisions will directly impact, there will always be the risk of misinterpreting their actual wants and needs.

Our experiences inform how we approach our work. By inviting the people who are living with the disabilities we are aiming to accommodate; we can better understand their lived experience and how to design for it. This in turn enables equitable access to the city, without the need for a private motor vehicle. From community engagement to stakeholder meetings, to the people leading our cities, inclusive design starts with inclusion. From there, we can do away with assumptions and anecdotes, and collaborate on creating enabling cities that provide the right of autonomous and independent travel to everyone.

This is part 4 of the blog ‘Life is better on a bike’. Click here for part 1, 2 and 3. Chris and Melissa are Canadian authors and urban mobility advocates. In 2019, they moved to the city of Delft in the Netherlands.

You can follow them on Twitter: @modacitylife or visit their website. Their book ‘Curbing Traffic’ appears at the end of June. John Adams readers get a 20% discount (use promo code BRUNTLETT) at islandpress.org. All pictures in this blog are by Chris & Melissa Bruntlett.