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“What about the disabled?”

Anna joined the Bricycles committee in May this year. She passionately believes that more bikes and fewer cars would make Brighton an even better place to live. Here she gets to grips with a question that comes up time and again when active travel schemes are discussed – “What about the disabled?”.

A common cry when anyone mentions reducing car access or improving cycling infrastructure in towns and cities seems to be “what about the disabled?”. This is often used without supporting evidence to maintain the status quo. I wondered if wanting better cycling infrastructure and my wish for a low-car Brighton and Hove was contrary to my belief in access for all. 

‘Disability’ is an all-encompassing word that describes a vast variety of conditions and experiences. There is likely no simple solution. But as I believe that cities with fewer cars are nicer places for everyone, I decided to do a bit a research into this subject. I found that: 

  • Only 61% of disabled adults have a driving licence in the UK compared to 80% of non-disabled adults. 
  • A study by Rachel Aldred in 2008 suggested that over 60% of disabled people did not have access to a car, either as a main driver or passenger. This compares to 36% of non-disabled people.
  • A recent study in the US found that elderly people outlive their ability to drive by between 7 and 10 years. 
  • There are several medical conditions that preclude people from driving either permanently or temporarily – eg epilepsy, dementia, visual Impairments, strokes, sleep apnoea, some heart conditions, diabetes and syncope (fainting). 

In addition, many people find that cycling as opposed to walking is easier on their knees and therefore benefit from good cycling infrastructure. Wide cycle lanes that offer space for adapted bicycles and mobility scooters; safe crossing points and dropped kerbs for pedestrians and cyclists; better connections and access to public transport; and fewer cars on the roads are surely things that would benefit the whole of society. 

A recent study by the charity Possible and the University of Westminster Active Travel Academy highlighted concerns that disabled people often feel left out of planning decisions. Furthermore, existing car-centric towns and cities make it harder to walk, wheel, cycle or use public transport.  Poor infrastructure effectively forces many disabled people to be dependent on cars. The report concludes that efforts to reduce motorised traffic need to be focused on encouraging non-disabled people to make fewer car journeys as alternative modes of transport are more accessible to them, leaving more space for those that may really be dependent on a car. They also stated that good planning and involving disabled people in the process towards low-car cities would benefit everyone.

As Anzir Boodoo (co-author of the report) writes: 

“The status quo locks many disabled people into car dependency, but it doesn’t have to be this way. If we built truly accessible streets and a public transport system that all disabled people could use, we could transition away from cars in a way that was fair for everyone.”

In answer to my question, I firmly believe that better cycling infrastructure and a low- car Brighton and Hove would be an advantage to us all, in particular the more vulnerable members of society – the disabled, the elderly and children.  And yes, we should definitely say “What about the Disabled?” not as an excuse to keep the status quo, but because clutter-free pavements, safer and quieter streets, space for wheeling and greater access to public transport will benefit those few who are reliant on cars as well as the majority who are disadvantaged by the dominance of them.

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