Sustrans' Senior Policy Officer, Alice Clermont explores the barriers which disabled people face to walking and wheeling in their local neighbourhoods. She explains why lived experience must shape policy and planning if we’re to understand how to make walking and wheeling more accessible and inclusive for everyone. And the Disabled Citizens’ Inquiry, our new project with Transport for All, aims to do just this, by amplifying the voices of disabled people and calling for change.
Photo: Brian Sweeney, 2021
Disabled people face greater barriers to travel than non-disabled people.
In the UK, disabled people take 38% fewer trips (across all modes of transport) than non-disabled people, an outcome which is reflected in walking and wheeling trip data too.
This is known as the transport accessibility gap.
A key reason for this transport accessibility gap is that our streets are often inaccessible and unsafe for disabled people to navigate on foot or by wheel.
This can stop disabled people accessing what they need in their communities.
From healthcare, food, work and education, to social venues, culture and green space.
And the cost-of-living crisis is making this worse.
Evidence from June 2022 showed that 68% of UK households have seen increases in their transport costs, and this will only get worse as fuel bills and inflation continue to rise.
Making walking and wheeling accessible, safe and attractive for disabled people is a critical part of closing the gap between how disabled and non-disabled people live and move.
“I walk to many places out of necessity. My sons Caiden, 13, and Cruz, 11, both have ADHD. We enjoy walking and often it’s a time my boys open up and talk about things that are going on. There is a difference in the condition of the roads between areas in Cardiff. I’d like to see this balanced out with more green space, trees and better pavements for less affluent areas.”
Walking and Cycling Index 2021
Walking and wheeling is a human right
Walking is often described as the most democratic form of transport because it’s perceived as being free and available to everyone.
But for so many people with impairments or long-term health conditions, the barriers to walking and wheeling stop them from making these trips.
When it comes to walking, disabled people took 30% fewer trips than non-disabled people in England, in 2021.
And for some, a lack of accessible alternative transport options (for example an adapted cycle or step-free access) makes walking and wheeling a necessity.
All too often, disabled people face obstacles on our streets and paths, these include, but are by no means limited to:
- cars parked on pavements
- bins and recycling boxes on pavements
- overgrown plants, trees and hedges
- poorly maintained or broken surfaces
- steep or slippery surfaces
- an absence of dropped curbs
- an absence of controlled crossings
- unclear signs
- poor lighting
- limited step-free access
- limited places to rest or visit a toilet.
It’s important to remember that every single journey starts and ends with walking or wheeling.
Even if a person’s main mode of transport for a journey is a bus for example, they still have to get to a bus stop.
And that first part of the journey, along with any other connections throughout the day, should be safe and comfortable.
Of course, the issues listed above can have a negative impact on all members of society, which is why it’s so important to recognise that inclusive infrastructure benefits everyone.
We believe we should all have the right to walk or wheel to the end of our street, around our neighbourhood, and to our desired destinations, with ease, independence and confidence.
“We know that if something is improved for disabled accessibility, it generally improves things for everyone. Improving maintenance of footways and replacing cracked paving slabs removes trip hazards, and shifting signposts reduces the number of obstructions on the footway. Creating more of a liveable village where people feel welcome.”
Walking and Cycling Index 2021
Going beyond accessibility to inclusion
We know that disabled people want and need to do what everyone else does.
Such as leave their home on bin collection days, catch the bus when it’s raining, and get home easily after an evening out.
It simply isn’t enough to make walking and wheeling technically possible.
We need to go further and ensure the comfort, dignity and safety of marginalised groups when they’re walking and wheeling.
Just because something’s accessible, doesn’t mean it’s inclusive.
Celebrating Disability summarise: “Accessibility means you can. Inclusion means you want to.”
In 2021, the Walking and Cycling Index found that only 56% of disabled people feel comfortable and welcome walking or wheeling in their neighbourhood.
So, what can we do to change this?
When walking and wheeling are technically possible, it doesn't mean they're safe and attractive options. We need to move beyond accessibility to inclusion, and offer everyone an equitable experience of active travel. Photo: Joe Hudson/Sustrans
Nothing about us without us
In the 1990s, disability activists adopted the motto ‘Nothing about us without us’ to express how a society can never be inclusive, if disabled people aren’t consulted and empowered to shape policies, plans and progress.
Consultation is key, and transport professionals, town planners, urban designers and local authority decision-makers have a powerful role to play in making our streets more inclusive.
We know that transport and government sectors are not representative of the UK population, and that the voices of marginalised groups, especially disabled people, are often missing from decision-making conversations.
In-depth engagement with disabled people should be taking place when any societal issue is reviewed, but particularly when issues directly impact their own lives.
By understanding the experiences of disabled people, paying for their time, and employing their lived experience, we can make better designs and decisions.
Empowering disabled people to shape plans and policies is the first step in creating streets and neighbourhoods that will work better for everyone.
Transport professionals, town planners, urban designers and local authority decision-makers must listen to the lived experience of disabled people if we are to make our streets more inclusive. Photo: Chris Foster/Sustrans
Disabled Citizen’s Inquiry
Embracing the motto ‘Nothing about us without us’, we’ve teamed up with Transport for All, a Disabled Person’s Organisation, to host the Disabled Citizen’s Inquiry.
Together, we’re working with disabled citizens, disability organisations and transport stakeholders, powerfully bringing together lived experience and professional knowledge.
Over the summer of 2022, we invited disabled people to share their experiences at four workshops held in Manchester, Swansea, Norwich and online.
In these workshops, we worked collaboratively with transport and disability stakeholders to develop practical solutions to improve walking and wheeling.
A Manchester workshop participant commented:
“It’s very rare we get included in things like this, usually people make decisions for us.”
A Norwich workshop participant added:
“It’s great to see so many people sharing their lived experience so openly and freely.
“The solutions to many issues we’ve been discussing are quite straightforward.”
We’re now testing and refining the solutions which were developed at the workshops, by putting them to over 1,000 disabled people in a UK-wide survey.
We’re also continuing to host further discussions with transport and disability organisations, as well as drawing on a wealth of data from the Walking and Cycling Index which received over 6,000 responses from disabled people in 2021.
Once our research is complete, we’ll be publishing the Disabled Citizens’ Inquiry report.
Taking a pan-impairment approach, the report will make recommendations for how decision makers can make walking and wheeling more inclusive.
We’ll be launching the report at a parliamentary event in early 2023, with more details coming soon across all our channels.
We define wheeling as the use of wheelchairs (manual and electric) and mobility scooters.
The term wheeling references people who may not identify with walking, but who use the pedestrian environment at a similar speed to people walking.