A busy platform. A train is visible with the doors open, it's full of people, more legs, bags and feet are crowded around the entrance trying to board the train. In the bottom middle of the photo a white cane rests on the floor, the roller ball poised just passed the tactile paving, pointing towards the yellow platform line and the busy train.

Car Free Cities Risk Excluding Disabled People

The world recently enjoyed Car Free Day and our timelines were treated to images of joyful cycling through streets, yoga on the roads & enthusiastic pedestrians strutting down the highway. Alongside this celebration, a recent report by think tank Common Wealth called for a car free London by 2030, but only mentioned disabled people once.

Now of course like most people I am deeply concerned about the current climate emergency. I agree that individuals and Governments should be doing as much as possible to reduce carbon emissions and provide a greener future for us all. However, as a disabled person I constantly feel excluded by environmentalist policies. Too often the ideas proposed, and the responses to critiques by disabled people, demonstrate a fundamental failure to engage with disability rights and needs.

Obviously I would love a future where everyone used public transport as their first choice, but for that to happen disabled people need to be involved and consulted on the solutions to what is currently woefully inadequate and inaccessible infrastructure.

As a visually impaired person I will never drive a car, but I rely on them, either taxis or our family car. I can only travel independently to places I know or when I have sighted guiding support. In order to learn a route I also need support, I’ve had some excellent training on how to use my white cane and planning my key routes around London, but if it’s somewhere unfamiliar I can’t find it myself safely. The training available for visually impaired people to learn independent mobility skills has been devastated by Government cuts. I wasn’t able to access it myself and instead had to turn to a charity to meet my needs.

Accessible transport is great, but it doesn’t always take me from A to B, and without door to door assistance I simply can’t make the journey. This is a factor rarely considered when policy makers plan active and accessible travel.

I am very lucky to live in a city with so much public transport which means I’m not entirely reliant on cars. I adore the London Underground and it is the main reason I live in London. I do not need step free public transport, but many disabled people do. Currently only 78 out of 270 London Underground stations have some degree of step-free access, and this often does not mean the entire station is accessible, but maybe just one interchange or step free from one entrance to one platform.

I am only able to use the tube network independently because of the incredible turn up and go service available. This means that I can walk into any station and ask for assistance. A member of staff will provide sighted guiding, get me on to my train, then radio through so I can make connections and reach my destination with staff assistance. This service isn’t available on the majority of public transport and without it, I can’t be independent.

Turn up and go is an essential service because accessibility isn’t just about the physical built environment it’s also about having the right support to use public transport independently.

But what about buses I hear you cry? There’s only one wheelchair space per bus, so only one wheelchair user can travel on a bus at a time compared to 62 seats for other passengers (on the new routemaster double decker buses). This is also contingent on the bus stopping in the right place to deploy the ramp, the ramp working, and the space not already being occupied by a buggy with a parent who refuses to move it, or luggage or just too many other passengers.

Many of the green schemes propose that once solution to those who can’t use public transport could be taxis and private hire vehicles. Common Wealth proposes a TFL run Uber. Taxis aren’t always a solution for many reasons, firstly they are expensive and secondly only certain types are wheelchair accessible. The classic London black cabs do have ramps and can take most manual wheelchairs and smaller powerchairs. Many disabled people use power wheelchairs because they have specific needs, for example they enable a particular posture or support the body to reduce pain. This can mean that a wheelchair is too tall for most standard black cabs, and therefore they need their own wheelchair adapted vehicle. Also, black cabs primarily operate in central London anyone outside of zone 2 is going to struggle to hail a cab! Of course there are wheelchair accessible taxis from other companies, but have you ever tried to order one in a hurry? Taxis are also often inaccessible to assistance dog users. Research by Guide Dogs found, in a one-year period, 42% of assistance dog owners were refused entry to a taxi or minicab because of their dog.

There are multiple physical barriers preventing disabled people from accessing public transport and private hire vehicles, but as research by Scope has found, one of the biggest issues disabled people face is the behaviour of the general public.

Scope found that:

  • 1 in 4 disabled people say that they have been prevented from using public transport by other people’s attitudes in the last year.
  • 80% of disabled people felt stressed, 79% felt anxious and 56% felt scared using or planning journeys on public transport (a survey of over 2,000 disabled adults).

I’m visually impaired and use a white cane, just in the last week I’ve been verbally abused and shamed for using a priority seat on the bus and on the tube and someone overenthusiastically nearly pushed me down an escalator. I frequently experience hostile behaviours from members of the public when I do something as simple as use my phone on public transport, because of course blind people can’t use phones so I must be faking (to learn how blind people use phones read this blog).

As my #JustAskDontGrab campaign has highlighted, disabled people are subjected to daily incidents of unwanted touching, intrusive behaviours or even physical violence when they use public transport. Multiple disabled people have contacted me to say they are just too frightened to use public transport because of the harassment and behaviours they experience, and a car can provide a safe space for them to travel stress free.

There have been some fantastic initiatives from TFL around trying to shape attitudes and behaviours. For example the Look Up campaign and Please Offer Me a Seat badges have gone a long way towards educating fellow passengers about the importance of the priority seats on trains and buses. We urgently need a national awareness campaign to make public transport a safer and more inclusive space for disabled people.

Unfortunately, for many disabled people using public transport is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting.

It takes hours more extra planning and research to complete a simple journey and the travelling itself can take much longer. If there is no step free access or a taxi driver refuses you for having a guide dog you sometimes just have to turn around and go back home. With journeys already being so difficult, removing access to private cars will leave many disabled people isolated and without access to the transport that they need.

Of course a car free city would make my life as a visually impaired pedestrian safer and easier. I would also love better cycling infrastructure so I can enjoy riding my tandem around London. Unless the enthusiastic environmentalists who favour a car free solution are volunteering to cycle me to work every morning, guide me around central London of an evening and protect me from the passengers who verbally abuse me for using my phone on the tube, I will still need and want to use cars.

So what is the solution to reducing car traffic, creating more accessible public transport and finding ways to create disability friendly active travel?

There are 13.9 million disabled people in the UK so involve us. Invite us to your think tanks, give us a seat at your green deal table and make sure that you represent our needs and rights.

A train platform. The red train doors are closed. A white long cane points out into the photo, the rollerball resting just passed the tactile paving. It points diagonally across towards the yellow line on the platform edge.

The author of the Common Wealth report has reached out to me since writing this blog. They have shared my blog & acknowledged that their report was only a brief survey which didn’t explore the issues of transport accessibility. They have offered to convene a working group on finding solutions to active accessible travel, subject to funding being available. I’m really pleased with this positive outcome, it demonstrates that we can address challenges by ensuring that policies are co-produced with disabled people. 

1 thought on “Car Free Cities Risk Excluding Disabled People”

  1. I’m so sorry for your abuse on public transport. I haven’t taken it in years, but I worked hard to be a good citizen, but then I had a lot of special needs students who taught me a lot. They also caused me to do research and better understand transportation issues.
    We live 5 km away from a small town. We need a car. We deliver Meals on Wheels to community members who don’t have transportation. I’ve driven clients into the city for healthcare. It’s important to have access to such.
    Thank you for teaching us all.


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