Seeing is believing

A group of people talking at a crossing

Just before Christmas I went for a walk that changed everything I thought I knew about how we design our streets for people, because I went for that stroll with someone that was blind. I heard a little a little about how tactile paving enables visually paired people to read the street, and how vital controlled crossing points are in enabling the most basic level of independence – the ability to cross the road safely. But what changed my world view was seeing how some street design, including cycling infrastructure, can compromise the safety of people with sight loss.

As a cycle campaigner I’ve been used to being the most vulnerable, the least heard and the most right. My working relationship with RNIB Scotland over the last six months has taken me on a learning journey and it’s been uncomfortable and challenging, testing what I think of privilege, equality and inclusion when the changes required might mean giving up my own power and privilege.

I still have a lot to learn, and I thank colleagues at RNIB Scotland for the patience and humour as I’ve asked stupid questions and found some answers difficult. It has not been easy to learn that some of what I have been campaigning for prevents people with sight loss from reaching bus stops safely. Hearing from Sandra Wilson, the Chair of RNIB Scotland, at each of the Cycling UK/RNIB fringe events this spring about the challenge of trying to get along the street unmolested by bin bags, wheelie bins, overhanging plants, pop-up cafes and A-boards left me in awe at the strength some people have to muster simply to leave the house.

People with sight loss need to be able to get around safely, just like everyone else expects to do. As I’ve been discovering through ”Invisible Women”, the world has been designed primarily for the needs of the Default Man – and he’s able bodied. As our urban realm develops to encourage walking and cycling we need to ensure those changes benefit and include everyone.

In the last few weeks I’ve been spending time, alongside my #walkcyclevote collaborator Sally Hinchcliffe, with visual impairment activists on the streets of three of our cities to examine the infrastructure more closely to try and understand our shared needs as well what is problematic. The RNIB have detailed information about the needs of people of sight loss from all forms of transport here but my cycle campaigner summary is:

Trust is good, but control is better: controlled crossing points are the Dutch separated infrastructure of the sight loss community – the ability to stop the traffic enables visually impaired people to ensure that it is safe to cross. Unless the other road user is a complete arse. Zebra crossings are like the painted cycle way version; when I asked one activist how she used a zebra crossing she responded with “I put my stick out and hope that I don’t get run over”.

Sharing isn’t caring: shared space – a phrase that can set even the most mild mannered raging before you’ve even tried to define exactly what you mean. It’s used to describe a range of situations where two or more of cars, pedestrians and cyclists mix together in a space that isn’t differentiated by kerbs or other road markings. Can be confused with shared paths, shared pavements and shared surfaces.

Kerb Nerd alert: people with sight loss love kerbs as much as we do, and that’s something to celebrate. Cane users and Guide Dogs use kerbs to help determine where pavements end and a road begins. The Kerb Nerds will pleased to know that there is a whole loads of height and angle chat to enjoy together, particularly when you involve wheelchair users.

Not floating boats: floating bus stops – these are bus stops with a cycle path running behind them to prevent cyclists going under buses. Unfortunately they can brings together several of the points above in a frightening combination, even where some efforts are made at tactile delineation. Bicycles are silent, bells are often unused and it can be hard to hear anything coming towards you over the roar of city traffic, even if you can hear. Crossing a cycle track behind a bus stop is like crossing a road and we need designs that are safe for cycle users and pedestrians.

Car-free isn’t carefree for all: We live with the tension that cars are a vital mobility aid for some, but their dominance of our streetscape reduces the land area we have to allocate to pedestrians and cyclists. Celebrating car free streets can show we disregard the needs of others and gives fuel to the perception of cyclists as anti-disabled. This isn’t a good look and prevents people seeing disabled people as cyclists, which they are

Both sight loss activists in Edinburgh told me that they wouldn’t go to Leith because it’s inaccessible to them, and a similar story was heard about other places and streets in each of the cities. If we forget all the problems about denoting particular types of people as ‘indicator species’, should the proof of inclusive street design mean we see a wide range of disabled people independently and safely use the whole of our cities?

The wonderful Daisy Narayanan quoted Maya Angelou at a presentation last week about the Edinburgh City Transformation Plan and it resonated with me: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” I hope that I can.

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I think I can safely say that @sallyhinch and I have been on a significant learning journey in the last month. Walking the streets of three cities with blind, visually impaired and wheelchair using activists has enabled us to view the world from a new perspective. We're determined to ensure this learning changes our campaigning and I won't now support infrastructure that doesn't enable others to travel safely too. That said, it's clearly not been hard wired in yet as we were snapped today both pointing to a kerb that our blind colleague obviously couldn't see. A good reminder that knowing something doesn't always result in a change in action. #infrastructure #cyclecampaigning #inclusion #access #accessibility

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8 thoughts on “Seeing is believing

  1. Interesting read. I had never thought about the impact of cycling infrastructure on disabled people. Thanks

  2. Your empathy walks are inspirational. Long live trust and compassion, in these dark times. Thank you (all)!

  3. Massively interesting blog. The question I’d ask is, what are the alternatives? So, you point out two specific areas for improvement…

    1. Bus stop bypasses – the track goes behind the bus stop. Initially in London VI groups tried to ban these. Now they are demanding every one gets a signal controlled crossing. Which is hugely, massively expensive. And again would mean many schemes would fail to get through, according to the transport planners I speak to. Meanwhile, TfL’s studies and testing show they’re fairly benign now we’re at the stage of a zebra striped hump and tactile cross. So, the questions to ask are a) to what extent are VI folks actually changing journeys or need to because of these, and what other design approaches that don’t involve full signalisation are there? And what evidence is there on this? Because I don’t think the answer should be that we simply give any campaigning group everything it asks for as a default, nor do I think there’s good evidence signals are required, but I’m more than happy to be proven wrong – and then we will just need to do signal controls. But I want some evidence and options, basically.

    2. On shared space and car-free space – similarly, given cost, constraints on capacity, and the many benefits we can identify for each, what evidence do we have as to how car-free spaces are a huge issue for those with disabilities? And what alternative ideas that strike a best balance are there? (For instance, I’ve long said, and mean, that some kind of blue badge scheme for taxi passengers should be created so that taxis and other cars carrying disabled people should gain preferential access where it is otherwise restricted). But also, remember, certainly in London, most disabled and VI people do not arrive anywhere by car or taxi etc. Again, my experience of some disability access orgs is they’re not speaking for all disabled people (just as I’m sure many cycling campaigners don’t speak for all cyclists etc.) – some of them are very focused, in London noticeably, on taxi access. When actually, the vast bulk of folks they claim to represent never or very rarely use taxis.

    1. We’re working together to understand the needs and to consider solutions in Scotland – everyone is entitled to travel independently and safely and that’s where we are starting from, not asking for evidence to prove their point.

      1. I’m not saying folks aren’t entitled to travel independently. What I’m asking is what is your alternative to a bus stop bypass, for instance, if the cost of signalising every bus stop bypass in a scheme means the scheme struggles to be deliverable at all, or removes the possibility of doing bus stop bypasses?

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