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.

14 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?

    2. Good questions.I have some more on bus stop bypasses.
      Is it really ‘massively expensive’ to put in mini traffic lights? We can afford street lights and internally illuminated diagram 610 signs all over the place and the bus stops that get bypasses are probably the ones most likely to be being fitted with electric passenger information boards -which we also manage to afford.
      Have you had any discussions with VIPs about whether/why they view bus stop bypasses as more dangerous than zebras and other uncontrolled crossings (where there are cycles as well as cars), or is this about bus stop bypasses worsening existing conditions by adding a crossing that didn’t exist before?
      Do you have any data on the number of people who have a visual impairment that is bad enough to prevent them driving but who do cycle (or would if they had safe routes)? If uncontrolled bus stop bypasses are benefiting a large number of these people plus those with other types of disabilities, on balance they may be acceptable. Alternatively, this data may justify spending more on signalising them.
      Would signalised bypasses work? In my experience, Highways officers frequently try to justify not adding signals to standard uncontrolled pedestrian crossings. They say that where there are too few people crossing, drivers will not stop on the rare occasions that the lights do go red. If this argument is true for drivers (and I’m not sure how true it is), then maybe lights would give a false sense of security (I doubt the call button would be used often as most passengers would just cross in a convenient gap)?

      1. Every bus stop ad pays for itself through ad funding etc. I’ve been told over and over by engineers and planners that making every bypass signal controlled would add “massively” to scheme costs. I also know many schemes hang in the balance for value-for-money. Just as we should listen to the expertise and experience of the VI community, we should IMO listen to designers and engineers for their expertise. They say this approach would be expensive. (I’m also inclined to agree based on what little I know of scheme costs, BTW – moving “stats” or adding electric is a big expense to any scheme – most schemes simply leave these where they already are.)
        The designers, engineers and planners I often liaise with also point out the current TfL research shows bypasses with raised tables and zebra markings were not only very benign in use (analysing huge amounts of video) but also were basically as effective as adding a belisha beacon (full traffic control signals weren’t tested).
        I’d add my suspicion is you’re right on “compliance”. Cyclists told to stop at a red when someone has pressed a button, waited, then likely crossed before the cyclist even approached will likely ignore the red. I’m not sure at all that push-button control will give the VI community what it appears to want.
        In terms of VI concerns, this seems to be about silent cyclists and the fear of crossing without control as a result. It is also, it would seem, about making access to a vital mode harder – as in yes, there’s an extra crossing between bus and pavement.
        As to balance, I’m really not sure that “balance” is something that makes much sense here. Loads more people want to cycle and don’t, than are VI. So should schemes be designed without VI in mind because there’s more cyclists? Similarly, VI want kerbs – everywhere – but that messes up wheelchair users. How do we “balance” that?
        The real balance IMO is in the huge common ground there should be around motor traffic volumes and speeds, and safe crossings of carriageway. Get that right, and get cycle track design as right as we can.

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