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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“We live in a time of massive institutional failure, collectively creating results that nobody wants” Ulab co-founder Otto Scharmer tells participants early on in the Theory U journey; he’s talking about global economics, politics, climate change, poverty and terrorism – the ingredient list for a planetary disaster recipe. As someone that regularly uses a bike it’s not hard to see urban street design in the failure cake we’re baking. All our policies talk about sustainable transport but our walk makes it clear where the power and investment has been.

We all want safer streets, reduced congestion, better air quality and communities where our children can play and roam freely yet we keep inviting more cars into our urban realm and expecting the results to be different from the ones we’ve seen before.

Its easy to feel despondent, just as it’s easy to blame the Council, the Government, developers, car drivers and sometimes the people that think 99% the same as you but not quite that last 1%. What’s hard is to engage openly, to act, to listen, to empathise with different view points and to change our minds when given new evidence. Sometimes its hard just to find the energy to have the conversation at all. We’ve seen that shouting ‘look at the Netherlands’ at politicians on Twitter is not having much of an impact, presenting evidence against bikelash agitators can produce a ‘fake facts’ standoff and powerful stories of change get dismissed as anecdotes. Short of taking everyone in Scotland on a weekend break to Utrecht, how can we give people a taste of what a people centred city might look and feel like?

If you can’t see it, you can’t be it: re-imaging the city

Officially, the Fire Starter Festival “is a two-week festival of collaborative learning events, illuminating creative, disruptive and innovative ways in which we can all transform ourselves, our organisations and the wider system” but it was sold to me when I heard it was all about “doing unusual things in unusual places and getting away with it”. I interpreted this as doing something naughty and not getting told off because the First Minister said we could do it.

Inspired by the Enrique Peñalosa quote “If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for everyone” we started thinking about road closures, play streets, street design competitions, film-making workshops with schools and forcing a ciclovia on Princes Street through the judicious use of toilet plungers and soft toys. Ultimately, our combined time and resources (close to nothing) meant that we settled for creating a pop-up park right outside one of Edinburgh’s most iconic Scottish Government buildings, St Andrews House.

Originally conceived as a legal method for reclaiming part of the street, and making a comment about how street space is utilised, pop-parks (or parklets) give a sense of how we could use our city streets if they were not consumed by the storage of cars. One of its originators has called it a gateway drug for urban transformation, which would explain why some Local Authorities have tried to prevent them.

Outside St Andrews Day, on a bright but bitterly cold February afternoon, we had a programme to tempt people into our park. Musicians played, Dr Bike got out his spanner, people skipped, poetry was chalked across the walls and there was **not a Council entertainment license in sight** (yes, that’s the extent of guerrilla action that this former Head Girl can really take).

Six organisations, all part of the We Walk, We Cycle, We Vote collaboration, spent the very cold afternoon day dreaming with people about how our cities could be different. We didn’t change the world but we had conversations with passers by about not using our capital city streets as a parking lot, we chatted to the St Andrews House inhabitants about placemaking and punctures and we talked to each other about how we could work more together, sparking a few more fires that we hope will turn into a convincing blaze that people will see, feel and want for themselves and their communities.