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When Street Design Leaves Some People Behind

Expanding road space for bikes can limit accessibility for others – a balancing act for street planners and disability advocates. By John Surico
August 13, 2020

A person in an electric wheelchair crosses a street in Hawthorne, California. Adding bike infrastructure is a boon for cyclists, but some street redesigns can make getting around harder for disabled road users.

Last month, cycling advocates in the U.K. cheered the opening of Manchester’s “CYCLOPS.” Short for “Cycle Optimised Protected Signals,” the redesigned junction is the first of its kind in the United Kingdom, land of the difficult roundabout. Cyclists can ride seamlessly around the “external orbital cycle route,” separate from pedestrians, who cross cycle lanes and traffic islands, and in sync with motor vehicle traffic. It will act as a blueprint, advocates say, for future junction design.

But for some pedestrians, CYCLOPS is riddled with conflict. Those who are blind or partially sighted told me that the flattened curbs offer little indication that cyclists are approaching from either direction. The traffic-island-hopping produces multiple pressure points. People with hearing issues have trouble picking up the quiet hum of bicycle traffic. If this is the future, then accessibility advocates are concerned.

The disabled community is no stranger to shaping street design. As Sara Hendren recently wrote in CityLab, it was the work of activists who called out the normative “user” that paved the way to the Americans With Disabilities Act and made curb cuts mainstream. Projects like CYCLOPs represent the newest chapter of that same struggle, as cities shift from car-centric infrastructure toward “complete streets”-style redesigns meant to promote bikes, pedestrians and other forms of “active travel.” But what may be heralded as expanded space for one kind of road user can be a new hurdle to overcome for another. And as the Covid-19 pandemic accelerates such street reconfiguration, activists are worried that new changes will not take their experiences into account.

Growing up with a disabled parent in New York, I learned early on that every curb cut matters. Accessibility can be particularly tricky in underground mass transit: Only a quarter of New York City’s subway stations, for example, are ADA-accessible. It’s an issue of growing global importance. The number of people with disabilities living in cities around the world is estimated to reach nearly a billion by 2050. And solutions can be hard to come by.

Street access disputes are a hot topic in London, as I found out after moving to the U.K. capital last year. Last September, during London’s “Car-Free Day,” Will Norman, the city’s “cycling mayor,” was giving a speech on future plans amongst a favorable audience, before activists confronted him to ask about what they perceived as systemic design flaws in new bike-friendly street changes that made life more difficult for those on foot.

One big issue is the bus stop bypass, where cycle lanes go around floating bus stops in order to avoid entering traffic. At least 50 of these new features have been installed along London’s “Cycle Superhighways” since 2010 as a means of boosting bike ridership. But there’s a catch: Essentially, bus riders getting on or off from the sidewalk must first cross a cycle lane.

Later, activists also showed me videos on Twitter of other schemes I had taken for granted. In Glasgow, a new pedestrian crossing fell in the middle of a busy cycle lane. In Amsterdam, where conflict between pedestrians and cyclists is rising, a woman with sight issues had her cane whisked away. In London, dockless e-bikes left on sidewalks are blocking access and leading to injury.

“In London, often streets cannot be widened in any way, so when you wish to include cyclists, you could do something with regards to the outer lane, but that’s impinging on motor traffic,” said Karl Farrell, a member of the National Federation of the Blind of the U.K. and Transport for All, who is featured in the London video at the link below. “Or you take away from the footway. There’s obviously a lot of pressure on main roads, and the problem is there’s so much motor traffic. It’s hard to resolve that in a hurry. Normally, it’s the footways that have to yield and take the pressure, and society is likely to ignore those people.”

The U.K.’s Equality Act, which bans discrimination against disabled users, clearly states that local planners should push forward with a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate claim.” But it can be difficult in practice, as interpretations vary in what is ultimately a complex environment. (Advocates also argue that models for bike infrastructure in the U.K. are based on examples from Dutch or Danish cities, which can ignore local realities.)

Bike activists tend to stress “subjective safety,” or how one experiences the street – but often only for cyclists.

Take, for example, this issue of cycling near bus stops. Bike riders could just go around the bus stop and enter the motor traffic lane, but that may discourage cyclists (and also slow down buses, which move more people). The bus stop bypass idea may be thought of as the proportionate response – except it also yields issues of accessibility.

As cyclists, walkers, bus riders and drivers duel over the same real estate, this give-and-take leads to disagreement, said John Dales, an urban designer and planner who advises City Hall on these issues. (So much so that in 2018, Westminster actually issued a temporary moratorium on new “shared space” plans.) Bike activists, he told me, tend to stress “subjective safety,” or how one experiences the street – but often only for cyclists. Similarly, disabled advocates can sometimes be quick to shoot down a project, if it doesn’t meet demands. And that, too, is problematic, considering the citywide goal for 80% of trips to be done by sustainable modes by 2041.

“Start with: We have a problem. It’s what we have to work out to solve,” Dales told me. He advocated for a reasonable adjustment approach: “It’s then the job of practitioners and public authorities to say, “OK, we hear that, we’ll do the best we can.'” (It’s not always that easy, he admitted.)

But cities should consider a third option, Dales says: “Nobody’s questioning the traffic on the route. It’s the bullet that nobody really wants to bite. In several of these high streets, it’s the logical conclusion that traffic will have to be reduced.”

By instituting things like congestion pricing schemes that reduce the number of cars on the road, Dales says, cyclists would feel more comfortable navigating around buses, more space can be given to pedestrians, and streets wouldn’t need to have expensive new design features installed. “That’s just where we’re headed.”

But how can cities be proactive, rather than reactive, to accessible design?

Activists told me that social-media-bolstered advocacy must be paired with institutional representation. The number of local “access officers” in London, who typically work on these issues, was cut dramatically during post-2008 austerity. (London does not have a designated “accessibility” commissioner, either.) That lands this work on the desks of busy planners and designers, who hold varying lived experiences.

“They’re designing things that are causing problems that they don’t even realize they’re causing,” said designer Ross Atkin. “There’s an expectation to follow the standards to build an accessible street. But if you’ve got a situation where the space and geometry is different, or you’re building something that didn’t exist when they created it, then the standard is very brittle. It doesn’t tell you what the next best thing is, because the standard doesn’t tell you anything about the needs behind the standard.”

Atkin is an urban designer who follows social model theory: that is, it’s the built environment and cultural norms that disable people, not the impairments themselves. (Social model theorists opt to use the phrasing “disabled people,” instead of “people with disabilities.” I followed that notion here.) He’s working to create an accessible city through assistive and smart city tech, like “responsive street furniture” that communicates with disabled users via Bluetooth, or plans that can be read by blind or partially sighted users, so officials can effectively consult beforehand. (He provided similar materials for CYCLOPS.)

What is needed, he said, is a codified method of compromise. Case in point: tactile paving. These textured street surfaces help those with sight issues navigate seamless curbs – a popular traffic calming measure. They also partially hinder wheelchair users. But without it, blind or partially sighted users are entirely excluded, which is a greater net loss. “The important thing is acknowledging that in some cases, you might be making things a bit more difficult for one group in order to include another group,” Atkin said. “It’s all trade-offs. What we want to be doing is making the best trade-offs we can.”

This is the idea behind a new street accessibility standard Atkin, Dales and others are helping to design for the City of London Corporation, the body that oversees a tract of central London called the Square Mile. It studies the journeys of numerous user categories through various experimental models. The criteria is a spectrum: easy, frustrating, difficult or uncomfortable, and excluding or unpassable. “You can model a street that wasn’t included on the route, and work out how accessibility would be to these different groups,” Atkin said. “From a standards perspective, you can say, “Well this is the first step that we’re going to get our streets to.’ We’re going to ensure that nobody is excluded by anything on the streets.”

For advocates like Farrell, a city isn’t truly livable to the growing number of disabled people in cities like him until its streets feel safe to walk down, no matter what condition. But often he feels overlooked by design and planning processes. While cities everywhere are more formally recognizing accessibility as a key pillar of cities, he said that decades worth of work from advocates shouldn’t disappear in the name of sustainability. Solutions, he said, will come faster if everyone works together.

“These near-misses or low-impact collisions, they’re not recorded anywhere. But these things are important in society,” Farrell told me. “People should feel free, and anyone that is in the modern categories of vulnerability shouldn’t feel vulnerable using things like bus stops or walking along pavements.”

“That’s part of the quality of life: life itself.”

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