Rebecca Morley catches up with Wheels for Wellbeing director Isabelle Clement to find out why disabled people’s freedom of movement must be prioritised post-lockdown
Active travel infrastructure has been popping up all over the country in the past few months. With Government funding, local authorities are introducing measures encouraging people to walk and cycle to limit overcrowding on public transport and reduce our reliance on private cars.
Pavements are being widened, car access is being limited in certain neighbourhoods and car lanes are being turned into cycle lanes. However, charity Wheels for Wellbeing says that unless pop-up pavements and cycle lanes are accessible to all and disabled car parking is retained, disabled people will “remain prisoners in their own homes” because it won’t be safe for them to move around and they won’t be able to physically distance.
“On the one hand, we’re very excited about local authorities being told to provide better walking and cycling environments,” says Wheels for Wellbeing director Isabelle Clement. “That’s a really good development and it’s sad that we needed COVID to take us there. We want any additional walking, wheeling and cycling infrastructure to be fully inclusive, so disabled people can physically distance while using an active mode of transport. That won’t be able to happen if the pop-up infrastructure isn’t fully accessible to people on wheels – whichever kind of wheel.
“We’re concerned that disabled people are among those who may be clinically at a higher risk of serious consequences if they were to catch the virus. A good proportion of disabled people will have been shielding and they need to regain their physical conditioning all the more because of lockdown. A lot of the ways through which disabled people will have been trying to stay fit and well, before COVID, have all shut down as well.”
19% of the population is over 65 and 21% of UK adults are disabled. 1.8 million people were advised by the NHS to practice shielding and remain at home due to COVID-19, but being isolated indoors for prolonged periods leads to a greatly increased risk of ill health and greater care needs. The chief medical officer recommends that every adult should aim for a minimum of 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise to improve their mental and physical health, but even before lockdown, disabled people were 50% less likely to achieve this.
Restrictions on the ability to exercise and social interaction may cause or worsen key medical conditions, leading to an increase in the incidence of disability and higher economic costs. And while the population has been encouraged to stay physically active through walking and cycling during lockdown, Clement says this needs to be made available to disabled people too.
“People whose health and fitness is generally harder to keep in good condition need the widened footways and the new cycling infrastructure. We are potentially putting more strain on the NHS by not providing accessible walking, wheeling and cycling environments. We are keen that local authorities are aware of that.”
Wheels for Wellbeing welcomes the £2 billion package for walking and cycling announced by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps earlier this year, as well as the Mayor of London’s Streetspace plan, but it is asking the Government and local authorities to prioritise the freedom of movement of disabled and older people in post-lockdown Britain.
Research shows that there are three main reasons why disabled people do not cycle more: inaccessible infrastructure, the prohibitive cost of mobility equipment and the failure to recognise cycles as mobility aids on a level with mobility scooters. Moreover, many disabled people rely on a combination of accessible public transport, driving or being driven to experience any active travel at all.
“While COVID is still out there in our communities, it’s crucial that we can go out again, and we can do that safely and actively,” says Clement. “There are plenty of disabled people who are not appropriately equipped to go about their daily life actively. There’s still a huge part of the disabled population that relies on cars or taxis. We also need to ensure these new bits of walking and cycling infrastructures are not in the way of disabled people driving or being driven in order to access their communities.”
Kickstarting a revolution
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans to roll out thousands of miles of new protected bike lanes, cycle training for everyone and bikes available on prescription. The new plan aims to build on the significant increase in the number of people cycling during the pandemic, setting out a long-term vision to increase active travel.
New, higher standards for cycling infrastructure have also been published in updated guidance, in order to make sure that schemes are better designed around cyclists’ needs and to make sure they can support a larger number of cyclists in the future. “The role of cycling as an aid to mobility is often overlooked,” said the guidance.
“It can help many people to travel independently, but only if the infrastructure is accessible to a range of cycles used by people with children and disabled people. It is therefore very important to ensure that new cycle infrastructure is designed for use by everyone.”