Josh Neicho: Have Covid transport policies penalised disabled Londoners?

Josh Neicho: Have Covid transport policies penalised disabled Londoners?

Who could object to “colourful crossings”, like those unveiled by Sadiq Khan last month along Tottenham Court Road? Public artworks and rainbow Pride stripes have appeared from the Barbican to Brixton and from Enfield to Sutton, inspiring one London website to suggest they should become standard at light-controlled crossings because they bring such joy. The Asphalt Art Project crossings on Tottenham Court Road, designed by Yinka Ilori, are part of a campaign aimed at showcasing the capital’s diversity and getting visitors back to the West End.

But there seems to have been a fundamental misunderstanding and breakdown of communications over these installations. A coalition of groups representing millions of disabled and older people, including Scope, RNIB, Age UK and the Alzheimer’s Society, co-ordinated by pan-impairment organisation Transport for All, wrote an open letter to the Mayor raising a raft of concerns, for example:

  • confusion for those with low vision who rely on the high contrast of black and white crossings
  • misperceptions by people with dementia of floor patterns as a hostile object
  • sensory overload or distress for people with autism

The Asphalt Art Project, the charities feel, contradicts the Mayor’s objective of eliminating road deaths and serious injuries by 2041 and could lead to disabled people excluding themselves from areas around the crossings.

The Mayor strongly defends the initiative, a spokesperson telling me that Sadiq Khan “is proud to stand up for all Londoners and wants the capital to be accessible for all, which is why consultation took place with organisations, charities and disability groups. This included an Equalities Impact Assessment and a Road Safety Assessment.”

Tweaks were made, such as reducing the complexity of the designs. But the organisations behind the open letter query how meaningful the engagement has been, suggesting relevant previous research and recommendations had been ignored, and that user-testing with disabled people once the artwork is already in place is misguided. A  month on, Transport for All and the RNIB are waiting for a formal response from the Mayor’s Office and an answer is pending to a question to the Mayor from the Green Party’s Siân Berry.

***

More than 20 per cent  of the UK population is estimated to have a disability, meaning advertising and entertainment is drastically unrepresentative of them, in contrast to commitments to embrace other kinds of diversity. The Association of London Government has previously estimated that nearly nine per cent of London councillors are disabled, whereas in the 2017 Parliament only five MPs had recognised disabilities.

When changes to the road network were made rapidly and without pre-consultation during the pandemic, disabled people were even more marginalised than usual due to the numbers shielding or otherwise less likely to be out. Some campaigners fear a side effect of the shift to home working may be an excuse for slackening efforts to make all public transport and public space as accessible as possible.

In August, disability professional and broadcaster Mik Scarlet took me around Camden in his handcycle – a streamlined wheelchair with a front wheel and crank attachment – to show me new street features which are tricky for “wheelers”. There are obstacles such as pavement signs highlighting new road layouts, and electric bikes for hire dumped randomly. A wanded temporary cycle lane in St Pancras Way means wheelchair-users can’t be picked up or dropped off by cabs there. The Arlington Road Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN), where Scarlet lives has, he says, added up to 20 minutes to vehicle journeys for wheelchair-using neighbours to get to the Royal Free Hospital, which some need to visit often.

Particularly problematic, says Scarlet, are the bus stop bypasses built with “boarder” sections along Chalk Farm road, installed under Experimental Traffic Orders. The bypass element allows unimpeded cycle traffic past bus stops along segregated cycle lanes and the boarder minimises delays to bus journeys as the bus draws up alongside a pavement island built out in the carriageway. 

They can also lead, however, to wheelchair users being deposited, depending on where the driver stops and the placing of the ramp, directly into a stream of bikes or onto a too-narrow area where they risk rolling into the bike lane. Hackney Labour councillor and former London TravelWatch streets policy officer Vincent Stops points to a 2018 report showing cyclists travelled at an average of 14 miles per hour on bus bypasses, whether the bypasses had zebra crossings for pedestrians or uncontrolled ones. Whichever, they were not slowing down.

Stops sends photos of a bus bypass on Royal College Street, Camden Town, with the bus shelter surrounded by cycle lane and no marked crossing to reach it, and another of a blind man at a Waltham Forest bus stop, his white stick resting on asphalt which is, in fact part of a cycle lane. “It makes you weep,” he says. Transport for London’s Independent Disability Advisory Group, apologising for frank language, describes the more recent style of bus bypass, where cycles go behind rather than in front of bus boarding areas as “polishing a turd”.

In the heated debate around Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, disabled people worried about the lack of pre-consultation and narrow focus of the schemes have been “viewed as anti- campaigners, rather than campaigners for access,” Scarlet says. Disabled groups have reported people with disabilities wetting themselves in heavily congested traffic associated with trial LTNs, and family members, sometimes with disabilities themselves, facing prohibitively long journeys to visit disabled relatives. 

A West Dulwich-based NHS mental health practitioner with a severely disabled daughter describes delayed bus journeys on roads “at a standstill” from the impact of Lambeth and Southwark LTNs, as “intolerable” for low-waged carers, children attending Turney Special School, and families with challenging needs who she works with. Councils and LTN supporters “show a level of ignorance of the reality of people’s lives which have become much harder over Covid,” she says. 

Some councils have subsequently introduced exemptions for Blue Badge holders living inside LTNs. But since many disabled Londoners don’t drive or don’t have a Blue Badge, some problems have remained in spite of the dispensation. In Camden, for example, one disabled resident with very limited mobility reportedly took an hour to wheel home after a taxi dropped her at the far end of a street which now has a road traffic filter in it.

Disability covers a vast range of different conditions, circumstances and perspectives, and some disabled Londoners welcome LTNs as both fairer and liberating. Trike rider Clive Durdle – a former professional driver – queries what he sees as “emotional arguments” against LTNs and points to the zones’ long-established antecedents and their widespread use in continental Europe.

He thinks opponents of LTNs exaggerate the length of delays caused and urges disabled people to be honest with themselves about when they are using motor vehicles, as opposed to an adapted cycle, wheelchair and walking frame as a mobility aid. He thinks the answer is not blanket exemptions for disabled residents, but “to map everyone’s actual needs. Someone saying I can’t do X, Y and Z – you need to sit down with them, and work out the problem”. 

Rick Rodgers, Policy and Campaigns Officer for disabled cycling charity Wheels for Wellbeing, applauds best practice LTNs and points approvingly to the “tonnes of consideration that has gone into non-standard cycles” in the government’s Local travel note 1/20 about cycle infrastructure. He worries that active travel schemes where attention wasn’t paid to detrimental impacts to disabled people’s participation – such as a lack of dropped kerbs, or cafes spilling out into the streets – are creating pushback against better-thought out LTNs. A vital part of the process, he says, is that “you need to get out on the street and consult”.

In its research published this January based on in-depth interviews with disabled people, the findings Transport for All highlighted – even more than “Marmite” strong objections and (among a smaller group) strong support for LTNs – were feelings of a widespread failure to listen.

Three in four criticised how changes were communicated to them. Equality Impact Assessments (EQIAs) – a way that local authorities can ensure they are meeting their obligations – failed to reflect the effects of LTNs on disabled residents, the authors concluded. One borough’s EQIA said, without evidence, that no group would be negatively impacted by an LTN consultation outcome. Another said that challenges for disabled people would be resolved by the Taxicard scheme – but there was no suggestion for how this pre-existing programme might be expanded to meet new circumstances. Some councils have narrow definitions of disability and others lack good demographic information.

“I feel like I’m at the bottom of the scrap heap, completely discriminated against,” said one participant. Another said disabled people were “being really co-opted. Whether it’s cycle lanes, LTNs, or banning taxis, it’s like the idea of us is utilised by either side without actually involving us”.

***

Then there are chronic transport issues that are far from resolution as London returns to its accustomed busyness. In the wake of a tragic death in 2020, RNIB has campaigned for installation of tactile paving on all London station platforms, such as some at Waterloo and Clapham Junction, where it is currently lacking. The London Assembly unanimously passed a motion proposed by Caroline Pidgeon on this issue in June, but the deadline announced for all London stations to have tactile paving is 2030, not 2025 as campaigners hoped.

For some ‘shared space’ street schemes in the mould of the transformed Exhibition Road, “millions are spent on designs that are inaccessible and then [prove] too expensive to retrofit” says RNIB Policy and Campaigns Officer Zoe Courtney. Aesthetics-driven redesigns can be problematic for people with other disabilities – cobble-like granite setts in Deptford Market Yard directly outside Deptford station are inhospitable for wheelchair users, for example.

Since last month’s opening of lifts at Osterley, 89 Tube stations out of 270 are step-free to platform level. Around half of these require staff to bring ramps to allow mobility-impaired people to board, leaving disabled passengers less than entirely independent. An accessible transport enthusiast living in Reading is reputed to offer a more accurate step-free network map than TfL’s.

Transport for All trustee Alan Benson, who uses a motorised wheelchair, was impressed on his first visit to the new Northern Line extension Tube stations by many aspects of their design, including a calming environment conducive to people with autism and sensory impairments. But he was dismayed by the lifts at Battersea Power Station Tube: impractically small for larger wheelchairs or mobility trikes, and with a deeply recessed entrance so the doors kept shutting on Benson before he got inside. TfL rapidly responded to his criticisms, saying they were looking at inconsistent signage and adjusting the lift doors. They have also said that Human Factors Equality Risk Assessments were performed. 

Given that the lifts at Nine Elms station don’t have the same flaws, “why did they get it wrong at Battersea?” asks Benson, surmising that separate design teams might have been involved, who didn’t communicate. TfL’s strong record at holding consultations with locals, including disabled people, is no substitute, says Benson, for paying disabled access experts to carry out assessments: a drop in the ocean with multi-million pound projects.

Another disabled campaigner tells me how he has missed Tube trains on several occasions at Kings Cross – a key gateway to the Underground for mobility-impaired people – as there’s no system to forewarn that lifts are broken. Ruislip resident Graham Lee remarks on the slow progress towards installing lifts at Harrow-on-the-Hill, and barriers at the bridge across the A40 at Hillingdon station being too narrow for two-wheelers with panniers, let alone adapted cycles.

Buses must, according to TfL guidelines and the law, prioritise wheelchairs over pushchairs in wheelchair bays, but this system relies on individual drivers and, on a daily basis, disabled Londoners are denied access to buses. Black cabs must offer “a professional and first class service to customers with disabilities” – but disabled Londoners regularly encounter drivers who say they can’t set up their ramp because they’ve got a bad back.

Ignorance partly explains the dismissiveness towards disabled people’s experiences. Wheels for Wellbeing’s Kay Inckle, who used to live in Stratford specifically because of the Paralympics infrastructure, recalls non-disabled passengers muscling onto Tubes in front of her or resting a newspaper on her head. “In many ways we live in a quite segregated society,” she says. “Once non-disabled people know someone, it changes [their] perceptions”. 

Others might point to more deliberate political prioritisation at work. Disability journalist and Harrow resident Geoff Adams-Spink, unnerved by the number of inexperienced cyclists on pavements and, “more pernicious”, pavement scooters hurtling towards him post-lockdowns, notes that “if you say ‘oh hang on,’ you’re making the environment more dangerous, you’re seen as reactionary and conservative. And you’re anything but. As usual, the needs of older and disabled people are running second”. He regards London’s first Mayor, Ken Livingstone as having had a “much better” approach to consultation than Mayor Khan.

Vincent Stops accuses the Prime Minister’s transport adviser Andrew Gilligan of reversing progress, by moving from a policy of promoting equity with disabled people at the top of the transport hierarchy to a misguided notion of “balance”. He says London has “led the world with its low floor buses and spent £15 million to ensure 95 per cent of all bus stops were accessible – transport planners I know wouldn’t dream of putting in bus bypasses.” 

“If you’re only going to listen to the voices that agree with you, you’re not being inclusive, you’re being the opposite,” says Mik Scarlet. He anticipates a return to ’90s-style direct action, “chaining yourself to things and painting over stuff… The mood is getting quite angry. I can genuinely see it happening – alongside cutting Universal Credit and changes to Personal Independence Payments.”

In the ongoing controversy over “colourful crossings”, Transport for All’s Campaigns Lead Katie Pennick asks what the Mayor’s assurance that consultation took place means: “How far in advance did it take place? Who with? What did it cover? How was feedback gathered and analysed?”

Transport for All seeks a radical rethink of Equality Impact Assessments: actively reaching out to all groups affected, decision-makers putting themselves in users’ mindsets, co-producing solutions with disabled people and organisations, involving disabled experts from the start and paying them for their expertise.

Food for thought for the Mayor and all those seeking to make sensitive, considered transport policy for London.

On London is a small but influential website which strives to provide more of the kind of  journalism the capital city needs. Become a supporter for £5 a month or £50 a year and receive an action-packed weekly newsletter and free entry to online events. Details here.

Categories: Analysis

4 Comments

  1. Raymond Attfield says:

    It is astounding that the myriad projects to add, change, adjust, organise, improve, the space of the public realm show no understanding whatsoever of its fundamental role and meaning in city life. Any single purpose change will inevitably cause other problems and disrupt the basic use, value and understanding of any space.

    How people, all people, understand the space they are in is very very complex. All means of understanding the meaning of any aspect of public space, visual, aural or touch, have their particular languages. Change any one thing and the meaning changes. Change the black and white stripes across a road and doubt, uncertainty and confusion is the result. It’s obvious but ignored.

    How streets are understood by drivers depends on common, basic visual signals, a long line of buildings each side, continuous kerbs and white lines. Erect a small sign which contradicts this and it will not be noticed, not be seen. Paint interesting patterns across the road and it will likely be read as yet another crazy initiative, but not a pedestrian crossing. Change the language and no-one will understand. When will they, those in authority, ever learn?

  2. Tessa Kulik says:

    Small local family businesses are also being affected. My friend who lives in the Bounds Green LTA reports that her local pet shop will no longer deliver as the only access to her road is now via the North Circular. They do not find it worthwhile to drive a much greater distance and wait in long traffic queues.

  3. JRichards says:

    ” TfL’s strong record at holding consultations with locals, including disabled people, is no substitute, says Benson, for paying disabled access experts to carry out assessments: a drop in the ocean with multi-million pound projects.”

    TfL is strong when it comes to tick-boxing consultation with locals in ways that ensure it looks as if they have informed all local residents and actually properly consulted with them. Ditto with councils, and with some of the Public Realm Improvement projects that are partly or fully funded by major landowners. The latter are adept at sleight of consultation, having for years used the services of professionals expert in drowning out the voices of the local community whose lives will be unnecessarily made worse by development projects.

  4. None of the ‘Covid’ and ‘LTN’ schemes slapped into Greenwich Town Centre and west of Greenwich Park included pedestrian facilitation, let alone consideration for people with disabilities. Forcing local traffic to boundaries means a constant stream of turning from Greenwich South Street into Blackheath Hill, using a cut-through past some of the few local shops in the area, and leaving pavement users stranded at every point on the most dangerous junction in the borough. There is no pedestrian phase on the lights, and no light control at the cut through.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.