accessibility / accessible cities / cycling infrastructure / Mobility / Mobycon Academy / urban mobility design

Accessible Cities and the Myth of Car Dependence

On the 4th of November, Melissa Bruntlett hosted a special Mobycon Academy webinar focused on physical accessibility and the way we design our cities. Knowing that the best way to gain an understanding of the experiences of others in our cities is to talk to the people directly impacted, Melissa invited Maya Levi to join her in the Mobycon Studio. A friend and focus of the chapter dedicated to accessibility in her book Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in our Lives, Maya lives with Multiple Sclerosis and uses a mobility scoot for most of her daily travels. In this webinar, by following her on her normal daily travels, we get a glimpse into how cities that design for fewer cars and greater mobility choices are inherently more accessible to people like Maya. At the same time, their discussion helped dispel some common myths about how car access means mobility access.

Myth #1: People living with disabilities need a car to participate in society

Discuss removing on-street parking and one of the first arguments that arises is how it reduces access for the disabled community. There is a lack of understanding of how many individuals living with a disability actually have access to a car, leading to bad faith arguments like this. In truth, majority of individuals living with a disability either don’t own an adapted – and prohibitively expensive – car or have access to one through family or friends. The research in Transport: Challenging Disabling Environments by Rachel Aldred (2008), it states that 60% of individuals living with some form of disability in fact don’t have access to a car. It’s time we stop making assumptions about how people with disabilities move through our cities and use them to argue for car access, which leads us to myth #2.

Myth #2: Cycling infrastructure reduces access for people living with a disability

If you take one thing from the webinar we hosted with Maya, it’s that cycling infrastructure can, and often is, mobility infrastructure. True for many individuals using mobility scooters in the Netherlands, smooth, wide, separated cycling infrastructure provides space for those using mobility devices to access the city just as comfortable as their cycling counterparts. In fact, as Maya points out, the cycling lanes are a key ingredient in her independent access to nearly every corner of Delft, and even further afield, using her mobility scooter along intercity and rural routes to access natural spaces outside the centre, and even post-secondary studies in neighbouring Den Haag. Beyond safety, this means that there is no limits to the places Maya and people like her can access without needing to own a car or be driven around.

Myth #3: People living with disabilities make different trips

Talking about needs and transport in relation to accessibility may not be immediately obvious, but this is based on the idea that people with disabilities have different needs for their daily travels because they experience the world differently from those without. Throughout the journey with Maya, we witness her doing some pretty mundane, everyday activities: returning books to the library, picking up groceries, stopping for a chat with a friend, and grabbing a coffee with Melissa in the city centre. We even accompanied Maya for the after school pick up (sadly not included in the video). None of these activities and the trips to perform them are unordinary or exceptional. What Maya needs to perform these tasks is the space and the right to be able to do them herself and not have to rely on others, which is an incredibly important statement. We all want to be in control of our lives, and our mobility networks should enable that, especially people like Maya.

Myth #4: It is easy to know who has a disability and who doesn’t

Although we don’t explicitly discuss this in the webinar, it’s important to point out many of the treatments that make it easy for Maya to navigate Delft also help those who are living with what we call “invisible disabilities.” For many individuals living with arthritis, joint pain, or even recovering from a broken limb, as Melissa did earlier in 2021, the bicycle is a mobility device. Elements like sloped curbs and lower curb heights, raised crossings and generous curb cuts allow for seamless and comfortable movement on a bicycle, tricycle, quadracycle, motorized wheelchair, mobility scooter or otherwise, and we shouldn’t make assumptions about people’s place on the scale of well to unwell, and physically able to less physically abled.

Myth #5: People with disabilities need and want our help

Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding about people with disabilities and their access to mobility is the assumption they need or even want to be dependent on others for their experience of the city. Being more or less able to move unassisted in the city does not change our very human desire to be in control of how we live our lives, and this is something Maya emphasizes repeatedly in the webinar and in her interview with Melissa for Curbing Traffic. For her, the cycle lanes throughout Delft and the Netherlands are tools for her emancipation, giving her the freedom to go wherever she wants without having to rely on her husband, friends or a public transport network that still hasn’t fully adapted to meet her needs. Just as cycling is the path to independence for children, women, the elderly and beyond, cycle lanes – or rather mobility lanes – are the path to freedom for everyone who chooses to move around their city at a human scale.

Want to create accessible cities? Talk to people!

At the end of the day, they one way we, as mobility experts, can really ensure we are building accessibility into our designs and plans is to actually speak to the people we are directly impacting, and understand how to better build a public realm that affords them the same dignity as anyone else to access the city on their terms. Have questions about how you can better engage with and plan for accessibility? We’re here and ready to help and learn along with you!

Watch the full webinar here:

Melissa Bruntlett

‘I believe that to create cities that work for every one, you have to tell a great story. Promoting multi-modal transportation to a mainstream audience means sharing the stories of the people who benefit from making communities more walkable and bikeable, and showing what is possible if we rethink the way we design our streets and public spaces. I strive to inspire people to create places where children can flourish, and where the simple act of moving through their city is a safe, simple, and enjoyable act.’

Communications and Engagement Advisor