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Dr. Rachel Aldred: How disabled people are left out of UK transport strategy

We’re sadly used to seeing cycling left out of transport strategy, but with slow progress being made in some UK cities are we now in danger of overlooking disabled cyclists in proposals. Leading transport researcher Rachel Aldred makes a case for street design that is inclusive for all.

Last year, I published a co-authored piece on disabled people and cycling. It focused on the (lack of) inclusion of disabled people as cyclists or potential cyclists within London transport and cycling strategies. We found that most transport strategies didn’t consider that disabled people might cycle. But disabled Londoners do cycle, albeit at a lower rate than non-disabled Londoners: partly because, we argue in the paper, their cycling needs are not considered when developing infrastructure and facilities.

As is normal, this paper went through academic peer review. One reviewer complained about us not stating in the paper that cyclists pose a ‘threat’ (their words) to disabled people. Responding to the reviewer, I searched the academic literature for research on that point that I could discuss – but didn’t find it. While a bit frustrating, the exchange made me want to dig deeper into road injury risk for disabled people. This is something you can’t look at in Stats19 police injury data: no doubt one reason for the lack of academic evidence.

However, the National Travel Survey data offers an alternative. This provides self-report data on experiences of road injuries – with a range of demographic data, including (unlike Stats19) whether someone is disabled. Seven years of available data was enough for me to compare self-report injury risks for different groups (recently published as an academic article and report). What I found was interesting and counter to the narrative about cyclists-being-a-particular-threat-to disabled-people. There are vehicles on the road posing a heightened threat to disabled people: motor vehicles.

Disabled pedestrians, per mile walked, have nearly five times higher risk of being injured by a motor vehicle than non-disabled pedestrians. Substantially elevated risk persists even controlling for factors such as age. This suggests that measures to reduce the number of motor vehicle-pedestrian interactions and/or to mitigate the impacts of any interactions should particularly benefit disabled pedestrians.

What about the risk posed to disabled people by cyclists? There’s no evidence of elevated risk, because the data contains so few reports of pedestrians injured by cyclists that it isn’t possible to do any subgroup analysis. By contrast, many more pedestrians were injured by motor vehicles, or in falls. More research is needed on injury risks experienced by disabled pedestrians (including falls), and on the experiences of disabled cyclists. But this analysis does suggest that if we reduce motor traffic volumes, all pedestrians benefit (motor traffic volumes are strongly associated with pedestrian injury risk); but disabled pedestrians will benefit most.

Currently some authorities are implementing ‘school streets’ policies, which reduce motor traffic volumes and speeds around schools. Such policies aim to protect child pedestrians and cyclists and increase active travel. Perhaps we should consider similar measures focused on disabled pedestrians, who experience such disproportionately high risks of being injured by drivers. This could mean extending ‘school streets’ type interventions to destinations frequently accessed by disabled and/or older people (older people are more likely to be disabled). As with school streets, interventions could maintain access by motor vehicle for those that need it, while reducing motor traffic volumes and speeds to improve safety for disabled and older pedestrians.

Related: DfT publishes Inclusive Transport Strategy to assess bicycle’s role as a mobility aid.

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