Electric vehicles and disabled people: another case of sustainability vs accessibility?

This post is by Dr Kay Inckle, campaigns and policy manager at Wheels for Wellbeing.

Electric vehicles (EVs), especially shared e-cars, e-bikes and e-scooters are increasingly presented as the panacea of sustainable transport and active mobilities. And, indeed, they all have potential for disabled people: e-cars have automatic transmission and are, therefore, accessible to a range of disabled drivers. E-bikes allow those with a limited capacity for physical exertion to use a bicycle and e-scooters, especially those with seats, can create easy movement for those who might struggle to walk a similar distance.

However, these potentials have largely been squandered by the inaccessible design of the supporting infrastructure, alongside marketing and roll-outs that predominantly focus on young, already mobile, user groups. For example, most EV charging points are not accessible to disabled drivers. Their height, design and location, the need to carry and plug and unplug heavy coils of cable, alongside the size of the parking bays, which are often surrounded by stepped kerbs,render them completely unusable. On street charging points frequently create obstructions and trip hazards on pavements, and there is no UK-wide mapping of accessible charging points. This makes EVs impractical for many disabled drivers, forcing them back into more polluting vehicles, as well as making many pavements inaccessible.

E-scooters can also create hazards for disabled pavement users. Whilst, in law, e-scooters are only permitted on the road, in practice many are ridden (and parked or abandoned) on pavements, causing significant risks to blind and visually impaired pedestrians. Dockless e-bikes present similar pavement hazards. However, a larger exclusion of disabled people results from the imagined user they are designed and marketed to. If e-bikes and e-scooters were made available for try outs by disabled and older people in safe off-road settings, with a trained instructor, then uptake and usage would be diversified. Likewise, marketing and planning materials that visually represent and design for disabled users (as well as other minoritised groups) would also increase accessibility and uptake.

The limited imagining of who the user is also creates exclusions in the accessibility of “multi-modal journeys”. Multi-modal travel infrastructure is intended to enable an individual to use shared micro-mobility hire schemes (eg shared bikes, e-bikes or e-scooters) to travel to and from public transport hubs, integrating active travel with longer public transport journeys. However, these public hire schemes do not include the e-trikes, recumbents, handcycles etc that many disabled people require.

For a disabled person to complete a multi-modal journey, which combines active travel with public transport, they need to be able to board  with their cycle or other mobility aid. At present, providers will only carry a very limited range of mobility equipment (eg some types of wheelchair and mobility scooter) and they usually provide a space that permits only one disabled person to travel at a time. Disabled people regularly have to compete for this space with luggage, prams, buggies and bicycles, even when they are supposed to have priority usage. Once again, this forces disabled people back into less active and more polluting forms of transport. If multi-modal, active travel journeys are to be equally accessible to all, there needs to be much more flexible space and improved attitudes on public transport.

Overall then, like many of the transport initiatives that have preceded them, e-vehicles have the potential to improve the mobility of disabled people and simultaneously redress some of the climate issues we face. However, this potential can only be realised if disabled people are included at the outset: from conceptualisation and design through to the pilot, review and roll-out. Otherwise, the result will be more inaccessible infrastructure with costly yet inadequate adaptations added on as an afterthought, which will fail to meet the needs of disabled people, reduce their mobility options and exacerbate existing transport inequalities.

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