HomeLow carbon futureHow can a car free future be made to work for disabled people?

How can a car free future be made to work for disabled people?

This post is by Anzir Boodoo, Car Free Cities consultant at Possible.                          

Some 27 per cent of UK carbon emissions originate from transport, a percentage that has risen as other sector emissions have reduced. The UK government acknowledges that merely shifting from fossil fuel to electric vehicles (EVs) is unlikely to decarbonise the transport system sufficiently, expressing a need to shift journeys in cities away from private cars and towards more sustainable modes.

Disabled people may need their cars
However, a fair transition towards cities without mass private car ownership has to consider different mobility and accessibility needs of different groups. Switching to more sustainable modes has challenges for some people which must be carefully accounted for.

Car free cities promise a cleaner, safer and more equitable future. But, while some restriction to car use is inevitable to hit climate targets, it could be problematic for those who are currently reliant on their cars.

Around 20 per cent of the UK population have some impairment which limits their day to day activities, and many disabled people find alternative forms of travel inaccessible.  The challenges in shifting to more sustainable modes were the subject of research undertaken by Possible alongside the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy, conducting interviews with disability organisations, followed by focus groups comprising a varied cross section of disabled people from around the country.

Disabled people in the UK make a third fewer trips than non-disabled people, and are around twice as likely to not hold a driving licence, but 2.44 million people hold blue badges for accessible parking spaces, and 635,000 people have an adapted car through the Motability scheme.

Disabled people’s relationship with the car ranges from being precluded from driving to being reliant on one to leave the house; this was reflected in our study, interviewing representatives from disabled people’s organisations, alongside focus groups involving people with various impairments.

Involving disabled people in design is important
Participants recognised and supported efforts to address the climate emergency and the contribution reducing car use can make, but many were concerned that a car free city may curtail their ability to access anything outside the home, especially for those who find public transport or even their neighbourhood’s streets inaccessible. Others felt liberated by the lack of cars during Covid lockdowns and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods that reduce through traffic.

While they expressed concerns about navigation and journey times in using other modes, there was consensus they could be designed inclusively, involving disabled people early in the design process and providing accessible information about the changes to be made. This is important because blind people, especially, are anxious about changes to streetscapes. There is a substantial appetite for involvement in co-design.

Despite many improvements to public transport, many still find services inaccessible, especially with poor driver training and the unavailability of audio visual information, particularly during diversions. On the rail network, conversion of stations for step-free access has been slow outside the major stations. It is estimated that it will take until 2070 at the current rate to complete the process.

In addition, taxi drivers often resent having to carry disabled passengers and, in many places, there is a severe shortage of wheelchair accessible vehicles, leading to long waits to travel.

Our participants suggested positive changes that could be made to reduce their reliance on cars, leading us to a number of recommendations that will allow cities to help disabled people move away from cars where possible, while also maintaining access to those with no practical alternative.

These include improving footway and cycle networks for better accessibility; recognising, as 2020’s Gear change report does, that cycles can be used as mobility aids. Bus stop bypasses should be improved based on RNIB recommendations, and a national fund should be established for kerb dropping and other improvements.

All stations should be accessible by 2040
Training for taxi and public transport staff is also needed to avoid people being turned away from transport or left stranded, and a target should be set for all rail stations to be accessible by 2040.

A fully inclusive streetscape planning process should engage disabled residents and users fully and early on.

For those remaining without a practical alternative to the car, such as our participant with a brittle bone condition, accessible parking spaces close to shops and other services are still needed and should be maintained and enhanced.

Together, these interventions would maximise the potential for more disabled people to leave their cars behind and enable them to support climate efforts in the way they want.

For more information, see Possible’s full report.

[Photo: LCC/WFW; by Crispin Hughes (LCC)]


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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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