Local authorities in England and Wales are facing calls to re-think the “streetscape” changes being made in response to COVID-19, amid concerns that the new street infrastructure is making parts of towns and cities inaccessible to many disabled people.
Disabled people and their organisations have previously warned that many of the measures are discriminatory and that public bodies are ignoring their duties under the Equality Act and using the crisis as an excuse not to consult with disabled people about the changes.
But councils are pressing ahead with changes to roads, cycle lanes and pavements despite the concerns raised by disabled people, arguing that they are needed to make social distancing easier and prevent an increase in car usage and deterioration in air quality.
One of them is Bristol City Council, which is introducing suspensions of parking bays, new cycle lanes, pedestrianisation and changes to road layouts.
But Bristol Disability Equality Forum (BDEF) said the council had failed to prioritise the access needs of disabled people or take enough action to address their concerns, resulting in streetscape changes that make it harder for disabled people to move around the city.
BDEF told Disability News Service (DNS) that there were not enough public seating areas or blue badge parking spaces in and around the partially-pedestrianised old city centre, while too much priority was being given to businesses, with bars and cafes being allowed to spread their tables and chairs across roads and pavements.
In addition, BDEF said some widened pedestrian zones in local high streets had taken up precious parking spaces, making access even harder, while many visually-impaired people were not able to identify the pedestrianised sections of roads.
A BDEF spokesperson said: “Yet another failure to provide solutions that accommodate the needs of disabled people will see us losing even more of the human rights the disabled people’s movement worked so hard to secure; rights that have been steadily eroded since 2008.
“It is also short-sighted as businesses need our custom even more than ever – something they are not going to get if we are further excluded from our high streets and leisure outlets.”
A city council spokesperson said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has seen some of our plans to change travel habits and behaviours and build a more sustainable future accelerated, while other measures such as widening pavements offer greater accessibility as well as better social distancing for disabled people.”
The spokesperson said that, although some of the changes had removed through traffic, access to the city centre and neighbourhoods remained, and existing blue badge parking bays had been maintained, while the council was exploring the possibility of providing further such bays.
In York, disabled activists say they believe the post-lockdown closure of the city centre to motor vehicles is discriminatory.
Helen Jones, from York Disability Rights Forum, said she believed the changes only affected blue badge holders, so they impacted significantly on disabled people and their friends, family and carers.
She said: “The changes took a ‘one size fits all’ approach and it’s important that the council recognises that disabled people and blue badge holders are a diverse group.
“We understand that things are moving rapidly this year, but the council had previously engaged with disabled people about access to the city centre.
“This work could have been used to complete a more accurate equality impact assessment and would have resulted in more appropriate decisions.”
Jones, herself a blue badge holder, acknowledged that traffic reductions in the city centre benefited the environment, but she said that blue badge holders and taxis carrying disabled people should be an exception to the new rules.
York Council failed to respond to a request to comment.
Concerns about poorly-planned social distancing measures have also been voiced by Disability Wales, which says that modifications to city centres, building entrances and exits, and accessible parking spaces have been implemented with no regard for the needs of disabled people.
Miranda Evans, policy and programmes manager for Disability Wales, said: “There’s been a lack of consultation with local disabled people and organisations, a lack of thought about the possible impact and a lack of equality impact assessing going on in Wales.”
She said access problems have emerged all over Wales, with roads being closed and accessible parking bays blocked off outside buildings, including schools and hospitals, to allow for wider entrances and exits.
In Bridgend, the accessible parking bays outside a school have been blocked to make way for a wider exit, while in Saundersfoot, blue badge bays have reportedly been covered with tables and chairs to allow for “al fresco” dining.
In Cardiff, Castle Street, a major city road, has been closed to cars, again to allow for al fresco dining through the new Castle Quarter Cafe, making it more difficult for disabled people to move around the city.
Evans said: “We’re challenging all this and we’re trying to raise it with local councils and the Welsh government. At the moment we’re gathering our evidence.”
A Cardiff Council spokesperson said: “The al fresco dining area in Castle Street has been set up to help the hospitality trade in light of the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.
“The scheme has been very successful and the feedback from the businesses that are taking part and those who use the facility has been very positive.”
The spokesperson said a motorised buggy was available to assist disabled visitors around the pedestrian areas of the city centre.
And they said that Cardiff Council held regular meetings with representatives from diverse groups, which provided information, assistance and advice on its COVID recovery strategy (PDF), with equality reports available on the council’s website.
Campaigners working to address issues around air pollution have stressed its impact on people with long-term health conditions.
Andrea Lee, clean air campaigns manager at environmental law charity ClientEarth, said: “Urgent action to tackle toxic air is vital to protect our health and innovative measures such as creating more space for people to safely walk or cycle in our cities can be part of the effort – if well designed.
“The benefits for all of a less polluted city cannot be underestimated.
“Air pollution harms us all, cutting lives short and reducing quality of life and the data shows it has a disproportionate impact on certain groups, including those with long-term health conditions.”
Disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) such as BDEF have acknowledged the need to improve air quality, particularly because of the disproportionate impact on disabled people.
A BDEF spokesperson said: “It’s not quite as straightforward as some frustrated drivers might view it.
“There needs to be much more of a discussion with disabled people around the breadth of factors that need to be balanced against each other.
“We’ve got an environmental crisis, a health crisis and really poor public transport. We need to square that circle.”
In Lambeth, south London, a range of infrastructure changes are being implemented across the borough to cut pollution and improve safety for cyclists and walkers, partly as a result of the pandemic.
The changes include multiple low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs), which aim to provide improved protection for cyclists, tree planting and improved green spaces.
Cllr Claire Holland, the council’s deputy leader (sustainable transport, environment and clean air), said: “These important measures are needed to tackle transport and health inequalities exacerbated by the coronavirus, and to support a local, economic recovery.
“We are keeping them under review and making tweaks to the schemes as necessary.
“Before any of the schemes become permanent there will be further community engagement.”
Rather than viewing the changes as a barrier to disabled people, Cllr Holland believes they will improve access for people with a variety of impairments.
She said: “These measures are intended to support those residents [disabled people without cars] to be able to move more freely around their local areas – our low traffic neighbourhoods provide links between homes and town centres, schools, parks, shops and local amenities.”
Isabelle Clement, director of Wheels for Wellbeing, a Lambeth-based DPO that promotes cycling among disabled people, said: “As an organisation we are supportive of the changes on the one hand because whatever makes cycling safer for any cyclist makes it safer for disabled cyclists and there’s a big need for that.
“However, we’re also a disabled people’s organisation and we’re very aware that if the changes are not done with due regard to disabled people’s access needs, that will have a negative impact on non-cycling disabled people.”
She added: “Disabled people are the people who are the most in need of being able to go out safely again after lockdown and if the environment is not changed fully accessibly, then disabled people could be the most excluded yet again.”
According to Clement, who lives and works in Lambeth, the key problem is that the government has asked local authorities to make changes that help people avoid using cars and public transport but has failed to give them a “quick guide” on how to do it in an accessible way.
This has led to some inaccessible features being put in place in Lambeth and other parts of the country.
Clement said: “There is no intrinsic clash between disabled people and cycling infrastructure, provided it is done with the right thinking in mind.”
She said that, as long as the new infrastructure for cyclists – which she calls mobility infrastructure – is wide, flat and smooth it can also benefit mobility scooters and many wheelchair-users, and can de-clutter pavements.
Transport for London (TfL) is working with London boroughs to introduce temporary new cycle lanes, wider pavements and low-traffic corridors across the capital, as part of its Streetspace programme, and it wants many of them to become permanent.
Sam Monck, Transport for London’s head of investment delivery planning for healthy streets, said: “We’re absolutely determined to make sure that our temporary Streetspace schemes introduced in response to coronavirus are inclusive and benefit everybody in London.
“All of our cycle schemes are designed to be accessible to adapted cycles and our schemes also undergo an equality impact assessment to ensure that they are inclusive.
“We will continue to work closely with our stakeholders on our Streetspace plans and would urge people to contact us with any feedback on the changes.”
TfL also said it was reviewing pavement widening schemes that have been created with temporary barriers and was looking to replace them with a “full built out, level pavement where possible”.
Transport for All (TfA), a pan-impairment London-based DPO that campaigns for accessible transport systems and inclusive street design, said that the “rapid, unprecedented and often inaccessible changes to streetspace across the UK” were a “huge concern”.
TFA said: “Whilst, in principle, we fully support changes that facilitate social distancing and expediate active travel [such as walking or cycling] initiatives, the lack of consultation around the impact of these initiatives on disabled people is throwing up real issues.
“Disabled residents in areas affected have not been consulted and equality impact assessments – if they have been carried out at all – are, without exception in our experience, written without the necessary expertise in accessibility and inclusion.”
TfA added: “We fully support the concept of active travel, and indeed many disabled people can and want to make more active journeys, either by walking, pushing a wheelchair, or by cycle.
“But many cannot make these journeys simply because the infrastructure is not accessible.
“The lack of dropped kerbs, uneven pavements, lack of tactile signage, poorly designed cycle lanes, shared space, and street clutter are just some of the barriers disabled people face to walking and cycling.
“Restricting the option for car travel cannot be done without an accompanied infrastructure accessibility project.”
In July, TfA launched its Pave The Way campaign, aimed at highlighting the importance of building both environmentally-friendly and accessible streetspace, and it is carrying out in-depth research into the impact of LTNs on disabled people.
It hopes this will lead to a better understanding of “what the issues are and how to find the most inclusive and accessible solution”.
Picture by Disability Wales: Barriers blocking off an accessible parking space at a school in Wales
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