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When active travel measures exclude disabled people, they are not an ethical solution

When an area of Sheffield is pedestrianised, many people are excluded from that part of their city. Encouraging walking and cycling should not alienate marginalised populations.

Accessible parking spaces marked with wheelchair symbols
steve p2008

I never thought I’d drive in Sheffield. Having moved to the city as a student, I found the bus and tram networks to be streamlined and efficient. Not perfect, but as much as I needed to get to where I wanted to be. If somewhere was too far to walk, I could get from A to B on a tram or a bus or two.

I hadn’t really planned for becoming disabled, though. It got harder and harder to walk as far as the bus stop. When the bus came, if I had to stand because there were no seats this would cause immense pain and regular falls. People on buses don't always give up their seats and in my experience there are often more disabled passengers than priority seats available.

Two trams in Sheffield city centre
Sam Saunders

I found trams more accessible and more likely to have seats available, but they only cover part of the city and walking as far as the tram stop got more and more difficult.

It was when I realised that I’d just pretty much stopped trying to go anywhere that I considered getting a car. I had long resisted this because of the environmental implications, but eventually concluded that it would be the only way to get around Sheffield and get back to living my life.

Getting my first car turned out to be liberating. I could do several errands in the same trip and I didn’t have to avoid whole swathes of the city because they were no longer inaccessible to me. It’s not an overstatement to say that it changed my life.

This is why I’m struggling with proposals to encourage active travel and pedestrianise parts of Sheffield. I completely recognise that we are in a climate emergency and I support methods that encourage more people to walk, cycle and take public transport. But if you block off car traffic altogether, often you exclude disabled people who can no longer get to their favourite café, their place of work, their partner’s flat or, god forbid, their own flat.

I am absolutely not a 'motorists first' kind of person. But there is no way to issue an outright ban on all car drivers from parts of Sheffield without, as a direct result, banning some disabled people from those areas too.. Some disabled people can walk, cycle or take public transport without an issue – I was one of them for years – but for those who can’t, car-free spaces can be exclusionary.

Division Street, Sheffield
John Lord

Division Street is a good example. By removing the parking spaces opposite the old fire station, access to nearby buildings has been blocked for those who can’t walk from the other end of the street. Broomhill is similar; by blocking off the car parking in front of the shops, including several accessible spaces, the entire area is now somewhere that’s beyond my capacity. The city has supposedly opened up, but not the charity shops and pubs of Broomhill or the bars and offices of Division Street; not for those of us who can’t walk far.

Proactive and good-faith conversations could have prevented this inaccessibility. We all want to improve air quality, reduce emissions, make the city centre a better place and encourage people to be more active when they can, and these priorities should not be competing with disabled people's right to access the city they live in.

A blue sign attached to a wall with a symbol of a wheelchair user and the words "Parking only"
J. Ott

Level access on trams and buses, audio and visual announcements, and assistance to get on and off trains make the world accessible in a way it never was 20 years ago. But if you can’t get as far as the bus stop, or you can’t get a seat on the tram, or you don’t know in advance that you want to take a train (assistance has to be booked the day before, no spontaneity is allowed), or you can’t get into the station itself, then a car may simply be your only option.

Carrying out an equality impact assessment on the changes to our streets and consulting with disabled people, disabled people's organisations and other interested parties are the next essential steps before any changes are considered for long-term plans. There are specialists and campaigners with creative solutions that can contribute to a city that works for every resident and visitor.

A cyclist in a pedestrianised space on The Moor in Sheffield
Delaina Haslam

We absolutely must encourage greener travel and do what we can to promote the use of public transport, cycling and walking. But if we ignore the fact that there is a population that is excluded when active travel is the only option, we are ignoring the rights of people in Sheffield who do not deserve to be disregarded.

The climate crisis is urgent, but we need to make sure we're not creating or deepening inequalities as a result of moving quickly to mitigate against it. The more barriers you put in somebody’s way, the less likely they are to engage in their community. Disabled people are often already excluded. Explicitly banning those who really need to use cars is not the solution to climate change. Further marginalising an already marginalised group is not an ethical way to run a city and it is not the solution to the climate crisis.

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