Active Travel: Stirling Area Access Panel Have Their Say

Stirling Area Access Panel logo featuring slogan Access for All

The following is an article about Active Travel by Robert Dick, chair of Stirling Area Access Panel, who work to improve physical access and wider social inclusion in Stirling and the surrounding area:

“It was very interesting to read about the Scottish Government’s ‘£10 million to support pop-up active travel infrastructure’ in last month’s Disability Equality News – Issue 29.  

Since 2014, Stirling Area Access Panel has been involved with Active Travel Projects in Stirlingshire and more recently under the umbrella term of ‘Walk, Cycle, Live Stirling’.  All these projects are primarily funded by Sustrans and implemented by the local authority.  The Scottish Government have a buoyant strategy to encourage walking and cycling within the population and target all ages including school age children through ‘Safer Routes to School’.

In support of this initiative, part of local Planning legislation encourages developers to build multiple flats where householders must be car-free, or student accommodation where only a handful of disabled parking bays are allowed, although bike parking is fully catered for. Despite this, the council know that removing car parking from these properties is not a realistic solution, as owners or occupiers have their cars elsewhere and cause displaced nuisance parking for other home owners.

The focus on cycling as a strategy has become so significant with Active Travel, both in Stirling City and also in rural villages, that it is quite demoralising to people with disabilities. Not only are traditional streetscapes changing with the addition of road build-outs, shared surfaces with lack of kerbs, narrowed roads, widened footways, reduced street parking, lack of disabled parking bays, added cycle lanes, informal raised crossings at every junction and ‘greening’ strips along footways, etc., this ‘concrete jungle’ is all in the name of encouraging walking and cycling.

We live in a very wet climate where public transport is infrequent, expensive and in rural areas, it can consist of aged and dirty buses. There is also restricted shopping opportunities in many parts of the country and it is essential that shoppers have the choice to travel. For the elderly and very young or disabled person who cannot walk far, and who may additionally suffer from continence issues, waiting, whether standing or on a “perch bench”, for long periods at bus stops or train stations, active travel is just not viable.

Selective country paths are also being widened to 3 metres, segregated, and tarmacked, at great cost and it gives a suburban feel to the countryside.  In fairness, highways like these could allow better access for the leisure use of wheelchair users, but it should be remembered that access to toilets and parking capacity at start/stop points are also essential elements for everybody.

We do note that under the Equality Act 2010 and the Scottish Land Reform Act 2003, National Cycle Networks (NCN’s) should not be called that, as everybody has the right to use these ‘cycle’ paths.
One might say that Equality Impact Assessments should resolve the transport and mobility options for everyone, but we don’t know of any pathway projects where they have been used; and one has to assume that the process is carried out fairly.

Our Panel have had three meetings with Sustrans on three respective Projects and although we asked them in writing to record the discussion, by issuing minutes or “notes”, they have not done so.  It is evident that they do not wish ‘consultation details’ and suggestions which are largely counter to theirs, to be recorded.

Our experience with Sustrans and even council groups repeatedly demonstrates that they don’t have an appreciation, or breadth of disability knowledge and their path designs do not include the necessary fundamental elements of car parking, toilet facilities and where appropriate, seating and picnic benches. We wonder why so much money is being spent (over £4m for a 3 mile stretch in one case) on rural paths projects which contain none of these facilities.

The design and Planning elements of streetscape are currently stacked against people with disabilities through the mandatory use by councils of key infrastructure design documents like ‘Designing Streets’ which focusses on aesthetics of buildings and streets with no disability appreciation. The current Forth Valley Transport Strategy (STPR2) make it clear through their “Sustainable Transport Hierarchy” (taken from SCOTS National Roads Guide.) that their understanding of real disability issues is close to zero. The Hierarchy in particular is an oversimplification of what inclusive road and transport features are about and doesn’t address the holistic needs of disabled users, whilst also ignoring commercial vehicles, planes, and even ferries for that matter.  The aim of this hierarchy is to significantly reduce or remove the use of the private car from commuting and leisure in the name of climate action, to help our economy prosper, and to improve our health and wellbeing.  Whether one agrees with this “Vision” or not, it is extremely unlikely that this so-called “Sustainable” concept will meet the needs of disabled people who greatly rely upon cars and accessible parking to meet their independent and daily living needs.

Similar to the lack of (safe) cycling infrastructure which the Scottish Government wish to rapidly increase, there is also a serious lack of accessible streets: currently most make the use of a manual or powered wheelchair challenging, stressful, and many have absolute barriers. There are few towns or villages (none in Stirlingshire) which allow unhindered travelling in a wheelchair.

Our Panel membership includes persons who have had disabilities for more than 30 years, with sensory, neurodivergent, and continence issues, as well as mobility issues. Without access to a car or taxi, many of us would not be able to go out at all, and my own ability to access shops is also very challenging. My wife carries out 99% of our shopping.  It is difficult to categorise the travel needs of all disabled users, but without private cars, the quality of life would be greatly reduced and extremely limited for most disabled and elderly people.

Since the introduction of ‘shared spaces’ and ‘shared surfaces’ over 10 years ago, many Access Panels have had to wage a strong defence with local authorities and Sustrans to moderate the overwhelming re-purposing of pedestrian surfaces to also cater for cyclists.  As we all know, many people with sensory and neurodivergent conditions are now very wary of using footways which were formerly safe, are now hazardous due to the speed and dominance of cyclists who don’t make allowances for people who cannot see or do not hear them approaching. The increase of electric bikes which can travel at 15mph unaided has only made the situation more difficult for pedestrians to cope with uncontrolled cycling. At several meetings, we have had to refer the so called “experts” to the RNIB, Guide Dogs for the Blind, Ideas for Ears, etc; it is very disheartening to learn that the particular needs of the visually impaired, and those with hearing challenges have not even been considered, or perhaps even completely discounted, in streetscape design.

To get back to the original article in the Disability Equality Scotland newsletter, there has been a ‘creep’ in the last few years where cyclists use any footway when it suits them legally, or not.  The Disability Equality Scoltand article mentions a package of support where temporary active travel measures will be implemented, (for example, the closure of Kelvin Way in Glasgow, and other streets) this seems to be done without looking at the bigger picture.
Let us hope that road closure actions, and other similar measures, which will adversely affect those with disabilities, will not be the new ‘normal’ in a low-carbon / COVID-19 world.

In our Panel, we are not against Active Travel as we recognise the environmental, physical and mental wellbeing benefits, even although a small number of disabled people will truly benefit from the massive resources which are being spent on it. The cost of an accessible bike is typically more than £3500, and most users will need assistance to get on and off it. This is hardly an inclusive option, nor is it an affordable one for disabled people typically on a limited budget, certainly not for leisure use.
Pedestrian areas in towns and shopping areas if engineered properly with segregated lanes for pedestrians and cyclists, do improve access for some motorised wheelchair users and parents with buggies. The problem which we have is the absolute refusal by councils and Sustrans to accept that walking or cycling and the use of public transport is not viable for many disabled people – we are the forgotten 20% of society.  Cars and the associated accessible parking, are a necessary element of an inclusive society, in order to foster and maintain a relatively independent existence, by allowing users to reach where they have to go, or want to go, without having to walk long distances.

From our meetings with Sustrans, the council and local path walking groups in Stirlingshire anecdotal comments suggest:

  • All footways are now used by cyclists; some are too narrow and are dangerous to all users.
  • Footways and pedestrian areas which are shared need to have segregated lanes for bikes and pedestrians. There should be signage for shared surfaces/spaces, speed limits and a defined etiquette, e.g., use of a warning bell, slowing down, etc.
  • The rise in popularity of e-bikes means that users can travel at up to 15mph. Rule 39 of the Highway Code limits powered wheelchairs and scooters to 4mph on pavements and public areas – e-bikes should be the same.
  • Serious cyclists don’t use off road routes as they are too slow and prefer to cycle on roads.
  • Cyclists don’t like people walking on off-road routes as it slows them down. We have a Panel member who has been knocked down twice in the last year, on a rural path, by a cyclist. Members of the public shun forest paths as cyclists don’t respect young children and can frighten them.
  • Advocates of more cycle routes, should recognise that they should be called Active Travel Routes, as they are for every user.
  • Bad driving and cycling is no different and should be addressed in the same way by the authorities.
  • Shared areas are challenging for people who are blind or have sight loss, poor hearing, use assistance dogs or suffer from neurodivergent conditions, as they cannot cope with cyclists on fast, narrow footways.
  • Active travel demand for commuting in Stirlingshire is still very low, the last census was published in 2011 and it showed 4% of bikes were being used for commuting. (The Scottish Government significantly wish to increase this figure.)

On the point of ‘wheeling’: – this recent go-to term linking people with disability and using a manual wheelchair for active travel, seems ambiguous to us as those with mobility issues may use sticks, crutches, rollators, manual wheelchairs, powered chairs and scooters. Additionally, the disability supposedly covered by the term “ wheeling “ may not be physical disability, as we know there are hidden conditions – sensory and neurodivergent.

Our Panel takes the view that this term is merely a convenient and derogatory use of an ambiguous word by organisations who don’t know how difficult it is to get about, but at the same time, are trying to give a nod to the Equality Act, and so “fulfil their obligations”.

People who use a manual wheelchair outside of the home are very few (I know of only one person), and fewer still who use a manual wheelchair just to participate in pleasurable exercise! It suggests a lack of understanding by the ‘experts’ who compile what they think disabled people should be doing.

In my world, most disabled people use a powered wheelchair or powered scooter for obvious reasons; it allows them to access areas in the built environment which they couldn’t otherwise reach. 

Covid-19 may prompt Active Travel for commuting and leisure for some sections of society, but given that one will find that the majority of Disability Equality Scotland members are self-isolating, and could be for a long time, until / if the defeat or containment of this virus allows people with disabilities the opportunity to go where they want to.

In conclusion, our Panel are glad that Disability Equality Scotland published the article as it now gives us the opportunity to give our view which we hope is a considered and balanced one. When it comes to government funding for Active Travel we continue to have legitimate concerns about rushed and ill-thought-out-measures which will negatively and permanently change streets to the detriment of people with disabilities.”