Traditional thinking has tended to view the limitations on disabled people’s choices and life experiences purely as a consequence of the differences in their physical capabilities. The answer to those limitations would be to fix their physical limitations, which is, often, of course impossible, or to accept that they have to put up with more limited choices and quality of life than others. In recent years, however, disability advocates and government have favoured a different way of thinking, called the “social model of disability.” The social model holds that disabled people are held back, not by their bodies, but by the choices society makes about the physical environment, the world of work, social interaction and so on. Giving them more choice and opportunity requires fixing those problematic features of society.
Take a wheelchair user who cannot travel to work by train because the platforms at the local station are only accessible by stairs, and the platforms are not flush with the train doors. The barrier to their mobility is not the individual’s physical abilities: if society were prepared to invest in lifts and raising the platforms, travel would be straightforward. The issue is that society is not able or willing to invest in making all stations accessible, not that person’s physical abilities.
Applying the social model to city neighbourhoods, are Low Traffic Neighbourhoods more or less disabling than conventional neighbourhoods in which there are no constraints on vehicle use? According to the social model, a good, enabling, neighbourhood would be one in which disabled people can get around by a variety of means, and in which choices are not constrained or ruled out by features of the local environment. A poor, disabling, neighbourhood would be one in which some options disabled people might wish to choose are made unpleasant or impossible.
From that starting point, the obvious downside of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, argued frequently by their opponents, is that stopping through traffic on some streets is bad for disabled people using cars because they have to make longer journeys. How serious is the impact of that, actually?
First, the worst potential impact on any disabled person is not that they cannot make their journey at all, but that, if they are driving or being driven, their journey may take longer. (All locations in a Low Traffic Neighbourhood are accessible by vehicle.) As a consequence, it may cost more, in fuel, or fares if they are using a taxi. This leads to some inconvenience and expense, for sure, but it is not the same as not being able to make a journey at all – which sadly remains the experience of many disabled people more generally in our society because of the continued shortcomings of public transport and the design of streets and public spaces.
Second, these objections often seem to rest on an assumption that the only way people with limited mobility can get around is by motor vehicle. In fact, people with limited mobility travel less by car than the rest of the population, both as drivers and passengers (Department for Transport National Travel Survey 2019). At least as much as everyone else in society, disabled people get around by a variety of means other than motor vehicles. Contrary to the stereotypes, many people with limited mobility can and do walk, often using aids like walking sticks and rollators, often with limitations on how far and fast they can go. People who can’t walk much, or at all, can likewise travel by a variety of means: manual or powered wheelchairs, or mobility scooters, most obviously. Contrary to much received wisdom, many disabled people can and do cycle, either on conventional bikes or a variety of adapted manual or e-assist bikes. (There is a lot more information about cycling on the website of the Wheels for Wellbeing organisation.) Like everyone else, most people with limited mobility use a variety of means of transport, depending on the length and nature of their journey and personal preference.
Third, well-designed Low Traffic Neighbourhoods can reduce adverse impacts on disabled people’s vehicle journeys, for example by exemptions from camera-enforced restrictions.
None of the non-car options are, of course, adversely affected by a Low Traffic Neighbourhood. Indeed, they are likely to be safer and more pleasant than in other neighbourhoods with high volumes of through traffic. Tasks like crossing roads when there is a lot of traffic are much more difficult for disabled people walking or using mobility devices, because they usually cannot move as quickly as other people. They are more likely, as a consequence, to have to extend their journey to find a safe place to cross. In many ways, moving around on streets in residential neighbourhoods with high volumes of traffic may be more difficult than on main roads, which are engineered with features like pedestrian crossings and refuges. These real difficulties aside, like other non-motor users of streets, disabled people’s experiences of walking, cycling or travelling by chair or scooter in Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are likely to be healthier and more pleasant because of the much lower levels of fumes, noise and aggressive behaviour from drivers. To the extent disabled people feel they cannot travel actively in high traffic environments, they may be forced to make more car journeys than they otherwise would, with the associated cost and inconvenience.
In conclusion, then, Low Traffic Neighbourhoods may lead to some inconvenience and expense for disabled people, when they are travelling by vehicle. On the other hand, though, they do much to open up disabled people’s choices about how they travel, and make more pleasant the experience of getting around by means other than a motor vehicle. While each person’s experience will be different, it is strongly arguable that on balance they create a much more inclusive environment for disabled people to get around.