A thought on disability and transportation infrastructure

Every now and then, I see an argument against road diets and the like that goes something like this: “Disabled people need cars to get where they’re going, so removing car lanes and street parking to make room for bike lanes and sidewalks is being ableist!” While I am able-bodied, I feel like I’m able to debunk this argument adequately, and as I see it often enough, I felt it worth making a blog post, covering this from a few different angles.

Many people with disabilities are unable to drive

When someone makes an argument that car infrastructure is needed for people with disabilities, they’re referring specifically to people with mobility disabilities. However, there’s plenty of disabilities that make it unsafe or impossible to drive a car – vision impairments and seizure disorders are the first things that come to mind – but people with those disabilities are successfully able to navigate walkable infrastructure safely. In car-dependent areas, these people become dependent on carers, taxi services, and point-to-point bus services for transportation, whereas they can navigate walkable areas and maintain independence. In this case, insisting on car infrastructure at the expense of infrastructure for vulnerable road users, like bicycle tracks and sidewalks, is ableist to those people.

(Some people will rebut this with self-driving cars. My take on self-driving cars is that they’ll perpetually be one of those “it’s just five years away!” (well, OK, thanks to Elon Musk’s optimistic claims, “it’s just six to twelve months away!”) things, and that the problem space of self-driving a car on normal streets and roads is simply too large to solve adequately with practical technology. And, with walkable infrastructure, many of those people could have mobility today that car-centric infrastructure denies them.)

People with mobility disabilities can use active mobility infrastructure

Ever seen someone using a wheelchair on a sidewalk, or maybe in a bike path? Congratulations, you’ve seen someone using active mobility infrastructure to get around, while having a mobility disability, without needing to hop in a car. (Yes, this is a section with two (well, now, three) sentences.)

Cars can be adapted to the infrastructure, instead of the infrastructure being adapted to cars

For those that really need cars to get around, there’s types of microcar designed specifically for people with mobility disabilities. In the Netherlands, this is typified by the Waaijenberg Canta, which is designed around moped regulations. It’s 1.1 m (3.6 ft) wide, and has a top speed of about 45 km/h (28 MPH), making it compatible with some cycling infrastructure (the Netherlands has some cycling infrastructure designed to be used by mopeds in addition to bicycles). This is a case of designing the car to fit the situation, instead of changing the situation to fit the car, as we see in many cities (especially where I am, in North America).

Additionally, for those who are wheelchair-bound, microcars like this end up far cheaper than converted minivans like are common in the US for disabled people. A rear-entry wheelchair model of the Canta, with a power ramp, is €22,950 (US$26,276 as of this writing, and I believe that price is ready to drive including any applicable taxes and fees), whereas the cheapest power ramp BraunAbility conversion is US$66,840 (€58,380 as of this writing, and that price does not include taxes or fees). Sure, it’s a less capable vehicle – the wheelchair model can only hold the wheelchair-bound person, and it’s much slower – but with proper infrastructure design, you don’t *need* to haul around nearly 5000 pounds (2270 kg) at 80 MPH (130 km/h) everywhere just to get around in a wheelchair, either.


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