Sunday 15 November 2015

20 Years Since 'DDA'

A piece on the BBC News website about the protests in the early 1990s which brought about the Disability Discrimination Act has had me thinking.

DDA (as it has popularly been abbreviated) came into force the year I graduated with my civil engineering degree and it has been an issue always in the background for me, although in recent years it has rightly pushed its way into the foreground. I often hear people refer to things and being "DDA compliant", despite the fact that it was absorbed into the Equality Act in 2010, although I think it is a good example of how mainstream thinking about access has become.

I am not going to spend this post going through the legislation or what it means, the good people at the Equality and Human Rights Commission have done a far better job than I ever could. I am going to explore what I think this means for transport. I have referenced accessibility in transport quite a bit over the last (nearly) 3-years of blogging and if you are interested, just search "equality" and "accessible" for some more posts.

I am not suggesting that accessible streets and transport are now cracked, far from it, but there is a generation of designers and engineers which have now grown up with the concept and it does take this kind of time for change to become ingrained in the collective thinking. My first recollection of accessible transport was the Jubilee Line extension (JLE) of the London Underground which started on site when I was a student and which I used in its early years after opening in my regular visits to the Institution of Civil Engineers in Westminster, where I was involved with its Association of London Graduates & Students. 

Proper step-free on the Docklands Light Railway
The platform doors and level thresholds to the trains are memorable and in later years, I became a fan of the lifts to street level for when we took our brood for a day trip in their buggies. Even the placing and arrangement of lifts makes a difference. If you are travelling in a group, you don't want to have to hunt the lift - it should be where the stairs or escalators are placed. Also, if they are arranged to provide different entrance and exit doors, people don't need to turn round which is great for buggy pushers and wheelchair users alike - it is subtle, but these little things make a huge difference. I have appreciated the high level of accessibility on the JLE because travelling with small children reduces one's mobility and it is a prime example of how access for all really is access for all. Fast forward to Crossrail and until very recently, Transport for All (TfA) has been running a campaign to push for step-free access to this railway (i.e. train to street). 

At one point 33 of the 40 stations were planned to be step free and this is only because many London boroughs had to lobby extremely heavily when the enabling legislation was making its way through. Of course, 33 is not 40 and TfA's campaign has managed to push the number up to 37 stations (all within London) and most recently, after further pressure it was announced that all stations would be accessible. It remains shocking that the original plans didn't allow for all stations to be accessible and it just shows that we need to keep the pressure on. It costs a great deal of money to retrofit stations for accessibility, but in a modern and civilised society, this is a cost which mustn't be an obstacle to well, transport being an obstacle. Of course, we also have the DLR in London and many tram systems across the UK of a varying quality and age, but with the newest installations we have some excellent levels of accessibility.

Staying on the streets (see what I did there), I have to mention buses. In most UK cities I have visited, most buses seem to be low floor and "kneeling" (that is, the suspension can drop to bring the loading doors nearly level with the footway) and with extending ramps for wheelchair users (although the technology can still be hit and miss). Unless one is forced to catch a smoke-belching, semi-scrapped rail-replacement bus, the UK fleet is improving. The trouble is that the places where passengers are picked up and dropped off haven't kept up with the technology. I am talking about bus stops dammit!

An accessible bus stop. Photo from TfL guidance.
In London, the Mayor is throwing money at the boroughs to meet his crazy promise of 95% of bus stops in the Capital being fully accessible by 2016 (whether than is 1st January or 31st December, nobody is saying - probably the 2016/17 financial year from what I can work out!). Well, it isn't that crazy for inclusivity, but the target is tough and believe me, it is hard work surveying, consulting and building accessible bus stops. Transport for London has some good guidance on the subject, although it is a little old and is being reworked to include wider street issues.

So, onto the streets more generally. This is where the action is because so many people are trying to change things for the better, although not always for the better in terms of inclusivity. I'll start with walking. We have spent decades systematically removing walking as a viable transport mode for short journeys in our urban areas with convoluted crossings, footway parking, flooded subways, guardrail, so much clutter and traffic severance; not to mention road danger and pollution. In some ways, pedestrian infrastructure has been around a long time as we generally have footways everywhere, but the pedestrian has been marginalised by the car. 

Pedestrian Neatebox in action.
Look at some of our urban dual carriageways to see what I mean - crossings only at main junctions (with several crossings stages and green men if you are lucky) and no easy way to cross mid-block. If we actually measured the quality of our streets against the theme of DDA (as was), the results would be shocking - "reasonable adjustments" often accommodate car use! On the good news front we have seen the use of tactile paving to help people become pretty much mainstream (if not always done properly) and new technology such as "Pedestrian Neatebox" to assist people at signalised crossings gives us a glimpse of a future where the infrastructure can be tailored to the person. But, we also risk marginalising the most vulnerable in our society with our changes and by that I mean visually impaired people caught up in many of the "shared space" schemes placed on busy motor traffic corridors. 

This not a post against shared space, I have one brewing for the future. But, sharing is a matter of power and where the powerful can dominate, sharing will not be successful. So for me, the only successful shared spaces are those where the powerful are removed or substantially curtailed (in volume and speed) and that means limited, slow access for motors. This view will not sit well with some of my peers, but it needs stating. Don't take my word for it, if you do anything today spend 30 minutes watching "Sea of Change Film - Walking Into Trouble" and see and hear what the most vulnerable pedestrians have to say about how they are treated.

The East-West Cycle Superhighway under construction.
Of course, people wanting to cycle are also hugely excluded with many places in the UK suitable for only the "fit and brave" when it comes to cycling. Where routes away from traffic are provided, we confound anyone who cannot dismount or carry their cycle with barriers and gates. Use a non-standard cycle, then forget it, the infrastructure is not for you - have a look at this video to see what I mean (HT to Sally Hinchcliffe). Fortunately, we are seeing some good UK schemes now either as routes (such as the London East-West and North-South Cycle Superhighways) or at a city level such as the changes being made in Leicester. the really good stuff can be easily used by people using tricycles, handcycles, tandems and trailers and show what inclusive infrastructure design can be achieved. We need to remain careful that we don't erode the pedestrian experience otherwise what we build will be not better than the ring-road of yesteryear (at least from a walking point of view). 

DDA has done a great deal of good over the last 20 years when it comes to public transport and I think we have made great strides on our streets. But we clearly still have a long way to go. In the coming couple of years I expect to see a test case brought against a local authority under the Equality Act for barriers on either a footpath or a cycle route which cannot be used by all as sometimes this is what it takes to move the argument forward. In the mean time, we need to keep listening to the end users to make sure they are being properly accommodated.


  1. One of the more subtle things I hate when I'm a pedestrian, and there's a few in Cambridge, is junctions where the pedestrian signals on one or more arm(s) are either missing entirely, or are provided for with a separate signal controlled crossing 50-100m down the street. A descion entirely based upon motor capacity. Even the £900,000 upgrade of a junction to be more pedestrian and cyclist friendly left pedestrians wishing to cross one arm having to walk down the street and back

    1. Happens all the time and even more annoying with higher ped flows and all of those one-person cars!

  2. How about a post on pedestrian crosswalk countdowns, and their use for other traffic signals? Pedestrians have a countdown from when they are green to when they will be red. Why not expand their use to show how long the waiting time will be, same with other types of road users and their signals, including bicycle signal heads. It would give incentive for traffic managers to provide the shortest waiting times for pedestrians because now you can easily see how long the wait is. The countdown timer could be located in the amber signal head for motorists and cyclists, on the eye level lights for cyclists specifically, and for pedestrians you can use the countdown timer heads.

    1. There are these systems in place (but I am not an expert in how they all work). In Prague, I have seen pedestrian signals which countdown how long until a green and then how long to cross and in the Netherlands, bike riders can have signals which count down (a kind of disappearing circle) until the green.

  3. I think if you did that for motorists every signalised crossing or junction really would become the 'Traffic Light Grand Prix'. It is more difficult where detectors are used (e.g. UK Puffins) and which vary the time until the green, but I have Dutch colleagues who tell me it is feasible and have therefore suggested it in an NMU Audit of a signalised grade-separated junction.

    Andy R.

    1. With the UK Countdown system, if one knows the junction and can see the Countdown, one can be ready to pull away! I think there needs to be more work, especially where stand alone crossings are SCOOT connected as wait times are terrible.

  4. Thank you for the video which I've just shared with my local cycle group. My partner has to ride a trike as she has nystagmus. This means she is excluded from National Route 12 near us where the gates and barriers are suitable to extremely conventional bikes. Or NCN61 at the start of the Cole Green Way to Hertford.
    P.S: I assume you are aware DDA actually refers to Daleks as in those discriminated against in Luton?:

    1. Thanks for sharing, it is clear that people have so many different types of impairment that much of what gets put in really does exclude people and I think this will be a theme for my own learning in the coming months. I do have it clear in my mind how cycling layouts need to happen, but it is worth showing what doesn't work, but also what does.

  5. Take a look at this video: