Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Barriers to Disabled & Family Cycling

Recently, at the at the Active Transportation Summit on June 17, I had the pleasure of speaking as a part of a panel called Breaking Down Barriers to Active Transportation: Lived Experience and Action Items for Policy Change. I thought I'd share my presentation here as well.
I live in East Vancouver with my family & have been using walking, cycling, & transit as my main modes of travel all of my adult life. I started cycling even more since I developed osteoarthritis in my hip. Cycling is much more comfortable than walking for me & actually reduces my pain levels overall. So I use my bikes as mobility devices.


I work as a instructor for HUB Cycling & teach kids & adults how to ride bikes, & how to ride safely on the road. I also organize family rides, festivals, & workshops & talk with a lot of parents who ride or want to start cycling with their children. & I sit on the City of Vancouver's Transportation Advisory Committee

Before we go any further, some definitions of two types of cycle I'm going to be talking about: an adaptive cycle is a two or three wheeled cycle or an attachment that goes on a wheelchair that can allow people with disabilities to ride. Some may have electric assist & some may be operated by pedaling with the hands rather than the feet. These bikes are often wider, longer, & heavier than a typical bike.

Photo: Gabrielle Peters

By cargo bike, I mean a two or three wheeled cycle that is designed to carry large items & passengers. They may have a large box or rack in front or back, & are longer, sometimes slightly wider, & always heavier than a typical bike. Many are also electric assist.




You might be wondering why I'm talking about two seemingly disparate categories of cycling, but there are barriers they have in common as well as some overlap between the disabled cycling community & the cargo biking community.

My kids are neurodiverse, & this means that while they are physically capable of cycling, they are not always able to do it. It isn't always possible to predict when they will be unable to ride safely, so having a cargo bike means I can carry them & their bikes as needed. If I didn't have a cargo bike, I'd need to spend a lot more time on transit, or spend thousands of dollars a year that we don't have to own a vehicle.

My family is not alone in this; I know many other people--mainly women, as we still do the majority of the caregiving work in families--who are able to ride with their older children because cargo bikes can carry teen & adult sized passengers. Like My friend Kath here in these two photos, who rides with her children, one of whom is not able to ride on his own due to his disability.

Photo: Bill Schultheiss

Photo: Madi Carlson
















Being able to use an adaptive bike for transportation rather than transit or paratransit (like Handidart here in Vancouver), taxis can mean a huge time savings, not to mention the ability to get exercise, fresh air, connect with other people & all the other benefits that cycling brings. Everyone should be able to cycle if they want to.

So here is my list of four barriers to disabled & family cycling, in no particular order.


I suspect I'm preaching to the choir, but biking in amongst multi-tonne vehicles doesn't feel comfortable to most, & it can be downright terrifying for many people. Just as we have sidewalks to separate pedestrians from motor vehicle traffic, we need physical separation for cyclists so that children, seniors, disabled people, & less confident riders will feel & be safer. We need more all ages & abilities infra like this everywhere, including the main roads where people need to go for medical appointments, shopping, socializing.
These cycle routes need to be wide enough to accommodate cargo & adaptive cycles. Narrow paths with bollards or railing style diverters like in this image make it dangerous or impossible to get through with non-standard cycles. Poor pavement surface, or even curbs or stairs that are part of a cycle route can be completely inaccessible for people using adaptive or cargo cycles.

When there is road work or a special event happening that impacts bike facilities, municipalities or construction companies often put up signs requiring cyclists to dismount & walk. This is difficult to impossible for disabled cyclists & can also be difficult for riders carrying children on seats on their cycles.

I wanted to highlight some statistics from the UK as I couldn’t find similar from Canada
Wheels for Wellbeing National Survey of Disabled Cylists in the UK 2017

  • 1 in 3 disabled cyclists had been asked to dismount and walk their cycle even though they were using it as a mobility aid
  • A majority of disabled cyclists (69%) said they find cycling easier than walking, which we know is often the case because cycling reduces strain on the joints, aids balance and alleviates breathing difficulties
  • Inaccessible cycling infrastructure is the biggest difficulty encountered by disabled cyclists.


I love how cycle racks are usually very close to the door of the business or office I'm going to, so I don't have to walk as far. Unfortunately, most of these racks don't accommodate cargo cycles or adaptive cycles well: larger & wider cycles can only easily be locked at the end of most racks because they're designed for typical bikes that are only wide at the handlebars. Individual inverted U style racks are much more accommodating to all types of cycles & if properly spaced, they allow much easier access for riders with mobility issues.

With bike theft rampant in the city, Locking a bike outside to a rack tends to work fine for a quick stop at a store or cafe or appointment, but leaving a bike regularly for a full day or night outside at a publicly accessible rack is a huge theft risk. Secure storage like bike rooms or lockers are crucial, yet many multi unit buildings & workplaces do not have adequate bike rooms & many buildings have strict rules against bringing bikes inside, or installing racks in car parking spaces or leaving essential equipment like pumps & tools in the garage.

Getting in & out of buildings, through turns in halls, & in elevators can also be difficult or impossible with adaptive or cargo bikes.

For electric assist bikes, like mobility scooters, finding a place to park them & charge them can be a challenge.

Unsurprisingly, larger, stronger cargo bikes & specialized adaptive cycles are expensive, costing more than ordinary bikes, sometimes over $10,000. The government has not incentivized the purchase of cycles in any way with rebates or even just eliminating sales taxes, despite giving thousands of dollars at people who can afford expensive electric CARS.

Grants for adaptive cycles are a patchwork of few & far between with a lot of hoops to jump through to get them & may not cover the full cost.

A partial solution to storage & cost is not to own a cycle, but to use cycleshare. I'd like to applaud Mobi for introducing their Community Pass to make a $20/year membership available to lower income residents. But the service area is still limited. Cycleshare here in Vancouver does not have any adaptive cycles or any that can carry children.


Even if cycleshare included some adaptive cycles, like in this example of a free cycleshare in a National Park in the Netherlands. All the bikes had one or two child seats, there were smaller bikes for kids to ride & some adaptive cycles as well.

However, the reason this is a "partial solution" is because a "one size does not fit all"; an adaptive hand trike, for example, may work for some people, but many disabled people will require a customized fit. For people who use larger assistive devices like wheelchairs or walkers, transferring to a cycle at a cycleshare station may not be possible & where are they going to leave their chair or walker?

There are some great Organizations like Cycling Without Age, or seasonal programs like Blind Beginnings Buddy Up Tandem Cycling Club can help people with disabilities do a limited amount of recreational riding, but not the kind of day-to-day transportation cycling that owning a cycle or having 24-7 access via cycleshare can accomplish.





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