Tag Archives: mobility

Stumps and Cranks – Sonia Sanghani

A review on behalf of Wheels for Wellbeing.

Every time I pick this book up I linger over the cover, looking at the variety of cycles and the people riding them. It’s rare to see a publication on cycling give equal billing to handcycles and trikes, and possibly rarer still to show the people riding them on an equal footing with other cyclists, making this a unique and lovely example of how to represent people in general and disabled people in particular.

Billed as an ‘Introduction to Amputee Cycling’, Stumps & Cranks is comprehensive in its scope covering just about every aspect of cycling from scratch. Beginning with why an amputee should cycle at all, through all the various types of cycles, adaptions and prosthetics, and finishing with the paralympics, cyclocross and some of the challenges that stretch the more adventurous amputees, including the daily exploits of Wheels for Wellbeing’s very own Jim Bush in Croydon. Just cycling around South London can be challenging at times and I like the kind of variety covered here in people’s personal goals and achievements. An arm amputee being able to cycle to the market in Vietnam and carry 50 kilos of vegetables is a challenge to begin with, and the sense of independence and self-worth in getting the shopping home is just as rewarding as riding across a continent. Not that there’s anything wrong with endurance rides – a touchstone throughout the book is how a cycling goal can serve as a useful proxy for mental and physical recovery whatever the route or destination.

These personal experiences of amputees are a major feature, the author having cast her net far and wide to include people from all over the world with a variety of amputations. I particularly enjoyed the contributions from places I’ve never cycled – who knew there was a Disabled Cycle Messenger Service in Afghanistan? And although I’m no beginner, as a cyclist or an amputee, I discovered things that were new to me like the ‘bum brake’ – slide bottom backwards to stop – and GlideWear patches for skin protection. Along with suggestions of further reading and things to try, each chapter comes with a short “Did you know?” section. One of the things I didn’t know is that a disabled German clockmaker invented what we would recognise today as a handcycle all the way back in 1655! If he invented a time machine too expect to see him gatecrashing this year’s “200 Years of the Bicycle” celebrations.

I was tempted to skip the chapter on nutrition – no mention of cake – but I’m glad I didn’t because I would have missed the story of a Swiss farmer who lost both arms to a baling machine and now rides an adapted recumbent trike. There wasn’t enough detail about the adaptions enabling him to steer and brake to satisfy my curiosity, however, because a web address is listed for many of the contributors it’s possible to get in touch and ask questions directly.

The list of contributors concludes with a request for more amputee cyclists to get in touch through the website, suggesting this is still a work in progress. I spotted a couple of things that slipped through the net if there should be a future edition – the swinging crank adaption and an amputee who cycles following a hemipelvectomy. Also, I couldn’t help noticing the use of ’bicycle’ to mean any type of cycle; it’s quite a common usage, particularly in International English and although within these pages it’s clear that things other than bicycles do exist, I would suggest the more inclusive term ‘cycle’ is preferable.

Possibly because it is so comprehensive, with sections on how to fix bikes and how to read maps as well as how to eat, I came away feeling that the book hadn’t quite reached its destination. Something was missing, something that eventually becomes part of cycling life for many who take it up – how to make cycling better. Riding in heavy traffic is covered in the final pages; a fact of cycling life that most people find stressful and unpleasant if not frightening and life-threatening. For many disabled cyclists, and some amputees, getting off and walking isn’t an option when things get too difficult or barriers make it impossible to continue, and that shouldn’t be a part of the challenge. For those situations changing the environment is the only option, so I think pointing people towards campaign organisations working to make cycling better, and in particular working to make cycling as inclusive as it is on the cover, would put the cherry on the cake.

Nevertheless, this plugs a large gap in contemporary cycling literature and I imagine it’s been quite a journey for the author – to go from non-cycling amputee to curator and writer of an authoritative book on the subject in the space of a couple of years is remarkable in itself. I hope the cycling is going as well. It also raises questions about gaps that may still exist. There’s an overlap between amputees and other types of disability – the same technical solution can work for similar capabilities  – but as far as I know, what works for other types of disability and the experiences of those disabled people has yet to be gathered, recorded and made accessible in a similar way.

Verdict: A great addition to the inclusive cycling book shelf and if the cover art isn’t already available as a print it should be!

Crossing Cycle Tracks

I used to despise blister paving. Sounds extreme now, but when it began to appear, seemingly out of nowhere, that response felt fully justified. At the time any lumps and bumps could be problematic, but when someone went out of their way to design what was for me a hazard and place it my path without any consideration for how it would affect me, it elevated tactile paving into a more significant issue than all the existing crap I had to deal with.

It was a long time in coming – almost thirty years – but a solution eventually arrived that eliminated most of the problems I encountered with tactile paving and all the other flat-on-my-face hazards to do with surface variation and slopes. That was in 2009 and it came in the form of a new type of knee for my prosthesis1 which, other limitations notwithstanding, gave me the ability and the confidence to go pretty much anywhere in an urban environment because I could trust it not to collapse.

What’s that got to do with crossing cycle tracks? Aside from the link between blister paving and crossing points, it’s an experience I can draw on to understand how someone might react when their environment is adversely altered having not been consulted. One such example being the RNIB’s response to TfL’s proposed changes outside its offices in Judd Street.

Cycling advocates will be familiar with trying to draw what they consider to be a safe cycle network onto a map of their local area. The parts that qualify are often so few and far between that any network is almost nonexistent, or so fractured there are only one or two complete routes and those require a lot of local knowledge to find and follow. I imagine there must be people carrying out the same exercise to assess and map walking networks for blind people, with similar outcomes, but with an added investment in time and effort to memorise the routes with far fewer cues as to location. Disrupting a popular, safe cycle route is going to trigger an emotive response, so no surprise that threatening to disrupt an important link in the mobility network of blind people elicits the same.

Yet the RNIB’s response did surprise cycling advocates. Despite subjective safety being a well understood concept in cycling circles, statistical arguments about the reduction in motor vehicle movements were being used to counter the objections, and the significance of replacing a pelican crossing with a zebra crossing was completely missed. The conclusion I draw from that is transport planners and cycling advocates are not attuned to, or are misunderstanding, what blind people perceive to be a safe environment.

For a typical pedestrian, crossing a ‘filtered’ Judd Street is likely to be a trivial task; making use of the pelican crossing without waiting to activate it or probably not using it at all and following a desire line. For a blind pedestrian in a street with a lot of cycle traffic the need for a safe crossing point with a safe crossing time isn’t going to disappear with the motor traffic, and listening to the comments of blind people a significant proportion of them do not consider zebra crossings to be sufficiently safe. In 2014 Guide Dogs commissioned a report Road and street crossings for blind and partially sighted people which is subtitled The importance of being certain – and that’s the key point, the lack of certainty in when it’s safe to step off the pavement means zebra crossings are not considered a subjectively safe solution by blind people.

That doesn’t only hold for a filtered Judd Street, it will also apply to a bus stop bypass. I hear through the grapevine that a working group of stakeholders have found that evidence gathered to date from monitoring bus stop bypasses shows that they are not inherently dangerous. That’s good news, however, if blind people are avoiding these bus stops because they don’t consider them to be safe, they are effectively excluded from the evidence base being considered. It’s essentially the same argument cycling advocates use to explain the lack of underrepresented groups cycling in a hostile environment – a lack of subjective safety leads to self exclusion and no amount of stats proving how safe it is for the people who do cycle, or training in how they do it, significantly alters that.

What would make crossing a cycle track subjectively safe for a blind person? The obvious answer is the thing blind people keep asking for, a signal controlled crossing, but currently I would guess there isn’t a design that suits the smaller scale of a bus stop bypass. So what might a small-scale signal controlled crossing look like?

buzzingbusstopbypassdiagram

The image above is a view of an informal crossing at a bus stop bypass on Blackfriars Road. The camera is looking towards St George’s Circus, the asphalt cycle track running between the pavement and the bus stop is about 3m wide and rises to pavement level at the buff coloured, perpendicular informal crossing, which is also about 3m wide. It’s not a busy bus stop and I’ve chosen it simply because it suits my purpose and the photo was easy to lift from Twitter – thanks @Phil_PJA!

I’ve superimposed a partial cross-section onto the photograph showing the components embedded within the street surface that might make up this imagined controlled crossing – there are no poles. Most people would continue to use it as an informal crossing, but blind people in particular could activate it to stop cycle traffic and find out when it’s safe to cross. Here’s how the crossing might operate with reference to the standard components that are being replaced or altered:

  • The button: a person activates the controlled crossing by standing on the pressure sensitive blister paving panel. The panel vibrates to acknowledge the user request to cross.
  • The stop light: a strip of red LEDs embedded in the cycle track flash to stop approaching cycles.
  • The motion sensor: the LED strip contains a motion sensor to determine when it’s safe to cross. (This is an additional function compared to existing signal controlled crossings and is possibly overkill – the existing time delay before the next step is probably sufficient.)
  • The tactile knob and audible beep: The blister paving panel vibrates and beeps for as long as it takes to cross, after which the red LEDs stop flashing.

The proposed pressure sensitive, vibrating, beeping, blister paving panels (acronym required) on either side of the crossing would contain the control circuitry and be solar powered. This self contained design has the potential to keep the cost of installation to a minimum and the technology used already exists:

  • Solar City are manufacturing roof tiles with a process that would probably suit blister paving. Could a non-slip surface be incorporated too?
  • The force sensing and vibration is a scaled up version of Apple’s taptic engine. Would vibrating a whole human be too tall an order for it?
  • Motion sensing’s nothing new, assuming it can be tuned sufficiently to reliably sense approaching cyclists.
  • Embedded lighting has been used to stop motor vehicles at cycle crossings in the Netherlands.
  • In addition to the crossing functionality the blister paving panels could integrate beacons to aid navigation forming part of a network throughout towns and cities.

Could it work? At this year’s Disability Studies Conference one of the authors of the Guide Dogs report mentioned earlier, Bryan Matthews, presented a paper Where To Go Next? Technology and visually impaired people’s mobility in which he advised some caution in relying on technological solutions that require users to equip themselves with additional devices. Expense, complexity, reliability and sensory overload being some of the reasons that mean seemingly promising solutions may not work as well as first envisaged. What I’m proposing here, like my new knee, is a technological solution, but it doesn’t rely on the user having an additional device or on a third-party’s system. It’s essentially a reconstruction of an existing solution.

How might its feasibility be tested? PAMELA springs to mind. Back in April, Mobility for an Ageing Population included a tour of the Pedestrian Accessibility & Movement Environment Laboratory in Tufnell Park, which as well as being a research facility seemed to have people with all the skills needed to put something like this together. I can’t see the obvious flaw – yet – but there could be any number of reasons why it wouldn’t be successful in practice: counterintuitive; confusing; the vibrations spook guide dogs; the electronics drown in flash floods; not enough incident light to power it. Whatever the outcome though, I’m convinced a more inclusive solution than the ones currently available is required.

Architects and planners have been pursuing an uncluttered place-making aesthetic, loosely referred to as Shared Space, giving little apparent thought to, or making false assumptions about, how people with different constraints and capabilities will move through these places safely and efficiently. I’ve deliberately taken into account this emphasis on place-making with a visually unobtrusive design, while at the same time (I hope) maintaining a clear, formal method to interact with other modes (people on bikes, in cars, etc) for those pedestrians who need it in order to feel comfortable with using the space. In this case it’s a bus stop bypass, but the same could be applied to other contexts such as Exhibition Road or Frideswide Square.

Bearing in mind the cost of granite paving, surely it’s possible to design pleasant places to be without having to sacrifice anybody’s mobility and independence. Should anyone in the business get this far, consider that a gently tossed gauntlet.

 


  1. The prosthetic limb I used at the time was functionally the same as those in the 50s when the ‘Canadian’ design for hip disarticulation was first developed by Colin McLaurin. It was revolutionary because it employed a free hip joint and a free knee joint. Prior to that the hip joint, and often the knee joint, would be locked when walking and then released to move from a standing to a sitting position. The advantage is a more normal gait and a better stride length. The disadvantage is a greater risk of falling. It’s stability – my stability – depends on maintaining a small angle of about 5 to 10 degrees at the knee whenever the limb is weight bearing. The technical term is hyperextension – just beyond straight, the way knees don’t like to bend. Things that can affect that are not taking a full stride so the heel strikes the ground before the knee has reached the stable hyperextended position which can happen when trying to walk in a crowd or just shuffling weight from foot to foot when standing around at a checkout or a bus stop say. That can be bad enough on flat surfaces, but add some local surface variation and it introduces the possibility of the foot rocking on a bump and changing the knee angle. Slopes are also a problem, and because blister paving often forms part of a drop-kerb the combination of bumps and slope make it particularly troublesome. For above knee amputees it’s possible to manage stability at the knee joint by forcing the thigh backwards to maintain hyperextension, but with no thigh there’s a double whammy; not only can you not force the knee into a stable position, you can’t feel it moving into an unstable position in the first place. Small movements of the hip joint and the knee joint can’t be felt and because both are effectively free hinges it only takes a tiny force to make them rotate. The only indication that it’s happened is the subsequent fall. 

Disabled cyclists in England: imagery in policy and design

Kevin Hickman (2015) Disabled cyclists in England: imagery in policy and design. Proceedings of the ICE – Urban Design and Planning. Published here (access-controlled). Pdf for personal non-commercial use here.

Things have moved on a little since I submitted the above titled abstract to the ICE journal Urban Design and Planning for a themed edition on disabilities, vulnerable road users and navigation of the urban environment. However, as this Design Manual being consulted on at the moment demonstrates, it remains relevant.

My thanks to the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, to British Cycling and to Sustrans for permission to use images from their documents; to Wheels for Wellbeing, Ann Wright, Caroline Waugh and Martin Symons for the pictures; and to Rachel Aldred for the initial advice and encouragement.

I hope the paper proves useful.

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words – and more besides

Around the time I began taking an interest in how cycling is depicted graphically, I saw a presentation at the 2013 Cycling and Society Symposium that opened my mind to how a subtext can be conveyed in, and gleaned from, images. The slides aren’t available, but from memory, and my scant notes, I recall Peter Cox speaking around some excerpts from the CTC Gazette during the interwar years which included a number of Frank Patterson drawings. Continue reading

Bloody Bicycle Week!

BikeWeek2015

“The bicycle takes gold, silver AND bronze in the race to normalise riding a bike, everyday, for everyone, as long as  you’re on two wheels.”

I’m never quite sure who’s managing Bike Week each year, but I think I’m on fairly solid ground when I say that this year, 2015, the year that they’re officially wrapping up involvement in their latest Inclusive Cycling project, that it’s our national cycling charity the CTC.

I’ve been pointing out this mismatch between words and imagery to anyone who’ll listen for over two years and now I’m tired. Tired that despite great, dedicated people within CTC fighting our corner, the bicycle reigns supreme in any national imagery. Would it kill anyone to draw a picture of a handbike or a trike? Of course not. And that makes the continuous refusal to do so unacceptable.

So here’s the finger CTC. I resign my membership forthwith.

Foreign Fieldwork

Keep Right! Does Copenhagen’s success as a cycling city derive from the rigorous application of this simple rule?

That, until I missed the deadline for abstracts, was the title of my submission to this year’s Cycling and Society Symposium. So waste not want not, longer than an abstract but far from finalised, here’s where I currently am post-processing a three day study tour in and around Copenhagen.

I stayed in the fabled City of Cyclists for four nights in an apartment in a harbourside development in Christianshavn. Every morning I got up early and entered the flow of bike traffic circulating around the city’s central streets, copying what everyone else did, getting a feel for how it ‘works’ there, until it was time to follow my GPS back to that day’s meeting point and join the rest of the group. This train of thought is largely concerned with cycling on the busy stuff.

CPHSchoolRun

You quickly learn to keep right on a busy bike track as a newbie from a lefty-land, and that’s where you’ll find the kindergarten kids cycling to school on their own bikes, with either a parent giving a helping hand alongside or shadowing directly behind. Once you’re amongst the crowd on the correct side of the street, ‘keep right!’ isn’t something you need to give any conscious thought to – you have the visual indicators of the pavement on one side and the road on the other. Pavement slow and objectively safe, road fast and subjectively scary, and within the bike track itself an effective gradient of increasing speed running out from the pavement towards the road. I don’t think the kids or I were putting any mental effort into trying to remember our right from our left – we were just instinctively staying out of the way by keeping to the edge. Continue reading

Plus Ça Change

I’ve been invited to the Big Cycling Debate on Monday and was asked to submit a question to the panel of MPs representing the three ‘main’ parties:

“The Get Britain Cycling report contains many images of bicycles on the cover and within its pages. Should it be more accurately titled Get Britain Bicycling?”

I was asked by CTC to submit a different question – referring to a 2 year old report from the last big cycling debate involving parliamentarians has no relevance to their respective policy positions on cycling. I guess things must have moved on.

This is the invite to the event.

big_cycling_debate_invitation_final copy

I started counting bicycles in the images of cycling policy and design documents last year and it’s turned me into an annoying little boy who can’t see the Emperor’s New Lycra. Every time a new one appears, the big cycling orgs stand around it, nodding appreciatively, and I’m left pointing and stuttering “b-b-but…”

What’s odd is I know for a fact that four of the organisations endorsing this debate are actively trying to do something for the riders of trikes, handbikes, tandems, tagalongs, cargobikes, etc (CTC alone held two Inclusive Cycling conferences this week) but ask one of them to come up with an image to represent ‘cycling’ in the national media and all of that’s forgotten. In fact I’m not sure why I’ve been invited.

Cycling: the more it changes, the more it stays the same.