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Midlothian Disability Access Panel

Mike Harrison, MSc BA BA ARCO(CHM) Dip.Theol. DPSE(IT).

Earlier this year in conjunction with Living Streets I made a seven minute video which has been titled 'Edinburgh access'. The idea was to take a journey which I regularly make and illustrate some of the pitfalls (or should it be potholes) that a journey by wheelchair encounters. Within a route of about 750m I managed to find examples of most of the common problems. And 'common problems' is the key phrase – these can be found anywhere.

To accompany the video, I thought it might be worth putting together a few notes here.

Surfaces

The perfect surface is a dance floor or a shopping mall. There are one or two streets in Edinburgh which are laid with very high quality granite slabs which are very well aligned and almost up to the dance floor quality, but in general paving slabs tend to be badly aligned and spaced. Travelling on some is like being on a train in the days before welded track ("diddly-dum diddly-dum diddly-dum" remember that?).

Setts are a problem. Firstly because many have a concave surface and there is a lot of rolling resistance so it's physically very hard work and difficult to maintain direction, but also sometimes they are laid with a large space between each one which is not filled with either mortar or sand or anything else and it is possible to get a wheel jammed in the gap – the same problem that cyclists have with Setts, you have to travel diagonally. I love them aesthetically, and they are very practical in that they are almost indestructible (the Setts in my street in Leith had been there for nearly 200 years without needing any maintenance), but they don't make for an easy or comfortable journey. Even the rows of decorative Setts in Jarnac Court provide a bumpy ride.

Midlothian Council does not maintain its tarmac pavements to the same level as it does the roads. From my house to my doctors' surgery I travel almost the whole way on the road because the tarmac pavement is so badly maintained that it's almost impossible to propel a wheelchair along it. About two years ago the stretch of pavement between my house and the nearest bus stop was re-tarmaced, and admittedly it is better than it was, but it was done by hand and compared to a road surface is still very uneven. If cars had to travel on it at a normal speed they would say it was unacceptable, but it seems to be regarded as okay for wheelchairs.

Interfaces between pavement and road

Pavements are not continuous. They are interrupted at side streets and entrances to other premises including drives to private houses. Ideally there would be a smooth ramp between the different heights. In practice there is very often a vertical gap. There is a problem here because blind people do like to have a small upstand to know when they have reached the interface between the pavement and road but wheelchair users like it to be smooth. There is a recommended height of 6 mm which can go up to 12 mm, but mini-steps of 30 or 40 mm are quite common. An athletic person in a standard wheelchair can quite easily bounce up one of these, but a lot of us can't. Sometimes the gradient between road and pavement is too steep to manage going upwards, and also when combined with a gutter in the road can be a danger going downwards that instead of running down the ramp and going out into the road the front wheels get stuck in the gutter with the risk of being catapulted out of the chair face down into the road.

Another feature of these ramps is that, where there is a light controlled pedestrian crossing, very often the button is situated so that you have to be on the ramp before you can press the button. So there is a complicated manoeuvre of turning onto the ramp, getting into a position where the button can be reached, putting the brakes on, reaching out to the button, then manoeuvring away from the side to get into a better position for making the crossing when the lights change. Who would think that crossing a road could be so complicated?

Just as a final thought on this, tactile paving is now de rigueur at crossings and greatly appreciated by the visually impaired, but for chair users – especially at the end of a crossing when you are wanting to get back up to pavement level – you have the additional rolling resistance of the tactile surface as you are trying to go uphill onto the pavement.

Obstructions

The worst example I can give is Home Street in Edinburgh (the stretch including the Cameo Cinema between Lochrin Place and Thorniebank. In a 60m length of street it comprises: Large road direction sign on two poles, bike racks, pole with bus information, telephone distribution box, 'no waiting' pole, bustracker pole, two-pole bus-stop sign, bus-ticket machine, cigarette litter bin, another two parking signs, three telephone boxes, flower shop with buckets on the pavement, usually two or three wheelie bins and a few A-boards. Half of the street is a marked bus stop with double red lines but… Can you imagine what negotiating this street is like for someone with a visual impairment?

The street furniture includes:

  • Posts - lamp posts, sign posts, parking restriction posts.
  • Bins – litter, shop trade waste (many and varied).
  • Ticket machines - bus tickets, parking tickets.
  • Telephone boxes
  • Shops spilling out onto the pavement with displays of in particular vegetables or hardware
  • Cafes spilling out onto the pavement with tables, chairs and windbreaks
  • Shops putting out A-boards often multiple ones spread across the pavement
  • Scaffolding (sometimes even blocking dropped kerbs)
  • Cars partly on the pavement (much better to block the pavement, we can't have them blocking the road!)

And finally of course, PEOPLE! They shouldn't be allowed on the pavement! They stop, start, change direction, move about randomly, look at their phones or their music systems while they're walking about, walk straight out of shops without looking. It's good job they don't do all this while they are in cars or there would be twice as many accidents. It's one of the small miracles that people can move about in a crowded street generally without bumping into each other, just small movements, a little sidestep and people can avoid contact. They do it instinctively and most of the time it works. What they don't realise is that a wheelchair is one square metre of moving metal and sidestepping is something it doesn't do. In a way I feel safer on the road, but the car drivers don't like it.

Life is fun on the streets and fortunately the things I’ve listed here don't all happen at once, but they do all happen at one time or another. If you know me, you will know that I’m not a moaner, so don't get me wrong but one of the things we try to do on the Disability Access Panel is make sure that not only are streets places where people want to be and feel safe but also can be used most conveniently and beneficially by all.

If you wish more information about Midlothian Access Panel or are interested in joining the Midlothian Access panel please contact:
Mike Harrison, MSc BA BA ARCO(CHM) Dip.Theol. DPSE(IT)
Tel: Telephone logo 0131 448 0930
Email: email symbol Mike Harrison mike@mahprojects.co.uk
Midlothian Disability Access Panel chairman@middap.org.uk

Lorna Roarty, Secretary to the Panel
Tel: Telephone logo 0771 247 1474 or
Email: email symbol lroarty270565@sky.com

Or visit the website www.middap.org.uk

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