Freedom on Wheels: Why cycling infrastructure design needs to take account of handcyclists too

In the third of our guest blogs in the run up to Saturday’s workshop, Ken Talbot explains how unthinking design can lead to barriers which could prevent many thousands of people from true freedom of mobility. Our previous posts were from Sally Hinchcliffe, on her eye opening experiences over the summer, and Kirsty Lewin on how her bike is her mobility aid.

Super KenFreedom: That’s what mobility is. In the years that I’ve been handcycling and coaching handcycling I’ve met many people who say that handcycling is freedom. The sense of freedom is one of the most amazing feelings you can ever have, and when it’s taken from you it can be one of the most restrictive burdens you can experience. But, getting it back: that is truly stunning.

I’ve seen the evolution of that freedom. As an able-bodied person, I had an industrial injury where my mobility became more and more limited, and continues to do so due to Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. I’ve evolved from being able to walk, run, and ride a bike, to using a walking stick, then crutches, and then using a wheelchair. At each transition I had to reset my way of thinking about my ability and where I could go and what I could do, and it’s surprising how much mental energy that takes, and how often I got it wrong and get stuck.

But the problem with getting it wrong and getting stuck is rarely whether or not I can physically get somewhere under my own power. Sure, steep hills are a problem, but the big problem is the barriers that I, and others like me face as disabled people. In a wheelchair, a steep ramp, steps(s), uneven surfaces, and a lack of dropped curbs can all limit basic access. And these are all things that, when I was able-bodied, I didn’t give a second thought to because they didn’t slow me down at all.

Mountain Handcycling
Mountain handcycling

A few years ago I took up handcycling and I went from that restrictive burden of being disabled to finding freedom all over again. But in the years I’ve been riding I’ve often had to give up that freedom again.

As a handcyclist, when I and my riding colleagues all over the country are in our bikes, these become our wheelchairs; and as cyclist, we are presented with even more challenges to accessing routes and paths. The bikes are low to the ground and can become grounded on seemingly simple objects such as steep or sharp road transitions and speedbumps. They are long and have exceptionally large turning circles so tight corners and chicane gates can prevent access. Similarly, handcycles are wide so bollards can also prevent access.  And kissing gates, latched gates or any other obstacle that requires anyone to be able to walk or lift their bike… those are out of the question when you can’t get off and carry your bike. Even reaching the height of a button at a pedestrian/ cycle crossing can be impossible depending on your disability.

Ken on his handcycle
Ken handcycling

So, why would this be and who are handcyclists anyway? Handcycling is very much like traditional cycling except that you are sitting in a recumbent position and pedal using your arms and hands. People who generally take up the activity include (but aren’t limited to) those with paralysis, amputees, individuals with  arthritis, brain injuries, cancer or people like me with severe chronic pain. And why do people take up handcycling? Pleasure, socialisation, fitness, rehab, commuting… in fact, handcyclist usually ride for the very same reasons as any other cyclist, we just pedal differently.

But the nature of our bikes and our disabilities, in combination with certain barriers in infrastructure design can often prevent us from cycling just as any other person would. But why should be concerned about access for handcyclists? Well, if you look at a small section of our riders you can find these stats:

  • According to Aspire, “Using the NHS’s own statistics, as well as data from other countries, the charities estimate that the number of people injured or diagnosed with a life-changing spinal cord injury in the UK is 2,500 per year, whilst the total number of people living with a spinal cord injury in the UK is 50,000.”
  • Between the years 1981 and 2013, on average 1,595 people had a lower limb amputation in Scotland.
  • 800,000 people in Scotland are affected by chronic pain. In particular with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome one of two variants affects 1.2 children (5-15 years) in every 100,000. In adults, while the figures are vague, there are approximately 5.5 – 26.2 cases diagnosed per 100,000 people.

But what do all these figures mean? Even after looking only at a small cross section of potential handcyclist, we can see that the figures mean that there are a lot of disabled people out there, and potentially a lot who are candidates for handcycling. Interesting too, potentially, any one of these conditions from paralysis, to amputation, to chronic pain could affect any one of us at some point in our lives. I never thought I’d have CRPS, nor did I even know it existed until I started to experience it. I’m certain my paralysed or amputee friends never thought they’d be paralysed or have to lose a limb either.

Why is this important, particularly with cycling and cycling infrastructure? With so many disabled people out there, it’s important that they, we, remain part of society though social activities and remain fit though physical activities and cycling is an ideal way to do it. It’s well know that cycling is less physically demanding than many other outdoor activities, and the endorphins generated are hugely beneficial.  Remaining both socially and physically fit is not only empowering but it has the potential of reducing the reliance on the NHS for further health complications as well. But equally importantly, if we build our cycling infrastructure to allow access to disabled people, we build it accessible to all people; able-bodied, elderly, and children. And if you happen to find yourself in a position like me, where in the middle of your life your freedom is taken away… if the cycling infrastructure is already in place you can find your freedom again without even thinking.

Ken Talbot is a two-time world record-holding handcyclist and handcycling advocate.

3 thoughts on “Freedom on Wheels: Why cycling infrastructure design needs to take account of handcyclists too

  1. Ken.

    Thanks for this. It’s a great blog and I’m going to share it far and wide. I presume the main reason we see so few handcyclists around is that the infrastructure makes it really challenging. In Portobello we don’t even have dropped kerbs onto the Promenade at the majority of the access points (despite asking for over a year). Designers, decision makers and enforcers need to pay much more attention to two of the issues you mention: freedom and the opportunity to socialise. My bike is my passport to freedom and most of my friends cycle. Without cycling I would languish at home and probably fall into depression. If we can sort out the infrastructure for people with disabilities, and the associated policy environment, we should have much happier, fitter and mobile communities.


    1. Hi Kirsty,

      There are a large number of reasons why we see so few handcyclsits. Dropped curbs and access is certainly one of them. If you can’t access areas on your bike, it’s certainly not going to encourage you to get out riding. Plus, if you’re given the choice of a main road or the Portobello Promenade and only the road is accessible, that’s the route that you’ll have to take. But, it might ot be the enjoyable option, an thus not encourage you. Also, as a rider, you might not feel safe riding in traffic, particularly if you are a new rider, or perhaps out with your family. So yes, the infrastructure does prevent handcycling in a number of areas. I can completely understand how you’d feel without cycling. You’re spot on, nearly every disabled person who I’ve asked what a handcycling means to them responds with, “freedom.”

  2. Ken, working on expanding your riding range, as I highlighted on Saturday.

    The newest Scotrail electric trains both have bike spaces that are around 2.4m long (5 tip-up seats) and we press for a wider gap between the draught screens, this and similar detailing on the wheelchair/accessible toilet areas, should make it possible to get around with a ‘mobility aid’ cycle more widely, especially across Central Scotland from Ayr to North Berwick.

    A less known detail is that the luggage hold space on many coaches is full width and 80-100cm high, that width is around 2.4m – we’ve tested and a tandem fits.

    A few things to have in reserve, for when cycling might not be the option available for part of a journey.

Comments are closed.