Cycling infrastructure that’s accessible to “everyone from 8 to 80 and beyond”

Wheels for Wellbeing Opinion: Why active travel and disability organisations need to align behind the catchphrase “everyone from 8 to 80 and beyond” to ensure routes are accessible for everyone.

Graphic titled “language matters in accessible design” has two squares side by side. In the left square, a picture of an older child riding a bike is below the words “suitable for a sensible 12-year-old”. In the right picture, pictures of people of all ages using a range of cycles and other mobility aids – including the same child riding a bike – surround the words “suitable for everyone, from 8 to 80 and beyond”. The Wheels for Wellbeing and My Cycle My Mobility Aid logos are in the bottom centre of each picture.

 Key points

  1. When governments and organisations say who they think routes should be designed for, they’re also suggesting who they are prepared to exclude from making independent local journeys.
  2. Society’s assumptions about the mobility of young children, older adults and others with comparable access needs including Disabled people, directly affect whether these groups of people will be able to make independent journeys for work, education, errands, caring, leisure and social activities.
  3. Everyone, including designers and decision makers, is influenced by the words and imagery we use: Representation matters!
  4. Value-laden words such as “sensible”, “careful” or even “trained” remove responsibility for safety and accessibility from designers and decision makers, pushing responsibility onto individuals and blame onto those harmed by poor design.
  5. The phrase “everyone from 8 to 80 and beyond” is used in England and Northern Ireland’s LTN 1/20 Cycle Infrastructure Design guidance and Gear Change (2020) to describe the people who should be provided with safe infrastructure to walk/wheel and cycle independently.
    “Everyone from 8 to 80 and beyond” is more inclusive than other phrases often used with the intention of promoting active travel.
    We call for all organisations to use “everyone from 8 to 80 and beyond”.
    In particular, we call for an end to use of “a sensible 12-year-old” within active travel campaigning and planning: This phrase explicitly excludes all primary-age and significant numbers of secondary-age children from making independent journeys. By bringing to mind a 12-year-old riding a standard bicycle, the phrase will implicitly exclude many more people, including Disabled people and people using non-standard cycles such as parents with child carriers, those using cargo cycles, and others who may be perceived as not conforming with frequently discriminatory societal expectations.

Everyone from 8 to 80 and beyond

The government’s national cycle infrastructure design guide LTN 1/20 and Gear Change say walking/wheeling and cycling routes should be designed for “everyone from 8 to 80 and beyond”.

8-year-olds are usually small. They have limited experience of the world, and are likely to make errors of judgement. They are likely to be distractible and excitable. All these factors put them at higher risk, unless safe infrastructure is provided, of being run over by drivers, and of experiencing harassment and assault, especially in isolated locations.

Some 8-year-olds will be ready to walk/wheel or cycle most or all of their journeys alone: Looking at evidence from the UK only a couple of generations ago, and at what’s expected from children in other countries too, it’s completely reasonable to expect most 8 year olds to be able to make local journeys by themselves – but only if we make the routes sufficiently accessible and sufficiently safe from dangerous drivers and from assault risk.

Most 8-year-olds will invariably travel many or all of their journeys with a parent or carer, often in groups including other children and on multi-person non-standard cycles: Infrastructure designed with 8-year-olds in mind will accommodate groups of people moving at variable speeds and on non-standard cycle types.

If we also think about what we expect of people aged 80 and over, “everyone from 8 to 80 and beyond” is saying that people who are very likely to be Disabled should have the option to choose to use the public realm independently:

Routes that are independently accessible for 8-year-olds and over-80s using a full range of cycle types will, by definition, be independently accessible by most Disabled people.

That doesn’t mean that 8-year-olds have to make journeys independently. But it means far more people would have the option to make journeys, and everyone would be much safer when walking/wheeling and cycling on such well-designed and well-managed routes.

Why not “a sensible 12-year-old travelling alone”?

We’re seeing increasing numbers of local authorities and other active travel organisations using the tagline “a sensible 12 year old travelling alone” to describe their ambition for how accessible active travel routes should be.

We want to all organisations to switch to using “everyone from 8 to 80 and beyond”: We believe that aiming to design public spaces for “a sensible 12-year-old” is not inclusive, and will lead to development of inaccessible active travel routes.

This is why:

12 vs 8

We expect very different things of a 12-year-old and an 8-year-old.

A hypothetical 12-year-old is probably in year 8 at secondary school, compared to the 8-year-old, who is in year 3 in primary school. The 12-year-old is much more able to work out the intentions of others. They’re less likely (though still very much able) to make bad calls or get distracted, and they’re physically much bigger.

If we’re only aiming to make active travel routes accessible for people aged 12 and over, then the first obvious thing we’re saying is that it’s OK for public spaces to be designed too unsafe and too inaccessible for children starting secondary school. This is also likely to mean those spaces are unusable for people using mobility aids including non-standard cycles, too.

Are we really OK with that?

What’s “sensible”, anyway?

The tagline “a sensible 12-year-old” isn’t even talking about any 12-year-old, only sensible 12-year-olds.

What proportion of 12-year-olds are sensible? Most? Half? A quarter? Is a sensible 12-year-old the equivalent of an average 16-year-old? Are all 25-year-olds sensible?

For what proportion of the time are people of different ages sensible? All the time? Or just some of the time? Do we think people should only be in public spaces while consistently concentrating, and not when tired, upset, excited, or busy talking with friends?

We know Disabled people who walk/wheel and cycle journeys are at higher risk of being killed by drivers than non-disabled people. So are children, women, older people, low-income people – and we’re all disproportionately likely to experience harassment and assault, too.

Does that mean anyone in any of these demographics is making a foolish choice whenever we walk/wheel or cycle?

And does that mean we’re to blame when we’re injured or killed?

Or –

How about people with impairments including sensory, cognitive or neurodivergence that make judging distances and traffic speeds difficult. Or mobility impaired, energy-limited, chronically sick or learning-Disabled people who may move more slowly than average:

Would everyone agree that these people are being “sensible” when they attempt to make any walking/wheeling or cycling journeys at all?

The more we think about it, the more it becomes clear that it is discriminatory to design infrastructure that is only safe for people walking/wheeling and cycling if or when they are able to meet the undefined standard of “being sensible”.

Removing value judgements for inclusive active travel

“Sensible” is a value judgement which excludes and blames a huge proportion of people – young, old, Disabled, distracted.

We should be making our public spaces and active travel routes safe for the vast majority of people to use by themselves – and providing easy-to-access, sufficient, suitable support for the few who need it – not pre-judging huge groups of people to be insufficiently capable of independent travel.

We should anticipate that everyone, including drivers, will sometimes make mistakes. We must ensure that our spaces and systems are designed, as far as possible, to keep people safe even when they and others around them make errors.

Improving accessibility of active travel – words can hurt or help us:

If our words create an assumption that it’s reasonable to design routes too hazardous for 11-year-olds, then we can easily miss opportunities for children to learn to walk/wheel or cycle with parents or carers then independently to nearby primary schools, miss the key habit-changing transition point of the move to secondary school, and so lock in the habit of most parents driving their children to secondary school. We can create a situation where many young people have no independent mobility until adulthood, remaining dependent upon being driven… unless or until they become drivers themselves.

This dystopian situation is far too close to becoming real already.

The increase in air and noise pollution, congestion and vehicle danger caused by school run driving decreases the accessibility of our streets for Disabled people, on top of the inaccessibility resulting from inadequate infrastructure design.

Let’s help change this situation by including every person of every age and every ability in our walking/wheeling and cycling ambitions.

Let’s all start using the same small phrase:

For everyone, from 8 to 80 and beyond.

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