Since 2016, I have observed Nashville, Tennessee making its aspirational transition from a car-centric city (intersected by a major interstate highway) to a more “healthy” city. Central to this transition are efforts to build sidewalks and bicycle lanes for “active transportation”, with cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen serving as models for promoting health and movement in public life. As a participant observer in urban design processes, I attended community meetings, participatory design and budgeting events, tactical urbanist interventions, and other scenes of urban transformation. In addition to studying how healthy cities are planned and designed, I also spent these years placing my body within the logics of the healthy city, feeling directly the effects of walking, cycling, and taking public transit, in addition to driving a car. In these observational modes, I felt the differences between non-existent, narrow, or broken sidewalks and those planned to be wide and well-maintained. I experienced the terror of cycling on streets without dedicated bicycle lanes and the relief of protective bollards. I benefitted from greenways that functioned as shortcuts through the city. In these ways, I observed the role of active transportation in the bodily work of public living. Engaging in these activities with others, I witnessed the ways that affording opportunities for public movement could also change the apparent liveliness of public spaces.
But as a disabled person whose sensory and physical disabilities – finite breath, energy, capacity for stimulation, and days without pain – are not always apparent to others, I found that my particular ways of using built environments were not anticipated by active transportation infrastructures. The urbanists I worked alongside were motivated by a sense that cities ought to be built for people, rather than cars, in order to promote public health and safety. Yet the question of what kinds of people exist and ought to be supported in public space was not approached through the frameworks of accessibility, disability justice, or mobility justice. My experiences of exhaustion and overstimulation from cycling, for instance, were not merely problems of physical conditioning related to the need for more exercise. Rather, it was the imperative for constant movement, exposure to noise and the elements, with few places to rest, that exacted a toll on my body. These imperatives, repeated throughout active transportation promotional campaigns, framed bodies like mine – slow bodies, fat bodies, bodies needing respite – as problems to solve rather than as a form of human difference deserving access to the built environment.
For example, throughout my research, I attended several “open streets” events in cities across North America and Europe. In these events, streets are closed to car traffic, allowing pedestrians and cyclists to move more freely. The levels of participation and use of the street varied between cities, depending on how established pedestrian cultures had been in those places. These events largely took for granted the ability to participate with ease of movement. But frictions were everywhere for participants and users: few sidewalks with curb cuts or ramps, few places to sit and rest, the presence of police making it unsafe for some to even participate. I found myself, along with elders and a few other disabled people, looking for benches and places to take breaks, but many had been removed to prevent homeless people – who are also often disabled – from sitting. It became clear to me that if cities are not already accessible, opening them up to active transportation does not make it safe and easy for participants who are already marginalized, whether on the basis of disability, age, race, or gender.
Does urban infrastructure promote ableism, which Tobin Siebers defines as the “societal preference for able-bodiedness”? Lively debates centered on this question rage in urbanist social media, planning meetings, and classrooms. Proponents of “active transportation” hope for cities in which human energy, rather than fossil fuels, powers urban mobility. They hope for less pollution, fewer pedestrian deaths, and fewer people of above-average body size or weight. Critics of active transportation take issue with the question of what kinds of people urbanists imagine will transport themselves actively. For example, they question the logics of active transportation for weight loss, pointing out that this produces an anti-fat bias and privileges thin people. Others question whether building cities for cycling and walking can support those who (on the basis of bodily capacity, energy, sensory abilities, or size) are unable or unwilling to participate in transportation that requires physical strength and endurance.
These critiques dovetail with the work of the broader Mobility Justice movement, which questions the whiteness of cycling culture and brings an explicit critical race framework to the study of urban mobilities. As the Untokening Collective argues in its Principles of Mobility Justice,
“Safety is more than protection from cars… When people live at the intersection of multiple vectors of oppression, unfettered access to mobility and public space are not guaranteed… Racism, sexism, classism, able-ism, xenophobia, homophobia and constraints imposed upon gender-non-conforming folks can make the public space hostile to many. Bodies encounter different risks and have different needs.”
Mobility Justice practitioners ask whether increasing access to cycling and walking infrastructures can prevent Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color from being targeted by policing and surveillance, particularly people who are perceived as “out of place” due to their housing or economic status.
On the surface, it may appear that debates about active transportation are taking place between non-disabled cycling advocates and disabled opponents of active transportation infrastructure. The reality is much more complex, however. If there are “sides” to this debate, both the position in favor of the mandate for healthier cities and the position seeking to qualify this mandate make a claim to benefitting disabled people. Some disabled people cannot drive cars, argue active transportation advocates. Some disabled people cannot use bicycles or walk, respond critics. What is at stake here, however, is not simply the empirical truth of these claims, but rather the politics of disability they profess.
As Gabrielle Peters, a Vancouver-based disabled accessibility advocate and expert, has argued, disabled people have become political volleys in active transportation debates. Indeed, the complex meanings of disability, as well as the politics of ableism, have been sidelined in efforts to show that individual disabled people are for or against active transportation. In this sense, active transportation debates participate in what I have called “post-disability politics”, which depoliticizes disability as a challenge to compulsory normalcy, treating it instead as an experience of individual disabled citizens and consumers. A feature of neoliberal disability rights, post-disability politics emerged in era after the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Such politics purportedly include disabled people, while excluding the possibility that ableism is a system of values shaped by the imperatives to be so-called healthy, normal bodies.
Indeed, these debates would benefit from engagement with critical disability theory and politics. Rather than take the category of disability for granted as static or all-encompassing, critical disability theory questions how the figure of the disabled person is constructed in relation to mandatory whiteness, capitalist productivity, aspirational urban citizenship, and liberal notions of agency. Crip theory, in particular, questions the imperative toward compulsory normalization, offering theories of accessibility as grounded in friction and contestation.
For example, rather than only focusing on accessibility as facilitating smooth movement from one place to another, crip theory asks us to think about how barriers, disagreements, and competing accessibility needs have shaped built environments. As one example (explored in my book, Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability), when wheelchair users first began prototyping curb cuts on sidewalks, blind people found them dangerous because they did not announce the transition from sidewalk into street. Rather than abandon curb cuts altogether, blind people and wheelchair users worked together to develop “tactile paving”, which adds texture as information about the coming elevation change, in addition to symbolizing the frictions of the design process that resulted in a mutually-agreeable design. As the history of accessible design shows, access is not just easy movement through a space, but a struggle for the recognition of disabled people as a heterogenous political and cultural force.
Critical Access Studies, a framework I introduced in Building Access, is a subset of critical disability studies and critical design studies that asks us to question who benefits from typical modes of accessibility or the affordances of adaptive devices (including adaptive bicycles), and who is left out of our conversations about belonging in the built environment. When we imagine the figure of the disabled cyclist, are they always white, physically enabled, or exceptional “supercrips”? Active transportation advocates often offer examples of cyclists with disabilities to show that cycling does not “exclude disabled people”. But are they understanding that these particular disabled people may also have physical disabilities, heart conditions, chronic fatigue, or sensory processing disabilities that would preclude intense physical activity if the built environment required it? Are these advocates not only highlighting individual preferences or adaptations, but simultaneously pushing for cities to maximize disability access? And are these advocates understanding ableism as a system of oppression (in which some disabled people are more disadvantaged than others on the basis of the type and degree of their disability, as well as their race, gender, and class)? Put another way, is “including disability” simply a matter of meeting individual preferences for walking, cycling, or driving, or is it a matter of addressing systematic ableism? In current debates, the focus on individual preferences seems to obscure that ableism works by elevating some disabled peoples’ needs over others, a historical condition that has had implications for the ways that the category of disability itself is understood.
The Disability Justice movement explains the political stakes of these questions. This movement, led by disabled people of color and queer disabled people, emerged in the twenty-first century in response to a lack of intersectional approaches within mainstream disability activism. Earlier disability movements emphasized legal and rights-based approaches to accessibility, which often limit access to compliance and understand disability as an individual, rather than collective matter. By contrast, Disability Justice centers anti-capitalism, interdependence, and intersectionality. For Disability Justice, it is not enough for cities simply to abide by the ADA. Rather, accessible cities need to center “cross-disability solidarity”, a commitment to not leaving any disabled people behind. As Stacey Milbern has argued, “access-washing” is the use of accessibility violations to control and police marginalized people in public space. For example, the police may use ADA citations to exclude unhoused people from occupying tent cities. Access-washing, according to Milbern, fails to protect disabled people of color living in poverty. Likewise, the existence of some disabled people who are for or against active transportation does not mean that cities should privilege this framework, but rather that planners and civic designers ought to understand that disability is a heterogeneous phenomenon, and that ableism intersects with race, class, and gender oppressions.
Taking an intersectional framework informed by Disability Justice and Critical Access Studies, I propose further exploration of Crip Mobility Justice. This framework would build on existing efforts to attend to the uneven distribution of accessible urban mobility by prioritizing the dismantling of ableism. For Crip Mobility Justice, accessibility would be less about individual consumer preferences, such as whether or not disabled people want to ride adaptive bicycles, and more about commitments to interdependence and widespread accessibility. This would include eschewing the logics of health promotion in active transportation, which promote normalized body types, in favor of broad accessibility. While Crip Mobility Justice could certainly include sidewalks and bicycle lanes as options in multi-modal transit systems, it would also prioritize curb cuts, adequate and sensory-friendly lighting, spaces of respite and quiet, public restrooms and water fountains, as well as housing justice and the abolition of policing and surveillance. In other words, it would promote cities built for the most marginalized disabled people.
Aimi Hamraie is associate professor of Medicine, Health & Society and American Studies at Vanderbilt University, where they also direct the Critical Design Lab. Their research spans critical disability studies, science and technology studies, urban studies, and design. They are author of Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability (University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
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