Transport planners and engineers will be familiar with both the Safe System approach and Movement and Place framework.

The Safe System approach is about keeping all road users safe and protected from serious injury. The Movement and Place framework aims to provide amenity for road users and at the same time create quality places. Pedestrians are also road users, but the focus of both approaches tends to be about vehicles. If we want people to walk more for travel or recreation, more attention to pedestrian planning is needed and this is best done through a universal design lens.

The universal design approach takes an inclusive whole of population view and acknowledges that pedestrians are diverse and have varying abilities in negotiating existing road and street infrastructure. For example, level of capability is not age dependent and is more than the ability to walk or use a wheeled device. Cognitive and psychosocial conditions such as dementia, autism and mental health conditions are rarely considered. The benefits of walking for physical and mental health are well documented and now it is time to turn our attention to pedestrians in all their diversity. This means updating transport planning guides such as Safe System and Movement and Place.

Useability and accessibility requirements are related to what pedestrians can achieve. However, transport planners are guided by regulations related to the concepts of mobility. They are about traffic impact, land use, and transport demands. Accessible transport systems, including walking infrastructure, cannot be measured objectively like length or weight. That means we need a way to merge accessibility measures with infrastructure measures.

When the issue of equity arises, it is often framed from a transport disadvantage standpoint which seeks to identify specific groups of pedestrians as needing special treatment or accommodations. But everyone benefits when their accessibility increases – it’s not a case of providing special accommodations for just one group. That’s universal design thinking.

Exiting transport planning guides segregate pedestrians into different groups based on assumptions about their needs. A commonly used collective term for all these groups is “vulnerable pedestrians”. Consequently, guides single out older people, people with disability and children as the main categories. All pedestrians are vulnerable in the presence of motor vehicles – it is a matter of degree and of driver behaviour. This terminology implicitly continues negative stereotypes which lead to planning assumptions that are not necessarily accurate.

For example, providing guidance specific to locations near aged care facilities or schools assumes that all older people are in aged care and children only go to school. The number of older people in aged care is around 6% of people aged over 65 years. Consequently, most older people are everywhere else in urban and rural neighbourhoods. Whatever special arrangements are recommended adjacent to aged care facilities is needed throughout the neighbourhood.

Similarly, children do more than go to school. After school activities during the week take them past the 4pm reduced speed time, and at weekends they are out and about with sporting activities and other recreational pursuits. A study by Prue Oswin on pedestrian crossings and schools found that what worked for children and parents was also regarded well by older citizens. This moves planning concepts into universal design territory – what is good for both ends of the age spectrum is good for everyone. Instead of considering “vulnerable pedestrians” as the statistical outlier, transport planners and engineers should be considering them as the baseline. Designing for say, slow walkers, includes faster walkers and designing for wheelchair users includes a pram pushers and people with shopping trolleys. So how many “vulnerable pedestrians are there?”

The ABS disability statistics reveal that 18% of the population have a permanent disability that affects their ability to undertake daily tasks. Interestingly, the ABS counts long term health conditions separately as 22% of the population. Bad backs and knees, arthritis, heart and lung disease, and reduced cognitive ability are included in this statistic. Allowing for some overlap, we can assume that around 30% of the population has reduced capacity in some form. This number should be sufficient reason for reconsidering all guides for traffic and pedestrian planning.

Statistics are an important factor in transport design and engineering. However, statistics cannot tell the whole story. Counting the number of cars or pedestrians at a crossing, for example, doesn’t tell you who is avoiding the crossing because they don’t feel safe. A qualitative survey of people with disability was carried out in New Zealand which found several places were avoided because road crossings were perceived as unsafe. Consequently, these pedestrians were restricted in where they could go and what they could do. Not only is there a social impact on individual pedestrians, there is also an economic impact when some pedestrians are excluded from accessing the high street shops and amenities.

The literature review by Lisa Stafford argues that the diversity of ages and abilities is not captured in current walkable neighbourhood research. If planners continue to rely on data-informed practices, they will continue to perpetuate ageism and ableism. Stafford also recommends a universal design approach to pedestrian planning because statistical averages leave existing standards unchallenged and marginalised groups risk remaining invisible. Jonathan Levine supports this approach adding that accessibility-based performance indicators should replace metrics such as highway level of service.

If we are serious about encouraging people to get out of their cars and walk then it’s time to put pedestrians at the top of the road user hierarchy and ensure the infrastructure is accessible for all.