What is a personal mobility device? Motorised personal mobility devices (PMDs), are transport aids such as motorised wheelchairs and mobility scooters used by people with a mobility impairment. With an ageing population, the use of these devices is set to increase rapidly over the coming decades and there will need to be changes to transport infrastructure to accommodate their use.
Currently, around 30% of people old enough to receive a state pension in the UK have a mobility impairment. Add to this that the number of people in the UK aged over 75 is expected to more than double by 2050 and it’s clear that new thinking is required to create a feasible infrastructure and legislative framework around PMDs.
A recent study found that at the local level, transport issues were the biggest concern of British wheelchair users, ahead of crime, housing, or health.
Over 80% of people in the same study felt that transport planners paid too little attention to their needs.
What do PMD users need?
Up until now, legislation around personal mobility devices has not really been evidence based. Much of it is archaic or seemingly based on ‘common sense’, and thus is now outdated and unsuitable for current and future needs. For example, in the UK devices may not exceed 4mph on footways, whilst it’s 6mph in Australia, and ‘walking speed’ in some other countries. More confusingly, PMDs are technically not allowed to use cycle paths in the UK, whilst they are permitted to use busy A-roads, including dual carriageways.
Mayer Brown has conducted some in-depth research as the first step to working with planners, legislators and highway engineers to create effective systems for the future.
The research showed a particular need to address two key areas:
- Legislation regarding mobility device usage
- Infrastructure: provision, design standards and maintenance
Mobility device usage
The range of devices used in the UK is set to change to meet evolving needs. The two primary types of PMD currently in use are the power wheelchair and the motorised mobility scooter. Sales of scooters outnumber power wheelchairs by about 3-1.
- There are two classes of powered mobility device in the UK: Class 2, with a maximum speed of 4mph, and Class 3, with a maximum speed of 8mph.
- Class 2 devices are limited to using footways, while Class 3 can use roads.
The introduction of faster PMDs to the UK would potentially broaden the scope of their use, while also eliminating the need to use cars for many journeys. This is important when considering that older people and those with disabilities are less likely to own a car.
In addition to adding faster PMDs, there is also scope to expand the types of devices available – vehicles such as quadricycles and electric bicycles offer increased possibilities for different types of travel and usage, meeting a wider range of practical and recreational requirements.
67% of wheelchair users rate the design of streets and pavements in the UK as poor.
Infrastructure is probably the most pressing aspect of motorised mobility that needs to be addressed.
The lack of good infrastructure can have a major detrimental impact on the lives of people with mobility impairments, affecting all aspects of life including work, recreation and practical requirements such as shopping or visiting the doctor.
89% of respondents in the Study stated that poor footway quality was a barrier to moving around easily.
Narrow pavements, lack of dropped kerbs, parked cars and other obstructions all caused problems for PMD users.
What’s the solution?
The study also looked at infrastructure in the Netherlands, where PMD users find it much easier to make shopping and recreational trips, using only their device, with no additional help from a car or public transport.
- In the Netherlands, the majority of PMD users use bike paths for at least half their trips.
- UK PMD users also stated that they prefer to use bike paths rather than footways.
So it appears that greater provision of bicycle infrastructure would increase mobility for PMD users. Not only would this solution provide a better travel network but it would also create an environment suitable for faster PMDs with more flexible usage.
A programme to increase bicycle infrastructure provision needs to run alongside improvements to the quality and design of pedestrian infrastructure, in order to minimize barriers to PMD use in our towns and cities.
The issue of mobility impairment is set to grow. As it grows, increasing numbers of people risk becoming isolated and excluded from society, which in turn can lead to a range of health problems and detrimental effects on society. This doesn’t have to be the case. It is clear that there is a need to increase awareness of the issues and build knowledge amongst planners and officials. With more research and better planning, practical steps can be undertaken now which will have a positive impact in the decades to come.