Three years ago, Simon Daws and his guide dog, Lemar, were hit by a car on a street in Suffolk. Lemar had spotted an obstacle on the pavement and navigated his owner around it, but Daws, who is visually impaired, didn’t realise how narrow the pavement was. He slipped off the kerb and into traffic.
Lemar was injured and took several weeks to recover. “Fortunately, my injury was very minor, but it could have been a lot worse,” says Daws. “The dog wasn’t at fault – he did his job. If the obstacle wasn’t there, whatever it was, then I wouldn’t have been put into that position.”
Britain’s pavements can be hard to navigate even if you are not visually impaired. The clutter, barriers and trip hazards are everywhere. The wheelie bin your neighbour keeps on the street despite having space to store it. The coffee table someone has placed outside with a note offering it to passersby (a practice that has been described as “middle-class fly-tipping”). Charging cables for electric cars that snake across the pavement. Loose manhole covers. Advertising signage and cafe tables that annex more and more space. A tangle of ebikes and other “micromobility” vehicles.
Then there is the problem of poorly maintained pavements, resulting in cracks, holes and uneven slabs. This is without the despicable scourge of dog mess and general litter. “It’s a bit of a jungle these days,” says Daws. “It’s not just people with sight loss that this is affecting – it’s wheelchair users, it’s parents with pushchairs, it’s mobility scooter users.”
At this time of year, there is another obstruction – desiccating Christmas trees. The charity Guide Dogs has asked householders to be considerate when putting their trees out for collection and not to block pavements. “It’s just another issue for people with sight loss to face while trying to go about their day,” says Hannah Trussler, the organisation’s policy and campaigns manager. The other day, she walked past three on one road.
Daws, a spokesperson for the charity, whose sight started deteriorating when he was in his 40s as a result of retinitis pigmentosa, says: “People might prop them up for collection, but when the weather has been bad they get blown over and fall across the paths.” Since Lemar died last year, Daws now uses a cane to navigate: “You don’t find something until you’ve tapped it or tripped over it. It’s a great problem.”
Tom Shakespeare, a university researcher, social scientist and writer, says he has noticed the state of pavements getting worse in recent years. In London, where he lives, he says the quality of pavements differs from borough to borough and “how much funding has been put into maintaining them”. Shakespeare uses a wheelchair; he has come out of it “multiple times” after hitting a rough area. It is painful, although so far he hasn’t been seriously injured. “But it’s certainly embarrassing, awkward and difficult, because I have to drag myself out of the chair and put it the right way up and get back in,” he says. “Obviously, everybody thinks, rightly, that they should rush and help, but they’re really not very helpful; I can do it.”
It means he has to concentrate hard on the path ahead, as opposed to chatting to whomever he is with, or enjoying his surroundings. He has lost confidence. “I’m realising that I could, any time, hit something and come out, and that’s a nasty way of going about the world,” he says. “It should be smooth, easy; you get from A to B without any mishap. But because of the uneven pavements, I’m going much slower, I’m looking much more carefully.” Even then, he says, it still happens: “The other day, I hit something. I didn’t come out of my chair, but it was a real jolt.”
He says the state of pavements has “definitely got worse. I can understand why – local authorities are strapped for money, budgets are tight and they neglect it, because as long as they’re passable, it’s OK. But it might be OK for other people to pick their way through; it’s not OK if you rely on a wheelchair.”
Research by Living Streets, a charity that promotes walking and campaigns for a better environment, last year said trips and falls on pavements in England cost health and social care budgets as much as £500m a year and resulted in about 30,000 people being admitted to hospital. “Our streets not being up to the standard they should be is costing a lot,” says Kathryn Shaw, a spokesperson for Living Streets. “A lot of the funding to fix potholes is for roads. We want some of that funding to be ringfenced for footway improvements.”
A report on “street clutter” released in October by the thinktank Centre for London focused on three streets in the capital, but one of the authors, Millie Mitchell, says: “We’re very aware it is a problem that’s faced by the rest of the country as well. We found more than 120 items of clutter and we quantified approximately half of those items as having moderate to severe negative impacts on pedestrians and other pavement users.”
Examples of “clutter” included planters, bollards, phone boxes and redundant signs, but Mitchell found that it was impermanent objects that were most prevalent. The biggest was sandwich, or A-board, advertising outside shops and restaurants. “They tend to cluster – when one shop or cafe puts out an A-board, the others tend to follow suit, so you can end up with one street that quickly becomes cluttered in that way. Also, as these are transient objects, they cause particular challenges for people with visual impairment, because their locations can be unpredictable.”
The second-biggest problem was dockless hire ebikes, which some users abandon wherever they finish their journey. Micromobility companies can issue fines for reckless parking, but these tend to be small and not much of a deterrent, although repeat offenders can be banned. “Sustainable travel is really important, but part of sustainable and active travel is walking. If the walking environment is let down by poorly located ebikes, that is a concern,” says Mitchell.
The next-biggest problem was bags of rubbish placed on the pavement for collection. This is partly a problem of infrastructure, she says – businesses don’t have anywhere else to put their waste – and partly because there are different collection days for different types of waste. “It can mean that rubbish ends up on the street for way longer than it should be,” says Mitchell.
Simon, who doesn’t want to use his last name, set up the social media account Dockless Obstructions about a year ago, appalled at the way hire bikes and scooters were being left on streets. As a regular traveller to King’s Cross in central London, where the head office of the Royal National Institute of Blind People is situated, he started to notice visually impaired people “getting off the trains and having to navigate through all these banks of dockless bikes”.
Then an elderly neighbour told him she was reluctant to leave her house because there were so many bikes parked on the pavement; she was worried one would fall on her, or that they would be blocking pedestrian crossings. He and others started posting pictures of wayward bikes on X, formerly Twitter.
“It means there’s a record, because when we tried to get in touch with the companies themselves, we got a generic message saying that they were sending somebody to sort it out, but there was no record of the complaint as such,” he says. One recent photograph, taken on New Year’s Eve, shows at least 30 hire bikes parked on the pavement at a busy intersection.
“Dockless hire bikes are a good example of where technology is rapidly advancing, but legislation is lagging hopelessly behind,” says Will Norman, London’s walking and cycling commissioner. “The problem with this is that cities across the UK, not just London, lack the power to regulate this. We have independently and collectively been saying to the government for years that they need to give cities the power to better manage dockless rental bikes.”
He had hoped they were getting somewhere: “It was massively disappointing that in the king’s speech there was no mention of any of this. The government not addressing this is a massive missed opportunity. It will continue to create pavement clutter, inconvenience and safety issues for everyone.”
A temporary fix is “working with all the London councils to try to explore a coordinated scheme, but it’s not yet clear if that is possible with the legal powers that we have got”, Norman says. “There are informal agreements between companies and councils, but there’s no real teeth. Unless the government gives cities the power to regulate this, we’re not going to solve the problem. It risks damaging the whole concept of ebikes, which are an inherently good thing for people’s health and for cities.”
In a survey done by Living Streets, which runs an annual “cut the clutter” campaign, the top concern for pedestrians was cars parking on the pavement, followed by badly located bins, lamp-posts and signs. “If we want people to walk more and we want to reduce congestion and air pollution, then there has to be a nicer and better alternative to jumping in the car,” says Shaw. “For people who don’t have access to a car, it’s really problematic. It means that they maybe won’t leave the house, they won’t get out, they won’t socialise, so there’s a mental health aspect.”
Living Streets’ survey found that one in three adults over 65 did not walk more, or at all, on the streets around their home because of the poor state of them. “Parents have said they’d be more likely to walk their child to school if there was a better walking environment, so that’s a huge amount of children that could be benefiting from walking if our streets were clearer,” says Shaw.
Edinburgh began enforcing Scotland’s ban on pavement parking at the end of last year, but it remains legal in most of the UK, with the notable exception of Greater London. This can force pedestrians into the road. “That can be a daunting and scary experience if you don’t know what’s coming,” says Trussler. “Some people don’t leave the house because of it.” For wheelchair users, pavement parking can be impossible to navigate.
One of the problems with street clutter, says Mitchell, “is that there is quite a complex governance and ownership landscape”, which means responsibility can be hard to ascertain. Benches, planters or signs might be owned by the council or a transport authority, but phone and utility boxes are owned by companies. Mitchell says: “One of the things we hear a lot (from local authorities) is that they know this is a problem that they ought to be dealing with, but they are struggling from a power perspective to be able to do that.”
A lack of funding is an even bigger problem. Huge cuts to central government funding since 2010 means surveying and maintaining pavements has slipped down the priority list for many councils. “While dealing with one individual item may seem relatively cheap, if you scale that up to the number of streets that they’re responsible for, it can quickly get expensive,” says Mitchell. “One of the things we’re calling for is better resourcing for local authorities. It could also mean granting them greater power to levy charges against privately owned objects on their pavements. Perhaps that could help subsidise other decluttering activities.”
Potholes on roads get a lot of media attention and motorists are vocal about their supposed rights and interests. It seems a harder fight for pedestrians, even if the government’s ambition is for 50% of journeys in towns and cities to be walked or cycled by 2030. One of the problems highlighted by the Living Streets report into pedestrian falls last year was that, because there is no systematic collection of data, the scale and impact of the problem is unknown.
In the absence of political will, it falls to communities to put pressure on councils and the government. In Edinburgh, Living Streets was one of several organisations that campaigned successfully for pavement A‑boards to be banned; the prohibition came into force in 2018. “We really want to encourage members of the public to put the pressure on and to highlight where these bad spots are,” says Shaw.
Daws would like people to be a bit more thoughtful. “Losing my sight has taught me how much stuff is out there that I never really understood when I was a sighted person,” he says. “When I was a driver, I’d bump up on to the kerb and leave the wheels on. I didn’t understand, but now I do.
“I urge everybody to have a little bit more thought about where they leave items such as bins. People don’t like cutting things back any more on their bushes and trees. I’ve regularly had branches in my face while walking; I have had cuts.” And watch where you put that Christmas tree.