Handcycling: new opportunities and familiar obstacles

A man in a fluorescent green jacket sits in a handcycle at the waterside, behind him a ferry can be seen in the distance
Ellis Palmer has been out almost every day on his handcycle since the beginning of lockdown
For many people, lockdown has been a period of isolation and restriction, particularly for those who were shielding due to a pre-existing medical conditions, but some cyclists with a disability found new opportunities to enjoy cycling during the pandemic. For others, the easing of lockdown is a chance to resume their cycling and to think about how post-Covid-19 transport policies can safeguard the active travel advantages for all. We spoke to two handcyclists for their perspective on what they have learnt in the past four months and the work that still lies ahead

BBC journalist and producer Ellis Palmer normally lives in London but has been based in Birkenhead since March and says hardly a day has gone by when he hasn’t been balancing his busy job with getting out and exploring local routes.

“In the first 91 days, I had been out 89 days," he said. "I like to go for around 20-30km around Birkenhead or sometimes out to New Brighton or along the coast.”

Ellis, 25, was pleased to see Liverpool council was among those local authorities that have installed pop-up cycle lanes to support people to socially distance safely while continuing to travel. However, he was dismayed that one of the lanes, in Sefton Park, was only wide enough for bicycles and not for him to use his handcycle.

He said: “I have been really impressed with some of the pop-up lanes but they haven’t done an equality impact assessment before putting in the lane. I feel making sure they are wide enough to be accessible for all types of users is a fairly basic thing.”

The council has announced work will take place to widen the lane, but Ellis said he felt it highlighted broader issues about whether highway planners were taking the needs of inclusive cycling onboard.

Ellis, who has cerebral palsy, says he had only recently discovered how much independence and enjoyment he could gain through cycling. He said: “I always wanted to cycle but never thought it would be something that I would be able to do. Last autumn, I was doing a coastal walk near Dublin, and the batteries on my wheelchair went flat, and I thought there has got to be a better way of getting around than this. My friend asked me if I had thought about handcycling and the idea kept chipping away at me.

"A few months later, I was getting something fixed on my wheelchair and I asked about handcycling. I was able to give it a try and really enjoyed it. Initially, the cost put me off a bit and I think my parents were a bit sceptical about it but I had a little bit of money I had managed to save up so I decided to go ahead and buy my first handcycle.”

He added: “Cycling is something I intend to continue 110% going forward.” He said: “When I was living In London I would go to the gym at the end of my road, but since the beginning of March I hadn’t been wanting to go there because those with limited mobility are at higher risk of a poor outcome from coronavirus. Since I have been back in the North West the gyms were closed for four months so being able to handcycle has been a great way to keep up my health and fitness during lockdown.”

The other benefit Ellis says he has derived has been a greater awareness of his surroundings. “I have been getting to know street names for the first ever time in my life, what I mean by that is when you take the bus or get a lift somewhere you don’t really get to know your surroundings, but as I cycle along I am beginning to recognise the street names and get to know my local area a lot better,” he added.

I have been really impressed with some of the pop-up lanes but... making sure they are wide enough to be accessible for all types of users is a very basic thing

Ellis Palmer

Isabelle Clement, founder of the London-based Wheels for Wellbeing charity, which supports disabled people to take part in a range of cycling activities, says while some people with disabilities have been cycling more since March, not everyone has been so fortunate.

She said: “Some people were able to cycle way more than they had done before and to go out on the road because there was virtually no traffic on the roads. The increased levels of cycling were a bit of a silver lining for some people during the crisis, but that was not the majority of people and we were really anxious about how some people might cope without access to our sessions, because it could be quite isolating.”

The charity is beginning to resume the cycling activity sessions it ran before lockdown, though initially they will be quite different. She said: “At present only one of our three centres is open. We will be running sessions again at Herne Hill velodrome, but the procedures will look very different now. We had some small sessions for invited riders during July to run through all the new measures, but whereas before we might have had more than 50 people coming to a session, we have been trialling working with six people and that included carer or family members, so the groups were small and we cleaning the cycles after each session. The social aspect of the sessions which was a big part of why people enjoyed them, is initially also going to have to be more limited.”

Isabelle said she welcomed moves towards low-traffic neighbourhoods but there were a number of obstacles that handcyclists and others with additional mobility needs faced, including cost and access. “One area we would like to see developed is cycle hire schemes: it's really not good enough to have a one-size-fits-all bike docking approach if you want to think about increasing opportunities to cycle in urban areas," she said. "Handcycles are still expensive too, so it is important there are sessions like ours or hire schemes so people can try it out, because machines can cost anything from £5,000 to £10,000 and you are not going to make that outlay unless you are sure it is gong to be well used.” 

She added: “We are trying to get people to see this as not just a ‘disability cycling’ issue. If you remove the barriers that are there for the people who are furthest away from the possibility of cycling, it makes it easier for everyone to cycle and walk. We have to ensure that disabled people are not excluded from the benefits of cycling and walking as part of the move towards low traffic neighbourhoods which is being talked about.”

If you remove the barriers that are there for the people who are furthest away from the possibility of cycling, it makes it easier for everyone to cycle and walk

Isabelle Clement, director of Wheels for Wellbeing 

This Thursday, July 30, Cycling UK will be hosting a web panel on the topic ‘Cycling for everybody: inclusivity for non-standard cycles’ as part of the Women’s Festival of Cycling. Isabelle Clement will be on the panel alongside Brendan Dougan, Cycling UK’s Senior Development Officer, WheelNess Project and Audrey Barnett, a WheelNess participant. The chat will be hosted on the Cycling UK Facebook page from 11am.