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Pandemic programs that allowed outdoor dining on streets and sidewalks, like this packed street scene in Soho, often left little room for “non-normative” users. 

Pandemic programs that allowed outdoor dining on streets and sidewalks, like this packed street scene in Soho, often left little room for “non-normative” users. 

Photographer: Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

CityLab
Design

For Disabled Users, the ‘Open Streets’ of the Pandemic Remain Closed

Restaurants that claimed sidewalk and street space aren’t leaving room for wheelchair users and others with mobility impairments, say accessibility advocates.

In early May, ITV, a television channel in the United Kingdom, showed a video of Alan Benson, a wheelchair user, navigating his way through London’s buzzing Soho neighborhood. “I’ve been locked away for 420 days, so today is our first time out,” says Benson. 

But Benson and his wife, Yvonne, soon hit a snag: The narrow sidewalks of Soho had gone through a pedestrian-centric makeover since the pandemic. The bars and restaurants that had claimed sidewalk space left little room for Benson, who was forced to find a curb-cut. The next street had a path between tables, but a patron was blocking it with his seat. Some restaurants had roped off public sidewalks, forcing him and his wife onto the street. There he found that some devices meant to block cars, like spike strips, also blocked him. After a few failed attempts, Benson decided to head home. “I feel really excluded,” he said to the camera.