From flattened cobbles to threshold ramps, the Dutch city of Breda has much to teach its neighbours
When I arrived at Breda station last month to find out why this Dutch city was recently named the winner of the 2019 Access City award, I did something I have not done while travelling in a long time. Instead of taking a taxi, I independently pushed the two kilometres to the hotel, to see whether lack of access for wheelchair users like me is as big a problem here as it is in most other cities.
Usually, a journey like that would be a nightmare, particularly in older European towns like Breda, a city of just under 200,000 people that was an important centre during the Holy Roman Empire. Medieval city centres and cobble-stoned markets are a recipe for broken castor wheels and painful pressure sores for wheelchair users.On average, the cost of living for disabled people is £583 a month higher than for their non-disabled peers – a substantial amount of which goes towards paying for taxi journeys to mitigate inaccessible public transport options. Travelling is even costlier: disabled people often have to stay in more expensive accessible hotels when hostels and independent bed and breakfasts are not a viable, barrier-free option. Add in the cost of damaged equipment and medical bills from injury, and the feelings of fear and isolation that lack of access creates, and you have a recipe for cities that feel difficult and anxiety-inducing.
It was a literal breath of fresh air pushing myself through Valkenbergpark’s widened, flat pathways. I saw the portable threshold ramps that Breda’s shopkeepers lay out when they raise their shutters in the morning, encouraging business from customers of all abilities – something you rarely see in the UK. I learned that all buses and bus stops in the city are now fully accessible to wheelchair users, with drivers trained in disability awareness.
Once at the hotel, I found wellness and physiotherapy facilities for disabled guests; the accessible rooms had lowered wardrobes and mirrors, wheel-in showers and seated baths. You don’t even have to pull open the main door to enter the hotel: a camera detects your arrival and the door opens automatically. There are even plans to create a tactile navigation line along the route I took, to help visually impaired visitors move from the train station to the city centre through Valkenbergpark.