In the 30 years Ruth Ann Sandstedt has lived in downtown Albany, she has almost always walked or taken the bus around town. Now 81, she walks to errands such as the grocery store and the library. She also walked to work until her retirement last fall.
As a pedestrian, her biggest challenge these days is crossing a five-lane intersection at Pearl Street to get to the Capital Repertory Theatre, where she volunteers as an usher.
"There are several blocks with no traffic lights," she said. There used to be portable signs in the crosswalk warning motorists about pedestrians. "Now that those are gone, not many cars pay attention to the crosswalk. And I can't dash across the street because I have arthritis in the knees."
So she waits until there are no cars at all before she crosses. "I have to be very careful," she said.
Sandstedt is right to be cautious. Pedestrians were 22.5 percent of traffic deaths in New York during 2007-2008. The elderly are especially vulnerable.
A study by Surface Transportation Policy and Transportation for America ranked New York third highest for pedestrian fatalities among people 65 and older.
"Our population is aging, and every boomer will be 65-plus by 2030," said Will Stoner, AARP New York associate state director for livable communities. "We have to really start thinking about how they will get around when they hang up the keys."
Most roads were designed to move vehicles as quickly as possible to their destination, Stoner said. Little or no thought was given to pedestrians or cyclists.
To change that, bills backed by AARP, the New York Bicycling Coalition, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and others have been introduced in the legislature requiring a "complete streets" approach to future highway planning.
"Complete streets would require that whenever a road is rebuilt, repaved or resurfaced, the state transportation planners and engineers would take into account all modes of mobility, including walking and cycling," Stoner said.
Earlier this year, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced that plans for all new federally assisted local projects should take walkers and cyclists into consideration.
AARP took its case to the legislature with data gathered during Complete Streets Week in April. Volunteers fanned out in communities across the state conducting "walkability surveys" to pinpoint needed local pedestrian safety improvements.
Even without a law in place, the state has begun to overhaul five intersections on Hempstead Turnpike in Elmont near the Queens-Nassau County border. Between 2006 and 2008, there were 13 pedestrian fatalities on the highway, making it the deadliest road in New York, New Jersey or Connecticut.
The improvements—including repainting crosswalks, redoing curb cuts and installing countdown signals that will tell walkers how much time they have to cross a street—are expected to be completed by year's end. Bumpy strips will also be installed at curb cuts for the visually impaired and the "walk" time on signals will be increased.
At some intersections, cars may not be allowed to turn right on red.
"Elmont is going to be a model of how it should be done," Stoner said.
Some places, like Smithtown on Long Island and Manhattan are also installing traffic-calming measures such as trees, shrubs and fences in medians and along sidewalks, visual cues that let drivers know they're off a thoroughfare and in a community where there may be cyclists and walkers like Sandstedt.
Winnie Yu is a freelance writer living in Albany, N.Y.