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Streets Safe for Walking

Americans over 65 make up only 12.6 percent of the population yet account for nearly 20 percent of all pedestrians killed between 2005 and 2007, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In major metropolitan areas, this ratio can be even more skewed because urban density increases a pedestrian’s exposure to potentially harmful cars. In downstate New York, for instance, people over 65 make up about 12 percent of the population but account for 39 percent of pedestrian fatalities. In Washington, D.C., another city focused on redesigning streets to make walking easier, the thoroughfare of upper Connecticut Avenue has proved particularly dangerous, claiming the lives of three older pedestrians within a recent one-year period. One of the victims, a 72-year-old grandmother, was killed in a crosswalk after safely crossing five of the avenue’s six lanes.

Of course, these statistics and incidents don’t tell the whole story. Walking itself isn’t dangerous, but particular road crossings and street designs can be. According to research done by Transportation Alternatives, the majority of injuries and fatalities involving older pedestrians are clustered at the intersections of wide streets with fast-moving traffic and turning lanes—like on Washington’s Connecticut Avenue—or near senior centers and other places the victims live or congregate. Because of this bunching, New York state’s SafeSeniors plan, Portland’s Safe Routes to Senior Centers strategy and the District of Columbia’s pedestrian program target all these locations and the streets surrounding them.

What does a safe street look like?

Urban planners and engineers in these cities focus on two key factors when they redesign streets for older people: slowing traffic speed and reconfiguring pedestrian crossings. Aside from serving as a major cause of stress and a deterrent to walking, speeding vehicles also increase the severity of an injury and the likelihood of the walker dying if hit. An older person struck by a car traveling at 30 mph has nearly an 80 percent chance of surviving the crash, while that same person struck by a car traveling 45 mph has only a 50-50 chance.

Regardless of how drivers behave, some older pedestrians crossing a street—particularly those using walkers, canes or wheelchairs—can be shortchanged by the arithmetic of traffic engineering. Stoplights have what is referred to as a “pedestrian interval,” the walk-signal phase for those waiting to cross the street. In many U.S. cities, the pedestrian interval of a given street is established by dividing the width of the street by an assumed walking speed of four feet per second; thus a 60-foot-wide avenue would have a 15-second pedestrian interval.

The problem is that many older people walk closer to three feet per second, and those with mobility aides might move as slowly as 2.5 feet per second. These people require closer to 24 seconds to cross that same street. If they’re given only 15 seconds, they’re left stranded in the middle of the road.

To prevent this, targeted areas in New York and Portland employ significantly longer crossing times as well as what’s called a “lead pedestrian interval”—meaning pedestrians get a “walk” signal before vehicles get a green light. This allows pedestrians to get a head start across an intersection and establish themselves before right-turning traffic has an opportunity to obstruct their path. “These are no-cost modifications that an engineer at a computer can make in a second,” says Amy Pfeiffer, who worked with Transportation Alternatives in New York. “And they make streets safer and more accommodating immediately.”

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