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Streets Safe for Walking

At street crossings with crosswalks but without stoplights, as is the case along stretches of Connecticut Avenue in Washington, planners are working to install LED flashers that alert motorists when pedestrians are in a crosswalk. In just six months, the lights have increased the likelihood of vehicles yielding to pedestrians from 26 percent to 80 percent in pilot areas around the city.

Other techniques that planners are developing to make crossing streets easier and safer include lowering curbs, widening curb ramps and installing “neckdowns,” which are built by extending sidewalks at the corner into the parking lane, reducing the width of the pedestrian crossing.

What’s down the road?

Michelle Ernst of the nonprofit policy group Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which studies traffic and transit in the snarled confluence of Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, sees this as the perfect time to institute such changes. “With cities and states around the country facing strapped budgets,” she said, “it may be more practical to target safety improvements to areas with high concentrations of older residents, or high numbers of older pedestrian injuries and fatalities” than to tackle broader, more expensive projects.

New York’s SafeSeniors program will be implemented in pilot areas this spring, and if it proves as successful a program as Safe Routes to Senior Centers did in Mary Stark’s Portland, other states are even more likely to adopt similar strategies.

That’s a boon not only for older pedestrians, but for everyone who walks as well, according to George Branyan at the District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation. “Traffic engineers always talk about a ‘design vehicle’—that’s the most complicated thing a street is built to carry, usually a bus or a truck,” he says. “We want the design vehicle to be an older person, as well as a truck. If we can design for the most vulnerable street users and those with the most specific needs, then we’ve made streets safe for them and everything in between.”

Graham T. Beck is a writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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