Mary Stark, 76, walks everywhere in her Portland, Ore., neighborhood: to the grocery store, the library, the theater, and Portland State University, where she audits classes. “I’m no fanatic,” says the retired nurse, pointing out that when she visits her sons she takes the light rail to the airport. “But it’s essential for me to live and not just exist, and walking is helping me keep what I’ve got for as long as I can.”
Walking in Portland wasn’t always so easy. When Mary and her husband moved there in the 1950s, the city was not the environmentally conscious, pedestrian-friendly place that it is today. “We had to drive absolutely everywhere,” Stark says. What changed for her wasn’t simply Portland’s investment in mass transit and limiting urban sprawl, infrastructure projects that can take decades. The key that unlocked Mary Stark’s pedestrian independence is a recent program called Safe Routes to Senior Centers, a pragmatic planning approach that is now taking root in other parts or the country with far less progressive reputations than Portland's.
Novel in its simplicity and responsiveness, Safe Routes started in 2003 with local transportation officials interviewing patrons of senior centers in 11 different areas about where they wanted to walk and what kept them from doing so—things like uneven sidewalks, steep curbs and Russian-roulette traffic lights. “We listened to all of that, and then sat down with our engineers and tried to figure out simple ways to make the walking environment in these areas easier on older people,” says Sharon White, a pedestrian safety specialist at Portland’s Bureau of Transportation.
The plan seems to have worked. Last year, the federa lEnvironmental Protection Agency honored the city with the prestigious “Building Healthy Communities for Active Aging Award.”
In much larger and auto-aggressive New York, an advocacy group called Transportation Alternatives worked with city council members to make about a dozen areas with high populations of older residents safer by giving pedestrians more time to cross wide streets and making sure curbs have smooth ramps leading to street level. Its program eventually inspired the city transportation department to officially adopt the program last year and plan 25 pilot locations, five of which are already on the ground.
Then the state followed suit last December when Democratic New York Gov. David Paterson piloted the nation’s first statewide initiative aimed at making it easier and safer for older people to walk to everyday destinations. Called SafeSeniors, its simple fixes include giving people more time to cross at traffic signals, paring back landscaping to improve sight distances at intersections and using high-visibility paint for crosswalks. “SafeSeniors is focused on improving the quality of life and safety of seniors through targeted, low-cost enhancements to our transportation system,” says Paterson’s transportation commissioner, Astrid C. Glynn. “[These] are the kinds of steps that can easily be taken, even in a struggling economy.”
Glynn’s agency believes such steps will not only improve the walking environment for New York’s older residents, but also encourage other states to take similar approaches, making streets across the country safer for pedestrians 50 and over—and everyone else.
Why all the fuss?
Older Americans well know the health benefits of walking and the environmental benefits of using mass transit. According to 2006 census data, 24.5 million Americans age 55 and older walk for exercise at least six times a year. Recognizing this, cities and states are trying to encourage walking, and one of the basic ways of doing that is redesigning streets and sidewalks to be pedestrian-friendly.
But there are complications. Pedestrians are far more likely to be killed in a traffic accident if they’re older.