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America’s Streets Aren’t Ready for Aging Population

U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., agrees. Her home district includes Sacramento, which has started to implement complete-streets policies. “Our recent reconfiguration of several miles of streets in central Sacramento have been well received by both residents and commuters, and we have seen a tremendous increase in the amount of people—of all ages—walking and bicycling,” Matsui says. “We have also seen a reduction of speeding by motorists, and I think Sacramentans have really taken a fresh look at the way street design can improve our quality of life."

Earlier this year, Matsui and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, introduced the Complete Streets Act in their respective houses of Congress. The measure would direct states and metropolitan regions that receive federal dollars for roadways to comply with a mandate that future road investments take into account the needs of people of all ages and abilities as pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders and drivers. Proponents of the bills hope the measure will be included in the federal surface transportation authorization act, expected to be passed later this year. But as with many broad national initiatives, funding remains a problem.

Addressing needs of older drivers and pedestrians

However, less than one-third of state and local complete-streets policies explicitly address the needs of older road users, the AARP study concludes. “The big difference [between older road users and the rest of the population] is that because of decline in eyesight, reaction time and focus and the ability to judge the speed of moving vehicles, older users cannot as readily navigate hostile travel environments,” says Lynott.

Because half of all older driver deaths occur at intersections, reducing the speed limit in areas where vehicles and pedestrians meet would assist them substantially, the study says. So would spreading traffic broadly throughout a connected network of streets with lower-speed routes and reducing the number of neighborhood streets that connect to a single artery. Using left turn lanes in areas of heavy traffic and pedestrian crossing reduces the need for drivers to judge if they have enough time to make a safe turn. Designated green arrows can cut left turn crashes in half, according to a 2004 Department of Transportation and Institute of Transportation Engineers report on intersection safety.

“Older drivers also have trouble making sharp turns,” says Lynott. Adding bike lanes and parallel parking increases the turning arc at intersections, making it easier for older drivers to turn.

Phil Caruso, the deputy director for technical programs of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, says he’s not surprised that transportation planners don’t necessarily consider the needs of older Americans and the disabled when planning. “Historically, the tendency is to look at capacity—incorporating the maximum number of vehicles, safely, into a design,” says Caruso. “Those in the profession now were trained to think of the capacity, rather than the types of people who are going to be driving the vehicles or walking.”

But Caruso says this thought process is changing. In the past 10 to 15 years, professional organizations like the Institute of Transportation Engineers, which has a membership of 17,000 traffic engineers and transportation planners, have begun to train professionals to consciously address the value of older drivers and pedestrians.

“Now, the sensitivity is there,” he says, “and it’s starting to happen because it’s a national priority.”

Carol Kaufmann is a contributing editor at theAARP Bulletin.

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