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America’s Streets Aren’t Ready for Aging Population

A majority of transportation planners and engineers say that they don’t explicitly consider the needs of older people in their work. In a study released by AARP today—the first comprehensive evaluation of how street policies address the needs of older adults—two-thirds of more than 1,000 professionals admitted measures that would increase safety for those with specific challenges don’t enter their minds when they design roadways, sidewalks and intersections.

“This is a finding that the transportation industry should not take lightly,” says Jana Lynott, a strategic policy adviser for AARP’s Public Policy Institute and the author of the report “Planning Complete Streets for an Aging America.” “Older drivers may find their roads unnecessarily difficult to navigate and thus give up their keys before they would otherwise. For those wishing to get to their destinations on foot or public transportation, they put themselves in peril.”

This information arrives just as the first boomers approach retirement age. In a little more than 15 years, one in nearly four drivers in the United States will be age 65 and older. Surveys have shown that older drivers today drive farther and more often than ever before.

However, physical and mental decline often associated with aging puts older road users at greater risk. In 2007, older adults, who only make up 13 percent of the total population, accounted for 14 percent of all traffic fatalities, 14 percent of all vehicle occupant fatalities and 19 percent of all pedestrian fatalities.

Completing the streets

The lack of attention to the transportation needs of older people comes as no surprise to many. In a poll conducted for the AARP study, 40 percent of adults age 50 and over said the sidewalks in their neighborhoods are inadequate. Nearly 50 percent reported they cannot cross main roads close to their home safely, yet half of them would walk, bicycle or take a bus more often if the problems were fixed.

Mobility activists assert that the best way to address these problems is with “complete streets” policies, which allow pedestrians, bicyclists and those who use public transportation to share the road safely and comfortably with automobiles. More than 85 communities across the nation have already done so; California and Hawaii have even adopted a state law, and just in the last few weeks Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, D, signed an executive order adopting such measures. And though it’s still early to collect statistics that appraise the results of complete streets, other benefits are well documented. Practically, this means ensuring streets have adequate resting places, ramps on the crosswalks, visible signs, bike lanes, on-street parking, wide sidewalks and other amenities.

Boulder, Colo., has been incorporating paved shoulders, more than 380 miles of dedicated bikeways and a transit network of buses into the city and surrounding area. As a result, between 1990 and 2006, more people walked or bicycled and mass transportation trips grew by 500 percent, according to the National Research Center, a research firm in Boulder.

In 1999, San Francisco put Valencia Street on a “road diet,” converting four through lanes to three plus creating a center turn lane and bicycle paths. As a result, the city discovered that bike traffic increased 144 percent and collisions decreased. Advocates of the new bicycle-pedestrian path on the Ravenel highway bridge in Charleston, S.C., commissioned a study that found 65 percent of users are getting adequate exercise due in large part to using the bridge path.

Such projects are “very visible in the communities that are doing it,” says Barbara McCann, director of the Complete the Streets Coalition, which includes diverse groups ranging from AARP, the Institute of Transportation Engineers, the American Public Transit Association, the League of American Bicyclists and the Society of Landscape Architects. “It’s rather inspiring.”

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