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Streets Safe for Walking

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.

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.”

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.