Living alone can be isolating, so Mary Dee Heim of Avalon tries to get out every day for a walk on the streets of her town north of Pittsburgh. She heads to the adjacent community of Bellevue, where residents can shop for groceries, pick up prescriptions and check out library books without buckling a seat belt.
But it's not a walker's paradise.
Heim, 91, said crossing streets can be dangerous because drivers don't always stop for pedestrians.
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Repainting faded crosswalk markings is one recommendation in a report on how Avalon and Bellevue could be better designed for pedestrians, bicyclists, wheelchair users and people pushing strollers.
As part of an effort to make neighborhoods friendlier to pedestrians, AARP and the Walkable and Livable Communities (WALC) Institute are looking at communities nationwide, hoping to transform them into places where residents can go about their daily lives without relying on cars.
"We've built towns, cities — places where you have no choice but to drive," said Dan Burden, executive director of the nonprofit institute that helps communities encourage walking. "Once you can't drive, you have to get somebody else to drive for you."
He said communities that require the use of cars for daily tasks are not conducive to people who want to age in their own homes.
In each community, the effort begins with workshops that provide tips for local officials who want to make it easier for residents to leave their cars parked.
AARP Pennsylvania is focusing on three communities, hoping to make them more friendly to older adults who can't drive or would rather walk for exercise and shopping. Bellevue and Avalon were chosen because the combined area has a compact business district and several apartment buildings where older adults live, said AARP Pennsylvania spokesman Steve Gardner. A similar program is planned in Allentown later this year.
Together, the boroughs of Bellevue and Avalon have about 13,000 residents; more than 15 percent are 65 or older.
As part of a November workshop, about 30 borough officials and residents walked through Avalon and Bellevue, taking note of barriers to pedestrians.
During that walk, AARP volunteer Barb Bush saw many pedestrians along the main street that goes through each borough.
"There were a lot of people who were blind, people with walkers, people with canes, and people on bikes, and people walking their pets," said Bush, who has lived in Avalon for 55 years.
She said the addition of benches to allow pedestrians to rest and bus shelters to protect riders from rain or snow would make the Avalon and Bellevue main streets more pleasant and useful for pedestrians. The suggestion was echoed in the report's findings.
Burden said communities where people can walk to the places they go regularly are more attractive to people of all ages, along with being livable for residents who can't drive.
His suggestions for improving Bellevue and Avalon include repairing cracked sidewalks and building curbs to bulge out at crosswalks so drivers and pedestrians can see each other more easily.
Trees, bike racks, better signs
Burden's group also suggested planting trees along sidewalks. Trees and clear crosswalk markings have the added benefit of giving drivers visual hints to slow down, he said.
Other suggestions include adding bike racks; installing street signs that point the way to libraries, shops, post offices and schools; and marking traffic lanes to tell motorists that they must share the road with bicyclists.
Before AARP and the WALC Institute began their assessment of Avalon and Bellevue, elected officials had been discussing ways to make the area more walkable. Kathy Coder, a member of the Bellevue Borough Council, said officials plan to incorporate suggestions from AARP and the WALC Institute into designs for new or reconstructed roads.
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Rebecca VanderMeulen is a writer living in Downingtown, Pa.