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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.”

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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