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Living Longer, Walking Stronger: The Design Needs of Senior Pedestrians

By Rebecca Johnson

Ina Evans demurs when asked to reveal her age, only admitting vaguely that it's "over 70." She has lived long enough to have had a successful magazine career in New York City and to be the grandmother of two teenagers in Chapel Hill, N.C., where she now makes her home. Still fit and fashionable, she changes the colorful bow that adorns her cane to match her outfits every day. She remembers a time when Seventeen magazine wouldn't utter the word "s-e-x" in its pages- during the 1940s and 50s when she was a fashion staffer there. She also remembers a time when walking across the street to the grocery store didn't entail risking her life.

Active and busy, Mrs. Evans generally travels by public transit to work as a volunteer coordinator at Ackland Art Museum and by car to tend to her daily errands. But her chores would be much simpler if she were only able to walk to a grocery store and shopping center just across the street from her apartment complex. Traveling on foot to the other side of the street, however, has become hazardous.

Mean Streets
Cars attempting to change direction on the highway or to merge onto another highway altogether make unsafe and unpredictable U-turns. Motorist focus their attention on safely merging rather than the traffic in front of them.

In fact, kids who attend the elementary school next to the shopping center are unable to cross the street alone. A five minute walk becomes a thirty minute bus ride. When parents and students walked together in the summer of 1999 to protest the unsafe crossing situation, Ina Evans was among them—proudly brandishing a red, white, and blue bow on her cane.

"The light is much too short for anyone to cross all the way over safely," Mrs. Evans says, shaking her head and watching a family run across the multi-lane street together. After pressing the pedestrian button, she waits several minutes before being given a walk signal.

Sure enough, as she steps out, the light changes midway through her crossing. According to Mrs. Evans, the median refuge island dividing the seven lanes of traffic is "miniscule" and set back so far from the crosswalk so that cars ignore it, whipping around in U-turns to change direction. Her solution? She speeds up, hoping that motorists will see her in time to slow down.

It wasn't always this way. "I am used to living in New York which is really a walking city," Mrs. Evans comments. But after years dividing their time between the Big Apple and the Virgin Islands, like many older Americans, she and her husband chose to retire to a smaller, more slow-paced town. Over the years, however, wider streets, complicated intersections, and suburban sprawl outpaced their expectations of a simpler lifestyle.

Growing Older in Growing Numbers
Pedestrian design, unfortunately, has yet to catch up with these changes. "As an industry, we've really done a bad job of designing for the older pedestrian," admits David Harkey, an engineer at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center. "And this needs to change. We have to remember that designing better for older people makes things better for all of us."

After all, we're all getting older. A century ago, in an era riddled with epidemics, the average life expectancy was only about 47 years. Today, Americans can expect to live thirty years longer than that, thanks to advances in health care, nutrition and a better quality of life overall.

Currently older Americans represent 13% of the U.S. population. By 2030 there will be about 70 million older persons living in the United States. That's more than twice their number in 1998. And the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) notes that the older population will balloon between 2010 and 2030 when the baby boom generation reaches the age of 65.

Worldwide, the older generation is growing as well. The United Nations has projected that the world's population over the age of 60 will increase rapidly from 9% in 1995 to 30% in 2150.

Even the old are getting older. The number of Americans aged 80 or over will rise sharply from 61 million in 1995 to 320 million in 2050 and 1,055 million in 2150. In fact, in Florida, the fastest growing population are those over 100!

These demographic changes will greatly change the course of pedestrian design. "Older Americans are growing in numbers, and are apt to be a driving force in the change," says Barbara McMillen, Transportation Specialist with the FHWA. Design elements such as street crossing times, she notes, will react to market forces.

next page:  Today's seniors are more dependent on cars...

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Designing for the Visually Impaired

Within the visually impaired community and the transportation policymakers, there is plenty of dissent regarding pedestrian design.

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