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

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What Should Be Done?
Poor city planning and sprawling development has made it even more necessary to improve pedestrian design. While it's the city's job to provide reliable public transportation and well-lit streets with safe, sheltered benches to rest. From a planner's perspective, measures should be taken to prevent highways from dividing commercial spaces from residential spaces. But these things take time. Designers and engineers can—and should—react more immediately to the pedestrian design needs of senior citizens. After all, as David Harkey points out, many new technologies are available today that allow engineers to make improvements that simply weren't possible as recently as five years ago.

In Los Angeles, Calif. and Portland, Ore., engineers are using microwave technology to detect the presence of persons in crosswalks. If a pedestrian is moving more slowly across the street, the detector will recognize this and automatically extend the "WALK" signal for several more seconds, allowing the pedestrian to cross safely.
    • Improving curb design is another popular recommendation, notes Harkey. Tightening curb radii, for instance, prevents vehicles from rounding corners at high speeds. A senior pedestrian with a slower reaction time and reduced agility may not be able to jump out of the way of a fast-moving vehicle as quickly as a younger pedestrian.

    • Better refuge areas should be constructed so that pedestrians can actually feel comfortable in taking refuge at the median when a vehicle suddenly enters the intersection.

    • Probably the most widely agreed-upon design improvement is a change in street crossing times. For years, the transportation industry has designed street crossings based on the "average" speed of 2.8 ft/s. But this figure represented the average time it took a young, healthy, unimpaired person to cross the street.

    • Taking into account the slower gait and shorter stride of older people—as well as longer traveling times for disabled pedestrians—the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Department of Transporation recommended in the Older Driver Highway Design Handbook (Publication No. FHWA-RD-97-135, January 1998) that pedestrian control signal timing be based on an assumed walking speed of 1.4 ft/s (0.43 m/s). They also recommend the installation of warning signs to explain precisely what the various crosswalk signal icons mean.
Even the smallest design and engineering improvements can make a big difference. And for senior pedestrians like Ina Evans, they can mean the difference between walking safely and confidently across the street—or waiting in traffic.