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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.

Driving-Dependent, Living Independent
Today's seniors are more dependent on cars, travel further by car and use public transportation less. Most older Americans live in low-density areas where driving is highly essential—30 percent reside in central cities, 44 percent live in the suburbs and 26 percent make their home in rural areas. And more and more seniors live alone, responsible for their own transport.

"There's been a focus on what we do with older drivers in our aging society and keeping older motorists driving as long as possible," notes David Harkey. "But we can't wait until older motorists are unable to drive and then look at how to change things."

The situation looks grim for older persons who become unable to drive. Neighborhood streets increasingly transform into high-speed arterials. Streets have become less friendly to seniors and other pedestrians. Citizens over the age of 65 continue to have the highest pedestrian fatality rates.

Thanks to a lack of reliable public transit and streets that are easy and safe to cross and walk along to nearby destinations, many seniors who do not drive must depend on families, neighbors, friends or expensive taxi services for rides—or remain homebound.

Thinking ahead, younger seniors like Ina Evans have already made walking and public transit a part of their daily lives, combining these modes of transport with driving. But it's up to designers and engineers to help instill these habits by designing proactively to accomodate the natural changes brought on by aging.

"If we try to improve design for seniors too late it's not successful. Routines are in place that become very hard to break," Harkey says. "When seniors reach the age where driving is no longer an option, they should have already learned to also use other modes of transportation and made a habit of using them. They'll be healthier for it, too."

Effects of Aging
Since the days of Peter Pan, people all over the world have been searching for the proverbial Fountain of Youth. Today we try to postpone the aging process with exercise, make-up, plastic surgery, special diets and supplements, and—if you're Michael Jackson, sleeping in pressurized oxygen chambers. Certainly older Americans are more health-conscious than ever before. But we can't put off aging forever. When designing for the older generation, engineers must consider a whole range of conditions.

In general, the aging process causes a deterioration of physical, cognitive, and sensory abilities. According to researchers at the Federal Highway Administration, the NHTSA, and the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, problems experienced by older pedestrians can include in varying degree:

    • Decreased visual acuity, poor central vision, reduced ability to scan the environment

    • A reduced range of joint mobility

    • Reduced ability to detect and localize different sounds

    • Reduced endurance

    • Reduced tolerance for extreme temperature and environment

    • Decreased agility, balance, and stability

    • Inability to quickly avoid dangerous situations

    • Slower reflexes

    • Excessive trust that other motorists will obey traffic laws

    • Impaired judgment, confidence, and decision making abilities

What's more, seniors are more likely to experience restrictive disabilities than other age groups. In 1994-5, 52.5% of the elderly reported having one or more disabling conditions. And disabilities take a heavier toll on the very old. Nearly three quarters of the over 80 population reported having one or more disabilities.

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.