The Design Needs of Senior Pedestrians
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.
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 themproudly 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.
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 essential30 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 ridesor 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, andif 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:
visual acuity, poor central vision, reduced ability to scan the
A reduced range of joint mobility
Reduced ability to detect and localize different sounds
Reduced tolerance for extreme temperature and environment
Decreased agility, balance, and stability
Inability to quickly avoid dangerous situations
Excessive trust that other motorists will obey traffic
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?
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 canand
shouldreact 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
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 streetor
waiting in traffic.
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 peopleas well as longer traveling times for disabled
pedestriansthe 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.