Fall 2004, p.16-17
Reclaiming the Streets
Even the most spry and fleet-footed New Yorkers are routinely hurt on streets built more for driving than walking. Narrow sidewalks, unyielding drivers and short walk signals are hazardous for all people on foot. But they are even more hazardous for our city’s elderly population. Seniors are especially likely to be killed or injured while walking; and dangerous walking conditions discourage them from this everyday exercise, jeopardizing their overall health.
As part of its groundbreaking Safe Routes for Seniors program, Transportation Alternatives has called upon the City Department of Transportation to put the needs of seniors first by giving them both more time and added protected space at crosswalks.
A Growing Vulnerable Population
In 2000, New York City was home to 1.3 million people age 65 years and older. Seniors are 16% of the city’s total population, spread across all five boroughs. In 2001, over 1,600 of the city’s seniors were injured or killed in traffic crashes, amounting to 12% of all of the crashes that year.
But this figure does not tell the whole story. While seniors represent less than a quarter of the city’s population, they regularly account for over 30% of the pedestrian deaths. This figure actually underestimates the extent of the problem since many more seniors later die from crash injuries while in the hospital; those deaths are not accounted for in State Department of Transportation records. Transportation Alternatives is working with Harlem Hospital and the City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to gather more complete emergency room and trauma data to reduce the uncertainty in senior crash statistics.
Seniors’ biggest complaint about street design is that they simply do not have enough time to cross the street. The number one issue for seniors completing an American Association of Retired Persons survey of pedestrian problems was “pedestrian crossing time too short.” Indeed, during the winter and spring of 2004, T.A. administered our own questionnaire at senior centers and hospitals to survey the daily activities and obstacles to walking for seniors in Washington Heights and Inwood in Manhattan. An overwhelming 90% of the seniors who attend lunch and activities at a center walk there daily, and disturbingly, over 50% of the 100 seniors who answered the survey indicated that they did not have enough time to cross the streets near the centers. Almost 50% also stated they would walk more if this and other intersection problems were fixed. Many said they had no other means by which to get places, so they had to walk regardless of the difficulties. One senior eating lunch at the Arc Fort Washington Senior Center at Broadway and West 174th Street noted, “Motorists are very inconsiderate of senior citizens. They beep the horn if you don’t walk fast.”
The fact that seniors cannot get across the street in time is a prime example of the City DOT’s nonexistent pedestrian policy. The problem is not the seniors, it is the way the DOT designs the streets. As part of our senior citizen crossing analysis, Transportation Alternatives studied six intersections in four neighborhoods to record how fast elderly pedestrians crossed these intersections. The study found average walking speeds of three feet per second, a full foot slower per second than the standard that the City DOT uses to determine the timing for crosswalk signals
The hostile environment of the city’s signalized crosswalks may be one of the reasons that 13% of all elderly pedestrians in New York City are killed crossing in the middle of the block. Some seniors may think that their odds of getting across the street safely are better in the middle of the block where they are not pressured by lack of time than at the traffic signal, where they know that they can not get across in time. Geraldine Moore, a 74 year-old resident of Harlem and site coordinator for the St. Nicholas Senior Center just shook her head when asked if any of her seniors have mentioned having trouble crossing to the senior center, “It is really bad for people around here. It is difficult to get across the street because the DON’T WALK comes too quickly. And then drivers don’t yield when you are stuck, they just tell you to get out of the way.” Indeed, a recent NY Daily News article about T.A.’s senior crossing time study interviewed a senior who resorts to waving her arms to make a “stop” gesture as a desperate attempt to hold drivers as she finishes crossing.
Designing Streets for an 85-Year Old on Foot
Rather than forcing our city’s seniors to risk dodging drivers in the middle of the block or desperately waving their arms to implore drivers to let them across, T.A. has called upon the City DOT to make three simple changes:
New York City has a responsibility to its aging population who depend on safe city streets to walk to and from daily activities. Giving more time to seniors is one way to ensure their safe crossings and encourage additional walking trips. This is the first step in putting elderly pedestrian safety before the needs of drivers.
Raise Your Hand if You Walk
New Yorkers cringe to hear that the City’s seniors have resorted to waving their arms in a desperate attempt to get drivers to stop for them. Yet, the City DOT’s pedestrian safety program is teaching children that this is required behavior for pedestrians. On October 6, the DOT celebrated International Walk to School Day by leading a walking school bus of 100 children from PS 128 to the agency’s Northern Manhattan Safety City center. The march traversed a number of intersections plagued by dangerous, pedestrian-unfriendly design, including unprotected medians and long crossing times. PS 128 happened to be next to the intersection where a senior profiled in a recent NY Daily News article on T.A.’s senior crossing time study had resorted to waving her arms to stop drivers. Ironically, during the walk, the DOT asked the children to raise their hands while crossing streets.
Sadly, the DOT has not learned from the experiences of other cities around the country of the ineffectiveness of hand and flag waving. Forty-eight hours after city officials placed pedestrian safety flags at a corner in Berkeley, California, a driver in a Jeep hit a 53-year-old woman in the crosswalk carrying a flag. After hitting the pedestrian, the driver swerved into the oncoming lane and collided with another vehicle.
By asking or forcing our city’s most vulnerable populations to raise their hands while crossing streets, the DOT is stigmatizing pedestrians as anomalies—a bizarre perspective in the country’s premier walking city—and violating the “Safety in Numbers” principle. The DOT’s Safe Routes to School program, which will traffic calm streets around city schools, is a strong step in the right direction of encouraging more children to walk by creating better walking conditions. Now it is time for the DOT to address the needs of seniors, the city’s other vulnerable population.
Read the latest news on reclaiming the crosswalks.
© 1997-2009 Transportation Alternatives
127 West 26th Street, Suite 1002
New York, NY 10001