It's Time to Take Back the Streets and Make Them Safe for Walking

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They sure don't look like they're Snapchatting. (Photo: Garry Knight [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

There are 75 million baby boomers in the USA. By 2020, 56 million of them will be over 65 years old. A lot of them want to live in walkable communities, and we're not just talking about urban boomers. According to a recent study:

This desire doesn’t only pertain to seniors who are active on a daily basis. According to the report, 26 percent of assisted living consumers, 38 percent of independent living consumers and as many as 53 percent of senior apartment consumers want walkability. This preference is not just for city dwellers either — more than half of suburban consumers, as well as one-third or more of consumers who prefer rural areas, want walkability.

The trouble is, our communities aren't designed for people who walk; they're designed for people who drive. This makes them particularly deadly for walking boomers and seniors. As our population ages, older people are disproportionately being killed. Writing in the Globe and Mail, Marcus Gee describes what's happening in Toronto:

The number of people who are killed or injured by cars while walking city streets is shocking. Last year was the deadliest for pedestrians since 2003, with 43 killed, according to police figures. In one 24-hour period alone, 24 were hit by cars. Two-thirds of those who died last year were over 65 years old.

The usual thing these days is to blame the pedestrians for distracted walking, but as I noted in an earlier post, most 65 year olds are not Snapchatting when they cross the street.

Older people are dying in the streets because they take longer to get across the road. A British study noted that "the vast majority of people over 65 years old in England are unable to walk fast enough to use a pedestrian crossing." I have quoted Brad Aaron of Streetsblog:

If your transport system has zero tolerance for anyone who isn’t a fit adult, the system is the problem, and ... By casting blame elsewhere you assume everyone is like you — can see, hear, walk perfectly. Arrogant & extremely unhelpful

Older people are dying in the streets because their bodies are more fragile, yet the mix of vehicles on the street gets deadlier every year as more people drive SUVs and pickup trucks that have front ends that are like vertical walls of steel. In Europe, cars have to meet tough standards for pedestrian safety; In America this is ignored. SUVs and pickups kill at twice the rate of regular cars, yet there are no standards.

Older people are dying in the streets because cars go too fast; slowing them down makes a huge difference in the number of crashes and how deadly they are, as you can see in the chart above.

Marcus Gee calls for pedestrians to learn from the cyclists and to get organized, to see themselves as a group, a tribe.

Pedestrians don't see themselves the same way at all. They have no sense of solidarity. A fellow pedestrian is simply another person walking. You will often see a bike that bears a sticker demanding more bike lanes or warning drivers to share the road. You will never see a pedestrian with a T-shirt demanding the right to walk in safety. Pedestrians need to find their feet and fight for their lives.

Gee is right. A lot more people are walking these days for exercise, for health and because driving is becoming such a miserable experience in many cities. Not everyone can cycle but almost everyone can walk — and almost everybody does, even if it is just from the parking spot to the mall.

It’s time to change this; it’s time to make walking safer for seniors and boomers.

We need Vision Zero and road diets. Just lowering speed limits doesn’t work; people will drive at the speed they feel safe driving at. Narrower roads slow drivers down and make it easier for people to cross.

We need safer, more pedestrian-friendly cars. American cars should have to all meet the European safety standards; SUVs and pickups should have to meet them or be banned from cities.

Pedestrians have to not only learn from cyclists, but to work together with them. Gee gives too much credit to cyclists for organizing; they are loud but their victories are few and far between. Gee concludes by saying that pedestrians should learn from "empowered loudmouths on bikes" — and of course, the first comment on his post is from someone complaining about cyclists riding on sidewalks. In fact, cyclists and pedestrians are fighting over scraps, arguing with each other instead of coordinating.

There are 75 million baby boomers who should all be out there walking. It’s time for them to take back the streets.