Safer street for everyone
by Peggy Edwards
Walking is probably the easiest and best physical activity that we can do to stay healthy as we grow older. We walk for a variety of reasons including improved well-being, experiencing enjoyable time out- of-doors, independence, sightseeing, socializing, meeting up with friends and family members, and getting to shops, services and public transit.
I walk my dog Molly several times a day and often meet other seniors out with their dogs.This is a good thing. The research confirms that having companion animals improves the health and well-being of older people and that owning a dog greatly increases the amount of walking an older person does.
Unfortunately, safety issues sometimes get in the way of happy walking.While the number of collisions involving pedestrians are highest among young people aged 16 to 25, older pedestrians are at greater risk of traffic-related deaths and severe injury. Older people have a higher risk of falling on uneven, broken, sloped and slippery sidewalks. Pedestrian falls and fear of falling among older people is exacerbated in winter
when ice and heavy snowfalls can keep seniors inside and isolated.Older walkers may also be at increased risk due to declines in vision and hearing,and because they may need some extra time getting across intersections where the light never seems to be long enough.Seniors who use wheelchairs, scooters and other aids to help with mobility are at much higher risk for traffic collisions, as are people with disabilities of all ages.
Increasingly, cities and communities are enacting policies and programs to enhance walkability and pedestrian safety for older people and other valuable and vulnerable pedestrians, such as children and people who live with a disability and/or mobility problems. Many cities and communities in Canada — including Ottawa, Peterborough and Toronto — have become part of the international Age-Friendly Cities and Communities movement. This commitment requires action in eight areas, including transportation and pedestrian concerns for older people.
As part of Ottawa’s Age-Friendly City efforts, the Council on Aging Ottawa (in partnership with the City, Ecology Ottawa and local community organizations) conducted walking audits in three Ottawa communities.Volunteers aged two to 85 (and several dogs) used an age-friendly checklist (measuring safety, accessibility, connectedness and comfort) to assess the safety and enjoyability of walking in three seasons, including winter.
Not surprisingly, winter presents serious challenges for older walkers. My attempts to do a walk audit with a group living in a local retirement residence was stymied three times — once by a fierce ice storm, once by extremely low temperatures and once by a respiratory infection that discouraged anyone from leaving or coming into the residence. Those who did venture out on their own said the only “safe”place to walk was up the middle of the road.The slanted icy sidewalks in their neighbourhood were impossible to use.
We learned a lot and as a result of the walking audits were able to make some important recommendations to the City. Here are some of the highlights:
• Cities and communities need to adopt an age- friendly “feet first” approach to transportation and public space design that assigns priority to users in this order: pedestrians (including those using motorized mobility aids), cyclists, public transit users,
motorcyclists, drivers of motor vehicles.
• More resources need to be allocated to effective snow and ice removal, particularly on sidewalks and around bus stops, and especially on streets where there are seniors’ residences and schools.
Support a “complete streets” approach, which includes:
– speed reduction strategies
– strategies to prevent collisions with people who use wheelchairs and who have vision and hearing disabilities
– curb cuts that increase accessibility for pedestrians with disabilities
– longer crossing lights and audible pedestrian signals and instructions to activate them at all signalled intersections.
– Provide a network of safe, free, clean, accessible public toilets in parks, major transit stops and key public places that meet the needs of residents and tourists of all ages.
– Benches and shaded places to rest on major walkways and in parks are appreciated by older pedestrians and enable them to walk farther and more often.
– Mixed neighbourhoods that include housing, shops, churches, services and small, neighbourhood parks encourage walking.One audit participant said,“It means I can walk to get groceries or to attend activities at the library. This is essential since I do not drive a car anymore.”
– Educate drivers (of all ages) on how to avoid collisions with pedestrians and on the vulnerabilities of older and disabled pedestrians.
Community improvements in pedestrian safety and walkability for seniors are also good for families, children and adolescents, caregivers with toddlers and strollers, people with disabilities, and people of all ages who use public transit. Let’s strive to make all of our communities walkable and age-friendly. Ultimately, it is good for us all.
I’m looking forward to hearing your ideas on topics for this column and comments about what you read here. How age-friendly is your neighborhood?Are you a walker? Do you have pedestrian safety concerns? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. ■
How age-friendly is your neighbourhood?
An Age-Friendly Walkability Report: Safe Streets for Seniors and other Valuable People in Ottawa is available at www.coaottawa.ca. The report contains an Age-Friendly Walking Checklist, which you can use to do a walking audit in your neighbourhood, as well as an example of how you can report your findings.
Did You Know? In Canada between 2000 and 2010, almost 43% of pedestrian deaths were aged 56 and over, although this age group represents less than 20% of the population. Injured senior pedestrians spend an average of 16 days in hospital, compared to seven days for all other age groups. Some 33% of Canadians over age 65 report having a disability and 81% of people with disabilities use some kind of assistive device. Wheelchair users are three times more likely to suffer from a car collision, often resulting in death or serious injuries. Driving 15 km/h over the set speed limit increases the chance of killing a pedestrian from 45% to 85%.