Gotham Gazette

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Helping Old New Yorkers Get Around Town

Segundo Musse doesn't walk too much anymore. "I got hit by a car and broke both my legs," he said surveying the scene along Manhattan Avenue in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. "I used to be quick on my feet. Now, I'm slow and I'm only getting slower."

Musse, age 67, is one of 1.25 million New York City residents over 60. Like many others his age, he has seen his mobility diminish over time. "If I need to go somewhere, I take the bus," he said. "It's a pain to get around, but with the senior pass it's cheap enough and it's better for me than walking or the subway."

Late last month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a series of transportation improvements aimed at older New Yorkers like Musse. Bloomberg's plan, dubbed "Safe Streets for Seniors," promises traffic engineering improvements at 25 high-accident areas that are especially problematic for aging residents.

What has prompted these changes? And what will they look like?

Walk At Your Own Risk

As it is for most New Yorkers, walking is a key form of transportation for older residents. Whether one walks down the block for milk and groceries, gets to a bus or subway by foot or goes out to hail a taxi, walking is a necessary part of almost every trip in the City.

But for many older people, New York City streets are hostile turf. According to research by Transportation Alternatives, residents age 60 or over make up only 13 percent of the population, but account for more than 33 percent of all pedestrian injuries and fatalities.

Although pedestrian fatalities declined sharply in 2007, one third of the 138 pedestrians killed by cars on New York City streets were seniors. And as the elderly population grows -- the Department of City Planning predicts a 44 percent increase in residents age 65 and older by 2030 -- the need for infrastructure designed with older New Yorkers in mind becomes more pressing.

The loss of speed and agility that often accompanies old age, along with increased susceptibility to injury and fatality from falls and impacts, make seniors more vulnerable to injury and death from traffic accidents.

"The things that most people don't even have to think of, like crossing the street, some older people really struggle with. Stepping off and back on to a curb and making it across the street during a walk signal can be next to impossible," said Amy Pfeiffer, director of planning at Transportation Alternatives.

When calculating the length of a walk signal, the city transportation department uses an estimated walking speed of 4 feet per second, the speed of an average adult, to determine the length of time a pedestrian needs to cross an intersection. But many older New Yorkers move at a much slower pace.

Rachel Krug, a doctoral student at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and author of "Discriminatory by Design: A senior citizen focused study of streets and intersections on New York City's Upper East Side," found that only 25.2 percent of seniors that she observed in her research walked at 4 feet per second, with many moving closer to 2.5 feet per second. So while the transportation department calculates that it would take 15 seconds to cross a 60-foot road like 23rd Street or 72nd Street in Manhattan, many older New Yorkers would need 24 seconds.

"Near Lincoln Center, I've talked to seniors whose friends have been hit and killed at certain crossings," said Pfeiffer, who has spent hundreds of hours researching older New Yorkers' transportation habits. "They now walk out of their way to cross the street. For a senior to walk a block out of the way because they don't feel safe crossing the street is a real burden."

Krug also pointed out that perceptual impairments, like bad eyesight or balance, and even some mobility aides, like walkers, canes and wheelchairs, can make some parts of trips more difficult for elderly populations.

Getting Across Safely

So what is the city doing about this?

Following the mayor's pledge to improve 25 areas that are particularly problematic for seniors, the New York City Department of Transportation released some details of their plan. Flushing, Queens, Brighton Beech in Brooklyn, New Dorp on Staten Island, Fordham in the Bronx and Manhattan's Lower East Side will receive senior-minded safety upgrades this year. Officials state that there are 20 other neighborhoods being considered for similar enhancements in the future.

The specific improvements include:


  • Retiming traffic signals to correspond with slower walking speeds.
  • Giving pedestrians several seconds of dedicated crossing time before cars can start moving and/or turning.
  • Repairing and establishing pedestrian ramps to make steps on and off the curb safer and more convenient for all people, particularly those with walkers and the like.
  • Installing pedestrian islands in wide streets.
  • Shortening crossing distances.
  • Restricting vehicle turns.

Pfeiffer said such simple modifications go a long way. "Our basic safety treatment is so simple because we wanted to do as much as possible for as little money to help make it repeatable at other locations." More dangerous intersections, though, might require additional methods, such as enlarged corners, known as bulb-outs, she said. These expanded corners shorten the crossing distance at intersections and, by narrowing the space for cars, force the vehicles to slow down.

In 73 of New York City's 2,246 census tracts, more than 30 percent of the population is age 60 or over. In 16 of them, 40 percent of the population is 60 or above. The city hopes to concentrate its improvements in areas where they are needed most.

Making Transit Accessible

But the travel needs of older New Yorkers extend beyond crossing streets. Gene Russianoff, senior staff attorney for the Straphanger's Campaign, notes older New Yorkers are challenged on public transit as well. "If we want to have mobility for older New Yorkers the transportation system has to be more senior friendly," he said. "Signs that are easier to read would be a good start. Announcements that you can understand, that's the aim of a century long quest."

Ruth Finkelstein, vice president for health policy at the New York Academy of Medicine agrees. "Using a walker and living in Brooklyn should not mean that you lose access to a job, museums, the theater or a lifetime of friends that are in Manhattan. But to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan by bus can take two and a half hours. That's prohibitively long and so we have to get serious about subway access."

Access-a-ride service that is more consistent, convenient and courteous also is needed, according to Finkelstein and Pfeiffer.

More pubic seating, to enable those walking to take a short break, would also help. "Being comfortable in your neighborhood is a primary precursor in being able to stay independent and active. If you can't get around in your neighborhood first you can't get around anywhere else," said Finkelstein.

Checking On The Changes

In the coming months, the City Council and the New York Academy of Medicine in collaboration with the Bloomberg administration will hold a series of public forums in all five boroughs as part of the "All Ages Project" and "Age-Friendly NYC." The sessions will allow the public, and older New Yorkers in particular, to weigh in on the promised improvements and help shape further recommendations.

Millions of aging New Yorkers will be watching to see if the city makes good on its promises and whether the improvements really make it easier for older New Yorkers to move around the city.

"I've seen a lot of changes," said Musse when asked about the mayor's plans. "When the city wants to do something, I know they can."

Graham Beck is the managing editor of StreetBeat, the biweekly newsletter of Transportation Alternatives and a writer. He lives in Brooklyn.


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