Older Advocates Are Getting Results

Older activists were a huge part of the fight for a safer Prospect Park West.
Image courtesy of Andrew Hinderaker

Older Americans are bringing youthful energy to the fight for safer streets.

While on the national stage, advocacy titans like AARP are pushing for Complete Streets, in neighborhoods around the five boroughs, T.A. activists are partnering with senior centers, intergenerational justice groups like the Gray Panthers and anyone else who wants to make sure that local streets serve everyone equally.

“In New York City, seniors make up 12 percent of the population, but they account for 36 percent of total pedestrian fatalities every year,” said Gene Aronowitz, a 75-year-old Transportation Alternatives volunteer who teaches street safety classes at senior centers and residences around the city.

“And the number of older people is increasing,” he added. “We’ll be about 15 percent of the population of New York City by 2030, so this really needs to happen to keep these individuals safe. They’re obviously disproportionately vulnerable.”

For years, T.A. has fought for engineering improvements that can help aging New Yorkers stay active and safe, such as extending pedestrian crossing times at crosswalks to accommodate slower walking speeds, constructing pedestrian safety islands, widening curbs and medians, narrowing roadways and installing new stop controls and signals.

After T.A. advocated for the targeted application of these enhancements in communities with a high population of older residents, the City adopted a program called Safe Streets for Seniors in 2008. Since its inception, pedestrian fatalities have decreased 19 percent citywide, from 58 senior fatalities in 2008 to 48 in 2012. Of course, there’s clearly more to do. That’s one of the reasons T.A. has broadened its efforts to include more education.

“Walkable, livable neighborhoods help seniors live independent, happy lives,” said T.A.’s Manhattan Organizer Thomas DeVito. “When older people feel unsafe on our streets, when walking to the super market or a park causes anxiety or strain, that is a major quality-of-life issue for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.

There is a moral imperative to make our communities safer for our most vulnerable neighbors. Street redesigns are necessary, longer crossing times are key, and education programs provide seniors resources to keep themselves safe.”

Aronowitz has taught about 15 street safety classes so far, mostly at centers and residences in Manhattan and Queens. He advises participants not to cross the street immediately upon arriving at an intersection with a walk signal, as there’s no way to know how long the signal has been on. It is smarter, he says, to wait until the light cycles to the next walk phase. He also cautions participants about bicyclists, cars that make U-turns or drive in reverse and other common situations that could turn deadly.

When asked what he would perceive as a victory, he said, “A win would be that we save lives. And on the other side, that we turn more people on to making streets safer. I think that would be a win as well. To get older people on our side is powerful medicine. But I’m not minimizing street safety classes, I think we can really help people live better lives.”