Spring 2005, p.18

Safe Streets
Safe Enough for Everyone
Putting New York City’s most vulnerable street users back on equal ground

Seniors and the disabled face unique mobility challenges here at 168th Street and Broadway in Manhattan and citywide.

Seniors and the disabled face unique mobility challenges here at 168th Street and Broadway in Manhattan and citywide.

Not all streets are equal. This is apparent from the routes we choose to bike and walk on to the streets we avoid at all costs. The number and width of traffic lanes, the width of sidewalks, the timing of traffic lights, the presence of traffic calming devices are just a few characteristics that can distinguish a healthy street—one encourages healthier and less polluting forms of transportation—from an unhealthy street where no cyclist or pedestrian would eagerly choose to travel.

The difference between healthy and unhealthy streets now resonates with both transportation planners and public health experts. These two unlikely allies have begun to unite around the realization that that street design has an enormous impact on the prevalence of traffic fatalities, injuries and chronic diseases like asthma and diabetes.

For years Transportation Alternatives has fought to help health professionals and transportation planners make the health-transportation connection. Even before the advent of T.A.’s Safe Routes to School and Safe Routes for Seniors campaigns, we were raising community expectations for safer streets to allow New Yorkers to use more active modes of transportation to improve their overall health and wellbeing.

Through our efforts, the wider health and transportation communities are also begin-ning to realize another key truth about the health impacts of streets: some people are much more vulnerable to dangerous street conditions than others—not just because of where they live, but because of age and ability. Young pedestrians, like elderly ones, are much more likely to be involved in crashes, and are less likely to survive a crash. Young children are more likely to dash out in the street mid-block, and misestimate the amount of time they need to get across the street safely. Seniors need much more time to get across the street than children, are more susceptible to cracked sidewalks, potholes and have difficulty crossing wide streets. Both the Safe Routes to School and Safe Routes for Seniors campaigns work to protect two of New York City’s most vulnerable populations on the streets. But though these two groups are both vulnerable, there are large differences in the ways in which they interact with New York City streets.

Is there a “best design” that addresses the particular needs of youth and seniors? Are there street designs that can help both groups avoid crashes and enhance mobility and activity?

Is there a "best design" that addresses particular needs of youth, seniors, and the disabled?

The answer is yes. Enter Disabled in Action the latest group to assist in the evolution of a T.A. campaign. Thanks to a new grant from Health Research, Inc. T.A. is expanding Safe Routes for Seniors to also address street safety and mobility issues specific to people with mobility and visual impairments. Disabled in Action is a group of advocates for people with disabilities made up of a wide range of people with minor to severe disabilities. As a group, they know pretty much every corner, building, and transportation system in the city. Disabled in Action needs to know all of the ins and outs of New York City so that they can help their constituents figure out how to get around and which buildings are accessible. Working with Disabled in Action has helped us see the best universal street design for people is one in which someone who can not walk or see can cross safely.

Widening sidewalks, crosswalks and curb cuts for people in wheelchairs helps people with strollers, or packages, or dogs. Audible pedestrian signals for people with limited vision helps everyone to know when it is their turn to cross the street. Maintaining the streets and giving someone with a ser-vice dog and a cane enough time to cross the street without falling is beneficial to seniors who also need this additional time. The list goes on. The goal of this work, as always, is to improve the streets to encourage walking and improve people’s health. Designing streets for the most frail or vulnerable pedestrian in mind just makes sense. With the addition of people with disabilities this campaign has come full circle, back to the basic goal of creating accessible infrastructure for all New Yorkers.

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