Road planners tend to look at road design, efficiency, and cost first. Road users themselves, are something of an afterthought, if thought of at all.
The problem with this approach is that it omits the most important thing of all, the needs of the road users. For some road users, this omission is a mere inconvenience. For others, it can mean the difference between life and death.
In recent years, we have come to call those whose lives are most at risk on the roads “vulnerable road users.” Although this term is descriptive, it doesn’t come close to explaining what it is intended to convey. And, it leaves out important groups of individuals, who don’t exactly use the roads, but rather interface with them for the purpose of traveling from one destination to the next.
The group in question is pedestrians. Pedestrians are only “road users” in a loose sense of the word. Most of the time, they are walking on a sidewalk, away from the vehicles traveling on the road. Occasionally, they are either forced or choose to walk in the roadway, at which point they are sharing the road, but only to a small degree. But, the majority of the time, they only interact with other road users when crossing a street.
As most pedestrians know, crossing a major street can be treacherous. Even with the advent of crosswalk signals, there is no guarantee that crossing a street will be safe.
To complicate matters, some pedestrians have more trouble crossing the street than others. Take the elderly, for instance. In recent years, doctors and other health experts have been advising senior citizens to walk more for their health. Those who are in decent health and who want to maintain their health take this advice to heart. Therefore, we are now seeing larger numbers of elderly pedestrians walking along major roads.
Unfortunately, just as the seniors have put on their walking shoes to attain better health, we have seen an increase in the number of elderly pedestrians being struck by cars.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration has written a document entitled “Designing Sidewalks and Trails for Access.” This document outlines best practices for determining how much time should be allowed for crossing streets. With respect to elderly pedestrians they wrote:
“People’s decision and reaction times before they start walking, as well as their walking pace, vary depending on several factors. Older pedestrians and pedestrians with vision or cognitive impairments may all require longer starting times to verify that cars have stopped. They may also have slower reaction times and slower walking speeds. Both powered and manual wheelchair users on level or downhill slopes may travel faster than other pedestrians. But on uphill slopes, manual wheelchair users have slower travel speeds. At intersections without accessible information to indicate the onset and direction of the WALK interval, people with vision impairments require longer starting times to verify that their pedestrian interval has started and it is appropriate to cross safely. Additional information about accessible pedestrian signals can be found in Chapter 6.
The MUTCD standard identifies a “normal” walking speed as 1.22 m/s (4 ft/s). However, research indicates that the majority of pedestrians walk at a speed that is slower than this and that 15 percent of pedestrians walk at speeds less than 1.065 m/s (3.5 ft/s) (Kell and Fullerton, 1982). The latter group includes a large proportion of people with ambulatory impairments and older adults. As the population ages, the number of pedestrians traveling at slower walking speeds is increasing. Therefore, it is recommended that the calculation of all crossing times be based on a walking speed of no more than 1.065 m/s (3.5 ft/s). The City of San Francisco calculates pedestrian crossing times based on a walking speed of 855 mm/s (2.8 ft/s).
In the past, transportation manuals have recommended longer crossing times at intersections with high volumes of older adults or people with mobility impairments. However, every intersection will be used by a variety of pedestrians including some individuals who walk slowly and others who walk quickly. Therefore, adjusting crossing times based on 1.065 m/s (3.5 ft/s) should be considered at all intersections. Longer pedestrian signal cycles are strongly recommended at crossings that are unusually long or difficult to negotiate. Longer signal cycles are also recommended for crossings, such as those that provide access to a rehabilitation or senior center, where a higher proportion of the potential users may have a slower walking speed. Engineers are also encouraged to consider recent advancements in technology that can detect pedestrians in the crosswalk and extend the pedestrian interval as needed. Note that accessible pedestrian signals may be necessary since pedestrians who are blind may not know how the signals cycle.”
As they point out, the U.S. population is aging so the number of slower walkers is increasing. However, very little emphasis has been placed on addressing the problems this entails.
Existing crosswalks are timed for the average pedestrian, someone who is reasonably young and able bodied. Even young people can attest to the fact that some walk signs require the pedestrian to start as soon as the sign illuminates and to walk briskly to make it to the other side of the road before the no walk signal is illuminated. There is simply not enough time for an elderly or disabled person to make it across the road while the walk sign is lit.
Factor in aggressive drivers who begin turning while pedestrians are stepping into the road and the poorer reflexes and judgment of elderly people and you have a recipe for disaster. This is true in other parts of the world as well as the U.S., for example in Canada and Australia.
As cyclists, we are aware of how vulnerable road users can be. We are no match for motor vehicles at the time of impact. The same is true of pedestrians.
The plight of the elderly pedestrians is another sign that we must use a broader view in designing roads. Roads are not just for cars anymore. They are part of a larger picture, a picture of an active lifestyle and citizens’ desire to be more mobile, even in urban environments. Bicycles and pedestrians, which were once outsiders in the transportation scene, are becoming more central to the rules of our roads. How we plan and maintain our roads will have to be adjusted to meet these differences. But, the first step is recognition of these new problems, and acceptance of the need to look for solutions.