The wide avenues of the Upper West Side have some of this city's handsomest neighborhoods, premier cultural venues and long stretches of green space. They also have a remarkably deadly history for pedestrians, a fact not lost on Joel Ruben as he ambled across Broadway.
Ruben, 88, stood on the sidewalk and looked north into four lanes of traffic heading his way. As other pedestrians inched into the street against the "Don't walk" sign, looking to get a head start on the green light, Ruben hung back until he had the "Walk" sign. "I'm very careful," he said after reaching the other side, a few seconds after "Don't walk" began flashing red.
For good reason: At least a dozen pedestrians aged 66 to 93 have been killed within a 10-block radius of this spot since 2001, highlighting what transportation experts say is a nationwide problem confronting cities that for decades designed streets for fast-moving vehicles.
What they didn't consider was the aging of America, a trend laid bare by the 2010 census and now presenting cities — especially pedestrian-heavy ones like New York — with a problem.
"Streets are no longer primarily for moving traffic as quickly as possible. That's a very 1950s notion of middle America," said Noah Budnick, the deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, a New York research and advocacy group. "Our streets are where we live in this city, and walking is the primary mode of how people get around. But older people simply don't have enough time to cross the street."
Transportation for America, based in Washington, highlighted the issue last month in "Dangerous By Design," a study of traffic fatalities from 2000 through 2009. Nationwide, people 65 and older make up 13% of the population but represent about 22% of pedestrian deaths.
Both organizations link the disproportionate number of elderly victims to street plans that failed to anticipate a number of social shifts in the country: the first of the 78 million baby boomers turning 65 this year; more retirees moving to urban areas; people living longer; and walking being the main form of exercise for the elderly.
The 2010 census showed growth in the percentage of middle-aged and elderly people far outpacing those 45 and younger. By 2030, the 65-plus crowd is expected to account for 19% of the nation's population.
"We're going to see lots more people living to 85 and beyond," said David Goldberg of Transportation for America. "The impact of having designed our communities so totally around being able to drive for your every need is going to be felt in a very significant way."
Few places illustrate the problem the way New York does. It boasted a 35% drop in traffic fatalities from 2001 to 2009, and the city's transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, noted in a recent report that 2009 was the safest year since record-keeping began in 1910. Yet pedestrians accounted for 31% of people killed in traffic accidents from 2001 to 2009 — the highest of any metropolitan area. No. 2 was the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana region, where 27.2% of traffic crash fatalities were pedestrians. In both places, senior citizens accounted for a disproportionate share of the pedestrian victims.
In response to concerns raised by Transportation Alternatives, New York launched Safe Streets for Seniors in 2008. Among other things, the program calls for the installation of "countdown" signals at 1,500 intersections. The plan — initially budgeted at $4 million — also will introduce speed bumps, extend curbs, add medians and make other changes in response to accident data.
But foremost among Transportation Alternatives' demands is an adjustment of signal timing. Budnick said the assumption is that walkers can cover 3.5 to 4 feet per second, but most elderly walkers manage 2.5 feet per second. The city's Department of Transportation says 1,265 intersections with signals have been timed for a walking speed of 3 feet per second; Budnick, noting that there are about 12,000 such intersections in New York, says more should be adjusted to allow a longer crossing time.
On a recent Friday, Budnick and Julia De Martini Day, a planner for Transportation Alternatives, stood at a bustling corner in upper Manhattan to illustrate their point. With a subway station, a senior citizens home and a hospital facing the intersection, it was a hive of fast-moving traffic and slow-moving people. An elderly man with a cane inched out from the curb, peering eastward into traffic as the "Don't walk" sign shone red.
"He wants to get a head start," De Martini Day said.
Ruben takes the opposite approach. "I never attempt to cross if it's in the middle of 'Walk,'" he said.
The timing issue gained attention in 2006 after Mayvis Coyle was ticketed $114 for taking too long to cross a Los Angeles street. The fine was dismissed amid complaints that the time allotted for crossing was not enough for many able-bodied people, much less Coyle, who was 82 and walked with a cane.
Now, with the latest reports and the census underscoring the aging of America, advocates are hoping to press the federal government to require federally funded road projects to take into account new designs aimed at pedestrian safety. Separately, a bill sponsored by Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) and introduced in the House last month would direct the secretary of Transportation to carry out a program in all states to improve road safety for senior citizens.
"Getting around independently — it's something you take for granted until you reach those later years," said Robin Leaman, who is 80 and lives in Manhattan's Lower East Side. It's a particularly perilous area for pedestrians, but Leaman said for elderly people who no longer drive, there is no other option.
"Things are so close together. Things are convenient. You have much better medical care here, and there's a sense of community," she said. "It's those things you need in your later years."