Communities across the nation are recognizing the pressing need to provide safe walking opportunities for senior citizens. Compared to their predecessors, senior citizens today are living longer, more active lives; and, according to the US Census Bureau, the number of Americans over the age of 65 is expected to grow 39 percent by the year 2020, with the greatest increase expected in the 85 and older age cohort. One way for seniors to live healthier lives is to incorporate exercise into their regular routine, with walking frequently recommended as the best means to achieve that goal. Walking can also be a viable transportation mode that can enable seniors to remain independent, even if they opt to reduce the time they spend driving or eliminate it altogether, by choice or otherwise. Nevertheless, some 35 senior pedestrians on average are killed in vehicular crashes in New Jersey each year. In 2011 a total of 143 pedestrian crashes occurred that involved seniors aged 65 and over, 31 of them fatal.

Benefits of Walking

The benefits of walking are universally cited and include positives such as:

Walking is easy to start:  it’s free with no special equipment is needed to begin.

  • Walking can help increase strength, flexibility, and sense of balance
  • Walking can help lower the risk of high blood pressure and obesity, and the likelihood of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis.
  • Walking can help maintain – and often improve – the wellbeing of those coping with chronic diseases.
  • Walking is a viable form of transportation, and can be especially valuable to seniors who opt to limit or cease their driving activity

Obstacles to Safe Senior Walking

Frequently cited obstacles to safe senior walking often focus on the functional limitations of aging persons, as well as existing community limitations and barriers. Physical and cognitive limitations that can accompany age often impact physical activities. For example, declines in critical abilities such as vision, hearing, mobility, and/or cognition are common. Some of these declines are compounded by factors such as increased incidence of disease and the need for medications. These potential impairments for seniors can reduce both mobility and awareness of one’s surroundings. Seniors when afflicted with these impairments are generally less able to see or hear oncoming traffic, take longer to cross the street, and have a harder time negotiating everyday obstacles, such as curbs and sidewalks.

While functional limitations are often part of the natural process of aging, our built environment may present obstacles that can hinder mobility further. Pedestrian facility design and maintenance is critical to a walkable environment for people of all ages, but can have an especially large impact on senior citizen populations. Poor maintenance and design of pedestrian facilities often results in poor walking conditions that can pose significant barriers to accessibility. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), passed in 1990 and later updated in 2009, mandates that pedestrian facilities be constructed to achieve minimum accessibility requirements, but these guidelines are not always followed.

Poorly maintained intersections with faded crosswalk striping, fail to alert pedestrians or drivers that a pedestrian crossing is present at that location. Also, crumbling or missing sidewalk segments present a major obstacle for those with mobility impairments, especially those who require wheelchairs or walkers. To add to these common maintenance missteps, lighting, traffic congestion, speed, and safety/security concerns can also pose barriers to safe senior walking in our communities.

While ADA guidelines present a clear picture of how facilities are to be designed, some design considerations go beyond what the guidelines prescribe. Intersections with large corner radii or that allow free right turns can be intimidating to seniors, because their design allows for faster movement of traffic and often leads to longer crossing distances.  Providing tighter corner radii at an intersection in effect forces drivers to slow down considerably to making a turning  movement. A common intersection treatment in this regard is to install curb extensions or “bump-outs” at crossings. Bump-outs extend the curb out into the roadway, narrowing the roadway. This, has somewhat of a calming effect on vehicular traffic, due to the physical narrowing of the roadway.  Bump-outs have other pedestrian safety benefits: they improve a motorist’s visibility of pedestrians, provide better sight lines for pedestrians looking for oncoming traffic, and reduce pedestrian exposure by decreasing the crossing distance from curb to curb.

Wide intersections also pose a problem, as it is a daunting  task  for anyone, let alone an individual with mobility impairments to cross a wide roadway within one traffic signal cycle. The 2010 Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices provides guidance stating that pedestrian timings should be “sufficient to allow a pedestrian crossing in the crosswalk who left the curb or shoulder at the end of the WALKING PERSON (symbolizing WALK) signal indication to travel at a walking speed of 3.5 feet per second to at least the far side of the traveled way or to a median of sufficient width for pedestrians to wait.” Signals located in areas where there are  pedestrians that require additional time to cross need to be programmed to provide adequate crossing time, or median refuge areas with signal actuators need to be provided  .  

NJDOT Addressing the Issues

As part of its senior pedestrian mobility safety initiative, NJDOT has undertaken a variety of steps over the past few years, including the passage of a Complete Streets policy in 2009 to improve the pedestrian environment throughout the state. NJDOT strives to make facility improvements, supports education and enforcement efforts, and offers planning and technical guidance to communities seeking to improve walking conditions. Prior to the passage of the Complete Streets policy, NJDOT initiated a Senior Safety Pilot Program. Through this program, NJDOT implemented engineering improvements to help senior drivers and pedestrians by utilizing enhanced signing, signal improvements (larger signal heads and timing modifications), lighting enhancements and enhanced striping and pavement markings.

NJDOT also held a series of senior walkability workshops that provided education on senior mobility in many communities throughout the state. The initial pilot walkability workshop was held in October 2008 at the Madison Borough Senior Center where 24 participants, including the mayor, were in attendance. The goals of the workshop were to educate participants on the effects of aging and pedestrian design, illustrate how to audit the community’s built environment for senior walkability, and provide a forum to identify projects and policies that could improve senior mobility. The workshop was geared toward professionals in the engineering, planning, and health fields at the local and state levels, as well as others interested in encouraging a safe walking environment in their communities.

The workshop’s agenda included presentations on the importance of walking, the physical and cognitive effects of aging, and how to engineer for seniors. It also included an observational walk followed by a facility and policy charette. During the observation walk props such as wheelchairs, walkers, and glasses that simulate various eye conditions were used so that participants, including local decision makers, could experience firsthand the obstacles that seniors must overcome in their everyday travels. The success of the pilot workshop led NJDOT to sponsor a full round of workshops. There was a total of 9 workshops  in 2009, and there are currently plans to hold more in late 2012.

Senior walkability workshops such as those noted above provide many benefits for the host communities. For one, they provide opportunities to educate participants about the importance of walking, and factors in the built environment that can either enhance or impair senior mobility.  These workshops also serve as a forum where critical connections can be made between the decision makers at the local, county, and state levels and stakeholders in the health and advocacy arenas. Most importantly, charettes during these workshops produce a list of actionable items that participants can use to improve their communities. This includes issues identified during the walkability audit as well as other community-wide issues. Ultimately, a summary report is created that documents potential projects and policies that were identified to improve senior walkability in host communities, as well as lead agencies for each project and potential partners are identified and the project’s anticipated duration.

Other Agencies

Going beyond what NJDOT has done and will continue to do to provide assistance to communities in New Jersey; many other agencies have established programs that assist individuals in understanding the complexities of getting around in the state. In New Jersey, travel training is offered for people of all ages primarily by the nonprofit “New Jersey Travel Independence Program (NJTIP, Inc.) which has a highly successful record of collaborating with entities including NJ TRANSIT to provide one-on-one travel instruction, as well as small group travel training, high school travel instruction, and train the trainer seminars. Training is also offered by Transportation Management Associations (TMA’s) in the state. The impacts of travel training can yield tremendous benefits to the individual, including increased independence, increased mobility options with associated cost savings, and decreased isolation from community. Societal benefits are clearly evident as well and often include cost savings associated with use of fixed-route transit service in place of more costly paratransit services. NJTIP conducts approximately 250 detailed route checks per year in an effort to design safe routes to transit for its clients.


Seniors represent a growing population whose mobility needs must be accommodated. Walking not only provides opportunity for enhanced mobility, freedom, and many health-related benefits, it mayalso provide a means of travel for those no longer able to drive, as well as an alternative for those who choose not to drive. The standard planning process often fails to account for the special needs of seniors. It is important though that we consider seniors when planning our communities. After all, by addressing the needs of our senior populations, everyone benefits.

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Useful Links

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Stepping Out Manual (Be Healthy, Walk Safely)

Transportation Alternatives: Safe Routes for Seniors

Partnership for Prevention, Creating Communities for Active Aging:  A Guide to Developing a Strategic Plan to Increase Walking and biking by Older Adults in Your Community