By Dr Laura Asher
The ability to cross the road safely is important for the health of older people. Those who cannot cross the road safely are less able to access to the shops, health services, and social contacts they need to stay healthy. The feeling that they will not be able to reach the other side of the road in time can deter older adults from even going out at all. People who live in pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods are more likely to go by foot, which benefits their physical health. Having enough time is vital for crossing the road safely.
Did you know that UK pedestrian crossings require a minimum walking speed of 1.2m/s (2.7miles/hr)? On pelican crossings, the time given for the ‘clearance’ period (between the solid green man and the red man) assumes that pedestrians can walk at at least 1.2 m/s. In a recent research project, we used data from the Health Survey for England (HSE) to determine the proportion of people over 65 who are able to walk at 1.2m/s or faster. HSE is an annual survey of a nationally-representative sample of adults and children in England. Unlike previous studies, participants were not excluded on the basis of having poor health or being disabled. This means for the first time we have an accurate picture of the walking speed of the general older population who may wish to use a pedestrian crossing.
We found that the average walking speed in those over 65 years was 0.9m/s in men and 0.8m/s in women, with a decrease in speed as age increased. This means that average walking speed in older men and women was below the speed required to use a pedestrian crossing in the UK and many other countries. 84% of men and 93% of women over the age of 65 either could not walk eight feet safely or their normal walking speed was less than 1.2m/s. Our findings are consistent with studies in Ireland, the USA, South Africa, and Spain, and show that the majority of older pedestrians have insufficient time to use pedestrian crossings. We also found that women, smokers, those with poor health, and those living in deprived areas were more likely to have problems with walking safely or fast enough.
Insufficient crossing time amongst older adults may not increase the risk of pedestrian fatalities, which are uncommon at pedestrian crossings. However, it is likely to deter this group from even trying to cross the road. For older people, maintenance of mobility outside the home not only has direct health benefits, but is also an important way to maintain independence and social networks. Physical activity in older people may depend on the ability to negotiate their local environment, including crossing the road safely. The groups we identified as most likely to have walking impairment are also those least likely to have access to other, more expensive, forms of transport. The negative health impacts of inappropriate crossing timings may therefore be greatest amongst more deprived groups.
Where there are a large proportion of older residents, adjustments are made to the pedestrian crossing times to allow for this. However older pedestrians should be able to use pedestrian crossings safely wherever they go.
Promotion of physical activity is a public health priority for people of all ages and transport planning should reflect this. Furthermore, travelling by foot instead of by car is better for the environment. Transport planning should encourage walking activity; current pedestrian crossing timings may actually put people off walking.
The assumed ‘normal’ walking speed of 1.2m/s is utilised internationally as the basis for pedestrian crossing timings, yet the origin of this assumed speed is not clear. Ultimately, this excludes most of the older population in England (and elsewhere) from using pedestrian crossings: it needs revision if we are to create a healthy and inclusive environment for people of all ages. Our results show that assuming a walking speed of 0.8m/s may be more appropriate for pedestrian crossings, as this would allow the ‘average’ man or woman over 65 years sufficient time to cross.
Dr Laura Asher is a specialty registrar on the public health training scheme and academic clinical fellow at the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London. Her research interests include transport and health and mental health. She is co-author of Most older pedestrians are unable to cross the road in time: a cross-sectional study along with Maria Aresu, Emanuela Falaschetti, and Jennifer Mindell. The paper has been published by Age and Ageing journal and is freely available for a limited time.