Senior citizens are doing their part to keep the streets safe in New York City. In Ocean Hill, Brooklyn, more than 50 seniors have joined forces to identify safety issues in the neighborhood. “Light is turning red quickly and the cars are not always giving the right away to the people…people get stood in the middle of the street,” Veronica Daniel, 63, wrote on a street safety inspection form, addressing the busy three-road intersection of Eastern Parkway, Rockaway and St. Marks avenues, where her church stands right on the northwest corner.
Five months ago, Daniel and other elderly members of nearby churches started a road-condition-inspection mission. They voluntarily examined the roads, taking notes on which intersections need a traffic light, which streets needs a stop sign and which sidewalks needs repaving, and reported them to the Department of Transportation for possible solutions. So far, they have documented 82 issues. Their effort is led by East Brooklyn Congregations, a nonprofit formed in 1980 to respond to housing and neighborhood issues in East New York and Brownsville, and part of a national network of multi-faith community groups.
Seniors will have an increasing say in how the city works, simply because of their numbers. In New York City, about 12.2 percent of the population is over 65 years old, which is expected to grow another 50 percent more by 2030 to 1.35 million, according the latest census data. Like the community of seniors in East Brooklyn, there are similar ones looking out for the “right of way” for their elderly. Since 2010, for example, East Harlem, Upper West Side and Bedford-Stuyvesant have become the city’s first three Aging Improvement Districts, a pilot program overseen by Age-Friendly NYC, aimed to help older city dwellers age well and more easily.
Meanwhile, supported by the transportation department, 25 neighborhoods across the boroughs have launched a pedestrian safety campaign – “Safe Streets for Seniors.” After a few years of inspection and implementation, both the initiatives have brought about improvements in their communities.
This April, the transportation department proposed a new refuge island on West End Avenue between 58th and 59th Streets to protect pedestrians who don’t cross in time during the walk light. Prior to that, by June 2009, most traffic signals between West 60th and 81st Streets had been modified to give pedestrians, especially seniors, an additional five seconds to cross the street, according to DOT’s improvement report on the West Side Manhattan, where it’s been conducting a transportation study since 2008.
“The core transportation [in New York City] is walking, and older adults are no different than anybody else,” said Ruth Finkelstein, senior vice president for policy and planning at the New York Academy of Medicine that helped create Age-Friendly NYC. In addition to giving seniors more time to cross the street, she said, the city is also delineating some of the crosswalks more clearly, and installing countdowns and curb cuts.
Although these changes may seem minor, they are often critical to older pedestrians, who tend to walk slower or have trouble in hearing, as well as to people with disabilities.
As of now, two months after East Brooklyn Congregations filed its street investigation, the transportation department has started evaluations of the traffic light complaints at three intersections in Ocean Hill, according to DOT. Those studies are expected to be completed in late August, and a few more will likely be initiated in fall.
Though seniors make up only 12.2 percent of today’s city population, a recent study found that they have accounted for 38 percent of the city’s pedestrian fatalities. Nationwide, the figure is 13 and 22 percent, respectively.
Between 2008 and 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) identified nearly 500 fatal pedestrian accidents in the city, with more than 150 victims 65 and older. More pedestrians were killed in Brooklyn than any other borough (139), followed by Queens (125), Manhattan (101), Bronx (75) and Staten Island (23).
Another finding reported by CrashStat, a project of Transportation Alternatives that tracks the traffic accident data, listed the top ten most dangerous intersections for senior pedestrians, including the juncture of Utica Avenue and Eastern Parkway, only a few blocks west from the Ocean Hill neighborhood the East Brooklyn group has surveyed.
New York is a city of walking, with the vast majority of streets and bridges accessible by foot. This very convenience makes the city an appealing one to seniors, some of whom feel less secure using public transportation or traveling farther distances as they age.
“We only ride the subway when we have to,” said Hazel Clark, a member of the East Brooklyn senior group. “If there’s a bus line we’ll try to take the bus line, because [subways] have no elevators and no escalators in this area.”
The Metropolitan Transit Authority has 468 subway stations across the five boroughs, but only 74 of them are now equipped with elevators, ramps or other accessible features, according to its official website.
Currently, less than three percent of federal transportation funding is dedicated for pedestrians and bicycle projects, according to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s statement lamenting the new transportation bill, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), which reportedly will cut back on funding for the pedestrian and cycling projects. Three major pedestrian-bicycle initiatives – Transportation Enhancements, Safe Routes to School, and Recreational Trails – are combined into one program.
Many of the city’s pedestrian projects have received federal funds through these projects in the past, including the 9th Avenue Sidewalk Enhancement in Manhattan and the Willoughby Street Plaza for pedestrians in Brooklyn. The bill was signed in law on July 6.
“New York City is a wonderful place to grow old and also a challenging place to grow old,” said Finkelstein, referring that many issues on the sidewalk and public transportations still remain a headache for some seniors.
“Subways and buses are okay,” said Blanche Romey, 72, who has requested a traffic light near the senior center she volunteers in the East Brooklyn neighborhood. “The main thing [for seniors] is the safety of getting there and getting on the bus, so you don’t get run over.”
“MetroFocus: Transforming Transportation” premieres on Tuesday, July 24 at 10:30 p.m. on WLIW21; Wednesday, July 25 at 10:30 p.m. on NJTV; and Thursday, July 26 at 8:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.