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Public Roads - Mar/Apr 2007

Mar/Apr 2007
Issue No:
Vol. 70 No. 5
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Old World Ways

by C.G.B. "Kit" Mitchell

Roadway designs in Britain and other European countries emphasize maintaining the safety and mobility of older pedestrians.


Above) This city-center street in Toulouse, France, is typical of good practices in Europe. It is designed for pedestrians just as much as for vehicles. Photo: C.G.B. Mitchell.


Keeping older people mobile as pedestrians is important for maintaining their independence, quality of life, and physical fitness. Older pedestrians, however, are especially vulnerable to injury and death in traffic crashes and constitute a disproportionately large number of pedestrian fatalities in the United States and elsewhere. Maintaining the safety and mobility of older pedestrians poses a challenge for many countries.

The European approach to maintaining traffic safety in general and the mobility of older people places emphasis on serving the pedestrian. In fact, even the traffic safety initiatives that target vehicles in Europe often have, as their primary focus, creation of a safer environment for pedestrian traffic.

"It is important that we design, build, and maintain highway infrastructure so that all users can benefit," says Michael Bordiss, chairman of the Institution of Highways & Transportation's (IHT) Network and Infrastructure Management Board in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. "Elderly pedestrians have particular needs, and we must be prepared to redesign highway networks to meet the changing needs of society."

Pedestrian Traffic Patterns in Europe

In Europe, walking is the second most frequently used mode of travel, after driving. In Britain, about 20 percent of all journeys by adults aged 30-59 are made as pedestrians, rising to 25 percent of all journeys for people aged 70 and older. This change in proportion is due to a general decrease in travel, however, rather than an increase in walking. As people age, they take fewer trips by car, so walking becomes a higher percentage of their overall travel. Similar travel patterns occur in other European countries.

In the late 1990s, British pedestrians of all ages were making about 300 walking trips per year in all sizes of urban areas, from major metropolitan areas to small towns of a few thousand people. The number of walking trips fell to about 200 in rural areas. But since 1985, pedestrians of all ages have been reducing the number of pedestrian trips they make, although this decline now seems to be ceasing.

The British make fewer car journeys as they get older, and, at least in urban areas, rely on local buses instead. Public transport has been made easier for older people who use buses. Vehicle design has improved, with lower steps at entrance and exit, low floors without internal steps, handrails at entrances, exits and internally, use of bright contrasting colors on handrails and step edges to help people with visual impairments, and real-time information displayed at stops and in vehicles. Buses are made more appealing for passengers in other ways as well, such as availability of discounted or free travel for older and disabled passengers, routes that reduce walking distances to and from stops, and drivers trained to be more considerate by allowing older passengers time to move to and from their seats while the bus is stationary.

Pedestrian Fatalities And Populations Age 65 And Older, 2003
Country Percentage of Pedestrian Fatalities Who Are 65 and Older Percentage of Population 65 and Older
Austria 54.5 15.5
Denmark 40.8 14.9
Finland 40.7 15.6
France 47.8 16.4
Germany 63.6 18.0
Greece 57.6 18.5
Ireland 34.4 11.2
Netherlands 41.1 13.9
Norway 58.8 14.7
Portugal 48.8 17.0
Spain 38.8 17.1
Sweden 40.0 17.2
Switzerland 57.1 15.7
Britain 35.8 16.0
Czech Republic 34.5 13.9

Source: United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

Pedestrian Crashes In Europe

Comparing the two graphs reveals that there is significantly less car use and somewhat greater bus use for people 70 and older than for the general population. This is attributable to a reduction in driving with increasing age and also to efforts to make public transportation as comfortable and convenient as possible for older people. Source: Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR, now called the Department for Transport).


Given the prevalence of walking, pedestrian safety for older people is a major issue in Europe. In many European countries, pedestrian deaths represent more than 15 percent of total fatalities from road crashes.

According to the Department of the Environment, Transport, and the Regions (DETR, now called the Department for Transport) in Britain, older people account for a higher percentage of pedestrian fatalities than their population share, and their death rate is higher than that of middle-aged people. In Western Europe, people 65 and older account for 46 percent of all pedestrian fatalities despite forming only 15 percent of the population. Older people are a particularly high percentage of total pedestrian fatalities in Germany (63.6 percent), Norway (58.8 percent), Greece (57.6 percent), and Switzerland (57.1 percent).

However, in Britain, the pedestrian crash involvement rate (entailing all injury severities, including death) is highest for young people, peaking for ages 8-15. All pedestrians are vulnerable to death or injury in traffic crashes, but older pedestrians are particularly at risk because people become more fragile as they age. Of pedestrians aged 40-49 who are injured, about 2 percent die. For people age 80 and older, about 9 percent perish.

The death rate for pedestrians begins to increase after about age 65. Some of this increase is due to increasing fragility, but because most pedestrian crashes involve a degree of injury, it may imply a real increase in crash involvement for people as they age. The reason for the increase is not known; there is much speculation but little hard evidence.


In this photo from Britain, a warning sign indicates the 50- mi/h (80-km/h) speed limit and notes that camera enforcement is in use. The speed limit is repeated on the road surface.


High-Risk Areas For Older Pedestrians

In Britain, about 75 percent of all pedestrian injuries that occur while crossing roads take place away from designated pedestrian crossings. This pattern for all adults holds for older people as well. Older pedestrians seem to have special difficulty, however, in certain situations: at busy two-way streets; at intersections with heavy traffic, particularly where there is no center refuge; in complex situations, where vehicles can come from several directions; at light-controlled crossings where traffic is allowed to turn across pedestrian routes; and in situations where right turn on red is permitted, so turning traffic can threaten pedestrians unexpectedly.




On wide roads, streets carrying fast traffic, and busy two-way roads, older pedestrians tend to have crashes during the latter part of their crossings. On two-way streets, there are indications that some older people cross when there is a gap in the traffic on their side of the road, without necessarily checking that there will be a gap in the opposite traffic flow by the time they reach it—or miscalculate or overestimate their ability to complete a crossing. Median pedestrian refuges are especially helpful in those situations, effectively changing a two-way road into two one-way roads that can be crossed separately, although there are no statistical data regarding their effect on safety.

Creating a Safe Environment

This wide single roadway, at the end of a section of dual roadway, has been reduced in width by marking the central area and a side strip as prohibited.


Most European countries have instituted national policies to make urban areas more pedestrian-friendly. The British policy establishes this priority order for road users: pedestrians, bicyclists, public transport users, and only then car users.

In Switzerland, the Zurich City Council in 1987 set five main transportation policy goals: promote public transportation, reduce motor vehicle traffic, channel and restrain traffic in residential areas, reduce the number of parking places for commuters, and guarantee the availability of bicycling and walking—environment-friendly means of mobility. For more than 30 years, Zurich has followed a policy of giving transit priority over private cars, implementing it through changes to infrastructure and traffic signals.

In the Netherlands, a strategy for sustainable safety published in 2000 emphasizes classifying roads as areas for mixed use, with 30-kilometers-per-hour, km/h (18.6-miles-per-hour, mi/h) speed limits and extensive traffic calming measures, or as traffic corridors with speed limits of 50 to 70 km/h (30 to 45 mi/h), depending on circumstances.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 2001 report Ageing and Transport: Mobility Needs and Safety Issues recognizes that the requirements for environment-friendly communities are similar to those for communities that want their older citizens to remain independently mobile.

Separating Pedestrians From Vehicles

In Europe, the first and most straight-forward strategy for protecting older pedestrians from vehicles is to separate the two modes of travel.

Land use planning involves the use of higher residential density and designing communities so that pedestrians can travel between their homes, shops, work, leisure activities, and health-care sites by short walks and without crossing major roads.

Pedestrian streets involve directing traffic away from areas of high pedestrian activity. This strategy started with city-center shopping streets, which since the 1970s increasingly have been either strictly pedestrian or pedestrian priority. For a street to be fully pedestrian, its shops require access for servicing that does not use the shopping street, normally from behind the shops. Pedestrian priority usually means that vehicles may use the street to service the shops in the early morning and late afternoon, while the street is pedestrian only for most of the shopping day. Another variant is to have a town center that is traffic-free except for buses, which provide access to the area.

The move to pedestrian priority is spreading to residential areas. In the Netherlands, pedestrian priority residential streets, called "woonerf" (living grounds, where the car enters as a guest) were introduced in the late 1960s. They are now widespread, with more than 6,500 examples. A similar concept in Britain is called a "home zone."


Reducing Traffic Speeds

In this photo on a residential road in Hampshire, Britain, a pair of chicanes is used to deflect the traffic stream horizontally. The second pair of chicanes is about 50 meters (164 feet) away. Note the road sign giving priority to traffic leaving the area between the chicanes.


One of the most effective ways to improve surroundings for pedestrians of all ages is to reduce traffic speeds. Techniques for reducing traffic speeds range from setting appropriate speed limits to automatic camera enforcement, traffic calming, and various engineering strategies such as street narrowing.

Speed Limits. Throughout Europe, use of 30-km/h (18.6-mi/h) speed limits for residential areas and school vicinities is increasing. The Austrian city of Graz introduced a blanket 30-km/h speed limit for residential areas in 1992, while the network of distributor roads remained at 50 km/h (30 mi/h). This step reduced serious injuries by 24 percent for all people involved in crashes, with the largest reductions occurring on distributor roads, where the speed limit did not change. In the Netherlands, local authorities have bid for funds to implement 30-km/h (18.6-mi/h) speed limits with traffic calming on 30,000 kilometers (18,641 miles) of roads. London is considering widespread 32.2-km/h (20-mi/h) speed limits for residential areas, using networks of cameras that measure average speeds for enforcement.

"The elderly are one of the most vulnerable pedestrian groups, and research has demonstrated that vehicle speed is a key factor in the survival rate of pedestrians involved in collisions with vehicles," says John Smart, deputy chief executive and director of technical affairs for IHT. "Speeds of 20 miles per hour [32.2 km/h] and below considerably increase the survival rate."

Camera Enforcement. Automatic enforcement of speed limits by camera is widely applied. In Britain, more than 5,000 cameras have been installed at sites with high crash rates. A recent audit of 2,300 sites showed a 7 percent reduction in average speeds, 33 percent reduction in personal injuries, and 40 percent reduction in serious and fatal injuries.


The speed cushions shown here— one directly underneath the closest car and another in the lane to the right of the car—affect automobiles more than larger vehicles. Shortly after this photo was taken, a bus approached in the opposite direction and straddled the speed cushion, leaving its passengers undisturbed.


A wider assessment of the effectiveness of speed cameras drew on 14 previous studies. All but one showed the effectiveness of cameras for periods up to 3 years after their introduction; one study showed sustained longer term effects (4.6 years after introduction). Across the studies, reductions in outcomes in the immediate vicinity of the cameras ranged from 5 to 69 percent for collisions, 12 to 65 percent for injuries, and 17 to 71 percent for deaths.

Because cameras are installed at sites with poor crash records, the question arises as to how much of the decline in crashes is due simply to the tendency for outcomes to return to the mean. However, in Britain, the Department for Transport has recognized that speed cameras are reducing the number of casualties, and particularly the number of serious injuries and fatalities.

Britain uses speed cameras more extensively than most European countries do, but almost all are using them to varying degrees. France installed 1,000 cameras between 2002 and 2005, Germany is implementing them as well, and Cyprus has adopted them to tackle its serious problem of speeding and high crash rates. In France, the number of fatalities has decreased from 8,162 in 2001 to 5,318 in 2005, attributed to improved control of speeding and drunk driving, and greater use of seat belts.


This road narrowing in Britain improves the visibility of pedestrians to drivers and reduces the time pedestrians need to cross the road. Note the bollards to make the buildout more visible to drivers, and the curb ramps with tactile warning tiles for visually impaired pedestrians.


Traffic Calming

In addition to imposing speed limits, most European countries modify their road infrastructure to encourage slower driving. Traffic calming generally involves reducing the width of roadways; using white lines to make roads look narrower to achieve psychological calming; introducing pinch points at which a two-way road is reduced to a narrow one-way road, usually with priority for traffic in one direction; redirecting the traffic flow sideways at a chicane; and installing speed humps or speed tables.

"On roads where there is a large volume of pedestrian activity and the road layout does not encourage self-enforcing low speeds, then traffic calming techniques are a very effective tool in reducing speed," says Smart.

When reducing roadway widths, European countries commonly will narrow one-way urban roads to about 3 to 4 meters (9.8 to 13.1 feet), using bollards (posts) to define the boundary between roadway and pedestrian space. Often there is no curb, or a minimum-height curb, and both roadway and pedestrian space are surfaced with small pavers (small blocks, typically the size of a brick or a little larger). Vehicle speeds are low, and pedestrians walk up the roadway when it is not in use by vehicles.

Paint Used to Make Roads Appear Narrower. Short of using bollards, curbs, or other physical obstructions, roads can be made to look narrower by painting boundaries on them using white lines, and by hatching areas to indicate where motorists should not drive. This can deter drivers from using the road inappropriately (passing at intersections or in very short lengths of dual roadway, for example) and can cause traffic speed to be reduced.

Local Narrowing to Form Pinch Points. To permit access by local buses, roads in residential areas may need to be wider than planners would like. This situation can lead to motorists driving too fast. To overcome this problem, one strategy used in Europe is to reduce the width of the road, from 7 meters (23.0 feet) to 4 meters (13.1 feet), for example, at intervals, creating points at which the road is only a single roadway. In Britain, these pinch points are signed to indicate which direction of traffic has priority, whereas the Netherlands leaves the priority undefined, to reduce speed in both directions. To date, no quantitative study has been done to demonstrate which approach provides more safety.


This photo from Britain shows a pedestrian refuge at a major lightcontrolled intersection.


Traffic calming that involves horizontal deflection of the stream of traffic, but not vertical deflection (up and over a hump), is most suitable for roads used by buses. But even horizontal deflection is problematic: It causes lateral acceleration of vehicles, which can be difficult for standing bus passengers.

Chicanes. Commonly used throughout Europe, chicanes are a set of two or more alternating curb bulbs or extensions that narrow a two-way road to a one-way road for a few meters. They are often used in pairs, to force traffic to pull across the road at the first obstruction and then pull back to the original side of the road before the second obstruction.

Speed Humps. A speed hump is a bulge about 10 centimeters (3.9 inches) high and perhaps 5 to 10 meters (16.4 feet to 32.8 feet) long, aligned across the full width of a road. The profile of the bulge should be a complete sine wave; by adjusting the length of the bulge, it can be tuned to cause a vehicle to respond in a way that is small at low speeds and increases rapidly as the vehicle approaches the speed limit, thus preventing it from exceeding the speed limit. Speed humps are used judiciously because they produce an uncomfortable ride for bus passengers and patients in ambulances, and they delay emergency vehicles. An alternative is a speed cushion, which is a speed hump only about 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) wide, centered in the roadway. This will slow a small vehicle such as a car but can be straddled by a larger bus or fire engine.

Speed Tables. A speed table consists of raising the road surface to sidewalk level over a length of 7 meters (23 feet) or more, with a ramp at each end to return vehicles to the normal road surface. Speed tables have less effect on buses than shorter speed humps and can be used to continue the sidewalk across a street as a pedestrian crossing without the need for a ramped curb.

London, among other European cities, has found great success with many of these measures. "Speed management is central to our road safety policies in London," says Chris Lines, head of the London Road Safety Unit of Transport for London. "[Speed zones] of 20 miles per hour [32.2 km/h] in residential areas, enforced mainly using road humps, have reduced fatal and seriously injured casualties by 57 percent, and Mayor Ken Livingstone plans to greatly increase the number of zones in the future."


This British "Puffin" crossing uses a person-detector head to watch pedestrians on the crossing and extend the pedestrian green time if necessary. An audio signal is provided to tell visually impaired people when the lights are green for pedestrians.


Average speeds fell by around 14.5 km/h (9.0 mi/h) in the speed zones, which supports the finding that a 1.6 km/h (1 mi/h) reduction in average speed leads to a 5 to 6 percent reduction in collisions, Lines says. Safety cameras also have proven beneficial, with casualty reductions of 40 to 50 percent. "London has seen a 40 percent reduction in fatal and seriously injured casualties since 2000 as a result of implementing the speed management strategy," he says.


The curb ramp in this photo helps all pedestrians. Textured tiles at the edge of the sidewalk warn visually impaired pedestrians.


Promoting Safe Crossings

In Europe, many types of infrastructure improvements are used to make road crossings safer and easier for pedestrians. Improvements include sidewalk extensions to narrow the roadway at pedestrian crossings and at intersections in residential areas; central refuges for pedestrians; pedestrian phases for traffic signals at intersections; midblock light-controlled crossings, where a walker can call for a pedestrian green phase that stops traffic; speed control tables at pedestrian crossings; and speed tables to continue sidewalks across side roads where they join more major roads.

Narrowed Road-ways. Several approaches can be taken to shorten the crossing path for the pedestrian, including narrowing roadways. In streets with extensive parking, pedestrians have difficulty seeing traffic while standing on the sidewalk, and drivers have difficulty seeing them. In Britain, about 17 percent of all pedestrian injuries, and 8 percent of pedestrian fatalities, were categorized as "masked by stationary vehicle." On a sidewalk built out to the outer edge of the parking bays at a crossing, pedestrians are able to position themselves safely so they can see and be seen. In addition, the distance across the road is reduced, so the time pedestrians spend on the road is decreased. This feature is used in Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia.

Central Pedestrian Refuges. Pedestrian refuges in the middle of the road are among the most helpful infrastructure features for older pedestrians. They simplify the crossing task so that an older pedestrian need only assess traffic moving in one direction at a time. Refuges also may provide an element of traffic calming by narrowing the roadway. They are widely used in Britain and Scandinavia, and as part of traffic calming systems in the Netherlands.

Central refuges are used midblock on two-way roads where pedestrians may wish to cross, perhaps where a pedestrian path crosses the road. Refuges can be used on roads with speed limits up to 80 km/h (50 mi/h), though in areas with speed limits above 64.4 km/h (40 mi/h), the crossing is informal, without any markings on the road or signs for drivers. Refuges also can be used at intersections, where side roads join more major roads.

Midblock Light-Controlled Crossings. Light-controlled pedestrian crossings, with buttons for pedestrians to register demands to cross roads, are widely used in midblock locations. A difficulty with any light-controlled crossing is that traffic engineers tend to provide crossing times that require pedestrians to walk faster than some older or disabled people may be able to manage. To overcome this problem, the most recent crossing design in Britain uses a people detector to watch pedestrians on the crossing and extends the green phase for them if they are walking particularly slowly. The detector also can reduce the green time if pedestrians walk quickly and clear the crossing in less than the time allowed.

Speed Control Tables at Crossings. Sidewalks can be continued across side roads at a junction with a major road, providing a speed table at the intersection. The speed table slows traffic entering and leaving the side road, and reminds drivers that pedestrians may be crossing the road.

Safe Sidewalks

All European countries recognize the importance of providing safe infrastructure for pedestrians and at least in Western Europe tend to work toward adopting similar standards. Issues arise over whether bicycles should be allowed to share sidewalks with pedestrians, and in the Netherlands mopeds are allowed to use some sidewalks. Maintenance of sidewalks is important, as is the protection of pedestrians from sites where the sidewalk has been dug up.

In Europe, the objectives for pedestrian infrastructure include the provision of routes that are direct, continuous, safe, convenient, and attractive. Paths and sidewalks are designed to provide for the journeys that people want to make, including routes through residential areas. Guidelines in France and Britain advise that sidewalks should be sufficiently wide (1.8 meters [5.9 feet] minimum), well surfaced and drained, illuminated at night, and monitored for personal security. They also recommend that pedestrian routes should include frequent seats or resting places because approximately 10 percent of adults cannot walk more than 400 meters (1,312 feet) without a rest or experiencing pain and that, at least in town centers, pedestrian routes to major destinations should be signed.

Many guidelines are available on the physical design of pedestrian infrastructure that is easy for older and disabled people to use. The U.S. Federal Highway Administration's two-part Designing Sidewalks and Trails for Access (FHWA-EP-01-027) is a good example. In most European countries, ramped curbs are provided wherever people may need to move from the sidewalk to the surface of the road. In Britain, ramped curbs are surfaced with a line of tiles, which carry a tactile pattern that blind pedestrians can feel with their feet, to mark the edge of the sidewalk.

One English County's Efforts

This crossing in Hampshire, Britain, is especially helpful to older people. The prominently painted "SLOW" on the roadway get drivers' attention, as does the "Elderly people" sign. Photo: Highway Safety Group, Environment Department, Hampshire County Council.

In Hampshire County on the south-central coast of England, transportation professionals have gotten uncontrolled pedestrian crossings, which are used by the elderly, down to a science. "We create a focal point," explains Mike Sambles, senior road safety officer for the Hampshire County Council's Environment Department.

When casualty data identify a site requiring action, the department's Highway Safety Group carries out a risk assessment. Where required, tactile pavement is installed to aid pedestrians who are visually impaired, and four fluorescent bollards, or posts, are erected to highlight the crossing point. Signage is enhanced and antiskid surfacing is installed across the roadway. "We raise driver awareness by highlighting the area where pedestrians will be crossing," Sambles says.

"Whenever possible, we meet with the pedestrians who are likely to use the crossing point to explain why this site has been improved and how best to make use of it," he says. The team also discusses with the pedestrians the importance of being conspicuous, explaining how wearing fluorescent and/or reflective clothing will make them more easily seen by drivers. In Hampshire County, many crossing points lead on to country roads, making the clothing that much more important.

European Union

Common threads run through the experiences of European countries. Particular lessons for safeguarding older pedestrians include keeping vehicle speeds as low as possible; keeping vehicles away from areas of high pedestrian activity and residential areas; and providing pedestrian routes and paths that are wide, well surfaced, and easy to use.

European transportation agencies have learned to simplify the crossing task, to use central refuges to make two-way roads into two one-way roads, to avoid complex intersections, and to prohibit right turns at red lights.

Technology also can play a role. Light-controlled crossings reduce the need for judgment of speed and distance, people detectors at signals can match walk times to the actual pedestrians, and cameras can enforce speed limits and detect red-light running vehicles.

Most—but not all—of the techniques and technologies discussed in this article are in common use in the United States and other countries of the world as well.


C.G.B. "Kit" Mitchell retired from the British Transport Research Laboratory in 1994. During his 24-year tenure, he served as chief of the Environment Division and the Access and Mobility Division, where he led research on the effects of transportation policies on various groups of people. He advised Transport Canada on the implications of intelligent transportation systems for elderly and disabled travelers. Since then, he has evaluated intelligent vehicle projects for the European Commission. He cochairs the Transportation Research Board's Committee on Accessible Transportation and Mobility, and is a member of its Committee on the Safe Mobility of Older Persons.

For more information, contact Kit Mitchell at 011-44-1252-617621 or