“If we build it, will they walk?” Making cities good places to grow older

“If we build it, will they walk?” Making cities good places to grow older

Bonnie and Margaret at the intersectionWhile on assignment yesterday, I watched a slow-moving senior struggle, but fail, to make it across Pacific Blvd. before the pedestrian “walk” light changed.

The cars entering the intersection swerved to avoid her, thank goodness. So she arrived at her destination, Yaletown’s Roundhouse community centre, without becoming a casualty. Ironically, what was going on at that very moment inside the Roundhouse was a symposium on how urban environments should become more user-friendly for aging baby boomers.

City planners, engineers, seniors and health researchers came together to discuss things like pedestrian cross walks which often do not allow enough time for a safe crossing, given the fact that many lights start to flash the halting hand after just seven seconds.

“It takes all hands on deck,” said Heather McKay, director of the Centre for Hip Health and Mobility, referring to the fact that making infrastructure changes to the so-called built environment is dependent on collaboration. That’s why Vancouver Coastal Health centre helped organize the second annual research and community partnership symposium called “If we build it, will they walk?”

Using a $1.5 million grant from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, McKay and her colleagues are examining factors that help make cities good places to grow older. Their goal is to identify the things that can prolong active and independent living, which will also help improve physical and emotional health, plus reduce dependency on the health care system.

Margaret McPhee, a 79-year old former gerontology instructor, told the audience about how her Point Grey neighbourhood used to be so conducive to block parties, but in the past few years, two thirds of the homes on her street have been sold, often to offshore purchasers who never move in. Neighbours, if there are any, are now unfamiliar. So seniors aren’t feeling as secure going on walks.

“The block parties are over. If I was 10 years younger, I’d be moving because there’s nobody around,” she said.

By contrast, 84-year old Bonnie Thiele talked about the vibrant community where she lives in Vancouver’s west end. The retired Vancouver police department 911 operator said it’s the perfect neighbourhood for seniors because everything is within walking distance and residents have an abundance of respect for their elder neighbours.

But she bemoaned the fact that there aren’t more benches so elderly individuals can take a seat during a rest stop.

Asked about what helps or hinders her outdoors mobility, McPhee said: “toilets, toilets, toilets.”

“We have to plan our walking routes according to where the toilets are,” she said, adding: “The best system of washrooms is Starbucks. They don’t even raise an eyebrow when I go into the men’s room if the women’s is occupied.”

Jerry Dobrovolny, director of transportation for the city of Vancouver, said in an interview that although the aging population is taken into consideration during infrastructure planning, “there is always room for improvement.”

I told him about the lady I observed crossing Pacific Blvd. and he assured me he’d look into whether that light needs to be delayed a little, to benefit “vulnerable” pedestrians, a term which doesn’t just include seniors. It also includes people in wheelchairs, parents pushing strollers and those with vision or hearing challenges.

Some of the initiatives which are important when considering how to make the built environment more friendly for all of us as we age are improved street lighting, adding more benches, ensuring pavement is smooth for scooters and walkers, building more curb cuts and retrofitting pedestrian lights so that cyclists and pedestrians know how many seconds they have to cross.

But demand outstrips resources for everything, including the latter, so the city is currently giving priority to pedestrian lights at the 10 intersections where cyclists and pedestrians are most often injured. As for public toilets, Dobrovolny said maintenance costs are so high that the city is pressing TransLink to install toilets at all stations. Businesses are also encouraged to have toilets available for public use whenever possible.

In the meantime, he said anytime a member of the public wants to alert city staff about ways the built environment can be made more senior friendly, they can call 311 with their suggestions and requests.

Winston Chou, an engineer in the City of Vancouver’s traffic and data management department, says there are a lot of misconceptions about what traffic signals mean.

Here’s his note to me:

“As per our discussion we would appreciate it if you could get the message out regarding the meaning of the pedestrian signals:

  • Walking Pedestrian: means pedestrian can begin to cross the street if it is safe to do so
  • Flashing Red Hand: warns that it’s too late to begin crossing if you have not started, but if you’re in the crosswalk, continue and complete your crossing
  • Steady Red Hand: do not cross the street


As requested, below is the list of top 10 pedestrian collision locations based on ICBC collision data between 2005-2009. As Jerry mentioned, we are in the process of installing pedestrian count-down timers at these locations. The walk times have also been reviewed and adjusted at a number of these locations. Staff are also reviewing the collision reports to determine if there are appropriate measures that can be implemented to mitigate the collisions.

  1. Main & Hastings
  2. Broadway & Commercial
  3. Burrard & Davie
  4. Kingsway & Joyce
  5. Kingsway & Victoria
  6. Grandview Highway South & Rupert
  7. Broadway & Fraser
  8. Burrard & Georgia
  9. Main & Terminal
  10. Broadway & Clark

Source: “If we build it, will they walk?” Making cities good places to grow older - Vancouver Sun