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Pedestrian crossings and why walking speed matters

Pedestrian crossings and why walking speed matters
Lower legs with black shoes and trousers walking across a yellow pedestrian crossing.
© Trinity College Dublin

Walking is one of the most popular recreational activities worldwide. However, sometimes the speed at which you walk determines whether you can complete a task or not. An everyday example of this is crossing the road at a light controlled pedestrian crossing. Many older people find that the pedestrian lights don’t allow them enough time to cross the road and are often anxious about crossing the road because of this.

In Ireland, the sequence of pedestrian traffic lights is red, green, amber, red.

  • The green light usually appears for 6 seconds and this is an invitation for the pedestrian to cross the road.
  • The amber light appears for a different duration depending on the road width – for a wider road, the amber light will stay on for longer. The amber light indicates that pedestrians should continue if they are already crossing the road but that they should not start to cross.
  • If a pedestrian starts to cross the road when the green light appears, they have the full duration of the green and amber phases. This provides most people with enough time to cross the road.
  • However, if pedestrians begin to cross at the end of the green phase, and just before the amber light appears, there is less time to cross and, therefore, pedestrians have to walk more quickly.
Research from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing shows that one in three adults in Ireland aged 65-74 years, and three in five adults aged 75 years and older do not have enough time to cross the road if they start to walk when the amber man appears. As women generally walk more slowly than men, they are even more likely to have difficulty.

The pedestrian light settings vary from country to country but similar concerns have been reported worldwide. Recently, the World Health Organisation highlighted the importance of providing adequate crossing times that are suitable for all road users when designing age-friendly cities. However, it is important to remember that this is not just an ageing problem. People with disabilities and people walking with children all walk more slowly and may also have difficulty crossing the road in the time given by the pedestrian lights.

There are several reasons why crossing the road could be especially challenging for older adults.

  1. As people get older, they tend to walk more slowly. This can be due to age-related declines in muscle strength, balance or cognitive function, poor vision or hearing, a history of falls, fear of falling and certain medications.

  2. Pedestrians must pay attention to traffic, other pedestrians, road surfaces and weather conditions, and are also often carrying bags or talking to someone when crossing the road. All of these factors can be distracting and when people are distracted, they walk even more slowly.

Being unable to comfortably cross the road can have a big impact on daily activities and quality of life in older adults.

For example, if crossing the road causes anxiety, some older adults may decide to avoid going to their local shop, bank or community centre if they have to cross the road to get there. This can reduce their physical activity levels but also limits their social interactions with others in the neighbourhood.

Both physical activity and social engagement are extremely important for successful ageing and should be promoted to maintain physical, mental and cognitive health.

So, some things to remember:

  • When crossing the road, start to cross when the green man appears.
  • Do not begin to cross if the amber man has already appeared, as you may not have enough time to complete the crossing.
  • Avoid distractions while you are crossing the road, as these will reduce your walking speed and may also increase your risk of trips and falls – don’t talk, just walk!

It is possible to maintain your walking speed well into older age by keeping physically active, for example by taking a brisk walk daily.

  • Research has shown that crossing the road is more problematic as people age. Does this reflect your experience and that of your peers?

Dr Orna Donoghue is Project Manager on The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA).

© Trinity College Dublin
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