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Designing New Sidewalks and Pedestrian Walkways for an Aging Population

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

This article, written by Paul Mackey, Director, SafeStreet Inc. and published in Contact Plus Magazine, Association des ingénieurs municipaux du Québec (AIMQ), Issue 102, fall 2017, has been reproduced with permission.

In Quebec, the number of persons aged 65 and over will increase significantly in the near future. In the Trois-Rivières Metropolitan Region, this segment of the population will increase from 19.1% in 2011 to 28.9% in 2026 and to 32.0% in 2036. The province of Quebec leads this demographic trend, as does Maine, in the United States.

This increase in the aging population is not typically considered in infrastructure design, notably for sidewalks. During a symposium entitled Quebec Healthy Cities and Towns Network (Réseau québécois des villes et villages en santé), a municipal councillor from Sept-Îles proposed the removal of all sidewalks because of the “roller-coaster” effect resulting from the construction of depressed sidewalk segments at every driveway access.

Example of a "banquette" type roadway in line with a driveway.

Sidewalk design has recently drawn a considerable amount of public attention in Quebec. The summer 2017 edition (Issue 101) of Contact Plus Magazine featured an article on the Guide des parcours sans obstacles (Obstacle-Free Design Guide) produced by the Office des personnes handicapées du Québec in cooperation with the Ministère des Affaires municipales et de l’Occupation du territoire.

The Quebec Standards Bureau circulated a draft design standard to key stakeholders in early 2017, and should publish the final version this summer. Since the fall of 2016, the Association québécoise des transports (AQTr) Roundtable on Transportation Safety has been discussing and analyzing this issue with a view to propose changes to the current design standards used by the ministère des Transports, de la Mobilité durable et de l’Électrification des transports du Québec. Finally, the Nazareth and Louis-Braille Institute published Critères d’accessibilité universelle : déficience visuelle – Aménagements extérieurs (Universal Accessibility Criteria for the Visually Impaired – Exterior Installations) in 2014.

Adapting Sidewalk Design to Meet the Needs of Mobility-impaired Persons

Over the years, many stakeholders have invested a great deal of effort to adapt sidewalk design to better meet the needs of two key segments of the mobility-impaired population: the visually impaired and people in wheelchairs. In the last 30 years, the use of depressed sidewalk sections has become the preferred design solution, as it facilitates wheelchair circulation. To help visually impaired persons locate the edge between the depressed sidewalk and the roadway, the standard height of the residual depressed curb is set at 13 mm (half inch).

More recently, as a result of durability tests conducted by the City of Montreal, many municipalities, including Montréal, Longueuil, Quebec City, Victoriaville, Saguenay, Sainte-Julie, Ottawa, and others have increased their use of detectable tactile plates at key locations in the pedestrian environment. These design features allow a visually impaired person to detect the transition area between the sidewalk and the roadway through the soles of their footwear or with their cane. 

Many solutions have been suggested to reduce the number of obstacles encountered by handicapped persons. However, it would be a mistake to assume that these solutions also resolve mobility issues encountered by seniors. And although the mobility impaired and seniors share many of the same limitations, these limitations are not all exactly the same.

Taking Seniors Needs into Account

As we age, most of us tend to encounter, to a certain degree, the same difficulties as the visually and mobility impaired.

Almost all seniors gradually experience various mobility-reducing physical conditions. They may develop:

  • balance disorders;
  • a fear of falling;
  • a fear of being jostled, even by accident;
  • a loss of eyesight affecting their ability to detect obstacles;
  • a loss of night-time vision (contrasts); and
  • a loss of bone density, increasing the potential negative consequences of any slip or fall.

At the same time, for seniors, walking less often can make their bones even more fragile and can cause other health issues. Therefore, it is in the public interest to make it easier for seniors to walk more. To achieve this goal, we must create safe walking conditions.

New Research and New Solutions

Research conducted by Marie-Soleil Cloutier and her collaborators at the National Scientific Research Institute has shown that seniors often cast their gaze downward when crossing an intersection. Is this related to a fear of falling? Other research projects conducted in France by Aurélie Dommes and her research team from the Transportation Research and Technology and Network Development Institute has indicated that seniors experience a higher degree of difficulty in crossing the second lane (opposite direction) of a two-way traffic roadway as they do not generally look at the traffic after starting to cross the roadway – these risks are exacerbated when crossing a roadway with a 60 km/h speed limit as opposed to a 40 km/h speed limit.

The presence of vertical curbs, even only 13 mm tall, can present additional cognitive and motor problems for seniors, which adds to the time they need to cross the intersection. Based on this information, one could conclude that depressed sidewalks are a feasible solution. However these features create additional sloped areas, and present an additional risk for seniors, especially in winter conditions.

On a relatively flat street, why not look to eliminate changes in elevation along pedestrian walkways, while maintaining the minimum required cross-slope (2%) to ensure proper surface water drainage into the street?  There are many technical solutions available to improve the pedestrian environment. The simplest would be to build an elevated section of the roadway on axis with a driveway, which shifts the elevation change to drivers while maintaining the sidewalk on an even plane. In addition, the Guide de parcours sans obstacle provides a somewhat lukewarm support to the use of raised intersections at key locations, while favouring the use of depressed sidewalks.

In addition to developing new design solutions, we must also examine roadway maintenance and winter maintenance standards from the perspective of an aging population. Slight defects in sidewalk surfaces that would be of no consequence to most people can be quite problematic for some seniors.