Seniors and Safe Streets

Everyone loses when we build our cities for cars instead of humans

Earlier this year, the driver of a Mercedes SUV steered onto the sidewalk and killed an entire family of four in the San Francisco neighborhood of West Portal. If you thought such a horrible case of traffic violence would lead to a public backlash, you would be right. But you might not be able to guess the nature of that backlash.

Instead of demanding safety improvements, West Portal businesses quickly mobilized to block any sort of street redesign. And now we have a piece in the Chronicle airing a more generalized set of grievances from drivers who “feel under siege in a city becoming less hospitable to vehicles amid efforts to make streets safer for bicyclists and pedestrians.”

There is a lot I could say about the grumblings in this article, beginning with the fact that traffic violence kills dozens of San Franciscans each year — 39 in 2022 alone. That strikes me as a matter of greater concern than the disappearance of some curbside parking spots. But instead of relitigating the case for why San Francisco needs safer streets — and why the city needs to finally honor its broken Vision Zero commitments — I’d like to address one particular argument that comes up a few times in this Chronicle article.

That argument concerns the needs of seniors in San Francisco. Here’s how the piece opens:

Driving in San Francisco has been changing, and Nicky Trasvina isn’t among those celebrating.

Protected bike lanes. Less parking. Streets that favor pedestrians. Bans on right turns at many red lights.

“Now when you get in the car, it’s giving a lot of seniors anxiety just to go on their errands,” said Trasvina, 68, a longtime San Francisco resident who finds the city much more difficult to navigate. She added that all the changes are “scaring seniors into staying home.”

And here it is again later in the piece:

But Victor Collaco, a retired commercial banker and Richmond District resident, said his church on Geary Boulevard lost parking spaces to the recent expansion of a bus lane on the main thoroughfare. He worries that it has become harder for seniors to find parking and attend services.

“The SFMTA doesn’t want cars,” Collaco said. “They are going to do everything they can to make it more difficult, until you get rid of cars.” 

It’s a strange argument. After all, many seniors have impairments that make it difficult for them to drive safely; for examplem a recent study found that more than 25 percent of Americans over than 71 were visually impaired. While many seniors are undoubtedly good drivers, it’s probably fair to say that anyone who lives long enough will eventually reach the point where they should no longer be behind the wheel.

When that happens, we will still need to get around somehow. Shuttle services like SF Paratransit are undoubtedly part of the solution; so are buses, rail, and ADA-friendly sidewalks. And if these are going to be viable options, then they need to be safe and accessible. Right now, San Francisco’s pedestrian and active transportation infrastructure — where it exists at all — is very much not safe and accessible: if you dive deeper into San Francisco’s 2022 traffic fatality data, you might notice that a quarter of those killed were over the age of 65.

Granted, it’s a little presumptuous of me to speculate on the needs of seniors. I’ve never been one, though I hope to try it out at some point. In the meantime, you’re probably better off listening to the experts. So let’s see what AARP has to say.

Let’s start with a 2018 report from AARP that notes one-fifth of Americans over the age of 65 don’t drive. The author recommends that policymakers “prioritize shared-use mobility”:

Shared-use mobility refers to transportation services that are shared among users. Public transportation is the backbone of shared-use mobility, but shared uses also include taxis and limos,  bikesharing, carsharing, ridesharing (carpooling, van-pooling), ridesourcing (especially when it involves ride-splitting, as with Lyft Line and Uber Pool), scooter sharing, shuttle services, and neighborhood jitneys. Shared-use mobility maximizes system efficiency, affordability, and environmental sustainability. While personal transportation will remain an option, the system will no longer favor single-occupancy vehicle trips. [Emphasis added.]

Even more to the point, there’s this comprehensive report on AARP’s recommendations for designing “complete streets” — those that can be safely used by drivers and non-drivers alike. The report recommends some of the very things that people gripe about in the Chronicle piece, such as limiting right turns at red lights.

But maybe my favorite AARP product on this subject is a brief on what Western Europe can teach us about building safer transportation systems. This line in particular stopped me short: “Dutch and German people who are 75 years and older make roughly half of their trips by foot or bike, compared with only 6 percent of Americans age 65 and older."

Clearly, American seniors’ reliance on cars isn’t an immutable part of the aging process. It’s the product of choices we’ve made about how to design our transportation system. We’ve paid an enormous cost for those choices: they have come at the expense of the climate, the economy, public health, and the social fabric of our cities. That’s to say nothing of the cost in blood, including the blood of countless older Americans.

When you look at peer countries that have chosen a different path, it becomes difficult to argue that those choices have been worth it. In cities that are built for the convenience of cars instead of the safety and happiness of human beings, virtually everyone loses — no matter their age.