You can always measure the metaphorical speed at which a city lives by measuring the time it takes for the impatient driver behind you to start hooting when the lights turn green.
In São Paulo. Latin America’s largest, most car-congested and frenetic metropolis, the horns start honking when the traffic lights are still – just – on red.
Irritating for drivers perhaps – but potentially deadly for any pedestrian caught on the crossing when the lights change. And most deadly of all for those with locomotion difficulties, above all seniors who make up more than 10% of the population.
To appease the city’s hurrying motorists, lights on the city’s intersections where pedestrians cross, are set to a brisk tempo – so brisk in fact that it’s assumed all those crossing can negotiate any crossing at a swift 4.3 kilometres per hour (km/hour) walking pace. That’s way too fast for most of the over-sixties in Sao Paulo. Volunteers older than 60 years of age participated in a new study that showed average walking speed was just 2.7 km/hour
The result is that up to 98% of seniors find themselves unable to negotiate traffic lights regulated by the Traffic Engineering Company (CET-SP) within the stipulated time the “green man” is showing, according to research by University of São Paulo’s Public Health School (FSP-USP) in Brazil.
To measure the walking speed of the 1,191 older participants, the researchers resorted to the infrastructure of the Survey on Health, Wellbeing & Aging – SABE in the Portuguese acronym – a multi-cohort cross-sectional study on the living conditions and health of the elderly in São Paulo.
The result of the study was published in the Journal of Transport & Health. “The walking speed required to cross a city street is unsafe or actually unattainable for older people in São Paulo and in cities throughout Brazil,” said Etienne Duim, the report’s co-author.
While no steps have yet been taken to slow down the required pace for pedestrians in Sao Paulo, European cities such as Valencia and Barcelona in Spain have reduced the necessary speed to 3.2 km/h following similar findings about the difficulties older residents experienced at pedestrian crossings. And under São Paulo’s new mayor, João Doria, things are unlikely to change. His first act on taking office was to relax speed limits on the urban beltway (marginal).
This multi-centric survey was initiated at the regional level by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) in 2000. It covered seven major cities in Latin America and the Caribbean, including São Paulo, where it received support from the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).
With FAPESP’s support, it was re-run in São Paulo in 2006, 2010 and 2016. According to data from SEADE, the São Paulo State bureau of statistics, over-sixties accounted for 12.74% of the state capital’s population in 2016.
Report co-Author Professor José Leopoldo Ferreira Antunes of FSP-USP added: “We found from the study that the city isn’t managed for older people but for adult individuals who can walk between 4 km/h and 6 km/h without much difficulty, at least for a while. The effect is that older people tend more and more to stay at home.”
Data for August 2016 were supplied by CET-SP, which regulates traffic signal timing using a formula that assumes a speed of 4.3 km/h for pedestrians who cross the street while the walk signal is green. The study excluded the time during which the signal is flashing red. According to CET-SP, no changes have been made to traffic signal timing since the survey.
According to report author Etienne Duim, a study performed in the United Kingdom produced findings very similar to São Paulo’s. “The UK survey actually influenced the country’s traffic regulations, which extended pedestrian crossing time,” he said.
Both studies conclude that for older people, walking has an important relationship to health and social interaction, and factors that hinder their mobility, such as the difficulty of crossing the street, can lead to a loss of autonomy and deteriorating quality of life.
For Duim, an interesting option for São Paulo would be the project implemented in Curitiba, the capital city of Paraná State, where there are now a number of smart traffic lights in which an older person can insert a card to “tell” the system more time is required to cross the street.
“The same goes for people in wheelchairs and others with mobility difficulties, such as pregnant women and adults with small children, for example,” he said. “It’s a solution that doesn’t really affect traffic and creates a valid process of social inclusion.”
The article “Walking speed of older people and pedestrian crossing time” (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jth.2017.02.001) by Etienne Duim, Maria Lucia Lebrão and José Leopoldo Ferreira Antunes can be purchased at sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214140516302250.
You can read an article on this topic by Brazilian journalist Maria Fernanda Ziegler by clicking here.