Older people could benefit from more outdoor time in their neighborhoods if there are better sidewalks and roads, along with some measures to reduce or slow traffic, such as one-way streets, a new study suggests.
Research by Heriot-Watt University for walking, cycling and cycling for charity, Sustrans and funded by Transport Scotland, Scotland’s national transport agency, found that older adults value walking and being active for their physical, mental and social well-being. This includes walking for everyday purposes, such as walking the dog, and leisure walking.
“This research shows that fresh air, exercise and a sense of community connection are important benefits for older people when going out,” said Karen McGregor, director of Sustrans Scotland. “Access to green areas and good public transport are considered key factors for staying active, along with quieter streets.
“Scotland’s population is ageing. Tea Census 2022 found that there are now more than a million people aged 65 and over. It is vital that we take this into account as we plan how people move around our towns and cities.”
The study participants, who were between the ages of 60 and 91, said they also faced barriers to staying active. These include poorly designed and maintained streets and pavements, with the dangers of potholes and drains, and insufficient road crossings, street lighting, parking or public transport.
Heavy traffic and reckless drivers were also a problem. But some study participants felt that reducing access to cars could result in a loss of independence for older people with limited mobility, potentially contributing to isolation and loneliness.
It is important to listen to the opinions of older people when considering how our neighborhoods are designed, so that our environment can help everyone stay active.
Professor Alan Gow, who researches healthy aging at Heriot-Watt Center for Applied Behavioral Sciences, led the study and said: “The people we spoke to were well aware of the benefits of being and staying active, although poorly maintained pavements or limited public transport links meant they were often not as active as they would have liked. It’s important to listen to older people when considering how our neighborhoods are designed, so that our environment can help us all stay active.”
Study, Aging in low-traffic neighborhoods: the potential of low-traffic interventions for healthy and active aginginvestigated whether older people think that reducing traffic can encourage more active travel – walking, cycling and cycling.
Low-traffic neighborhoods include a combination of measures to reduce or calm traffic, such as bollards or planters to stop vehicle access, pedestrian areas and one-way streets, while maintaining access for homes and businesses. Research shows that low-traffic measures can more than halve traffic levels in low-traffic neighborhoods.
Some participants in the study were skeptical and believed that traffic reduction measures could simply divert traffic to another area, rather than reducing it. They felt that better surveillance, such as cameras, should be introduced along with traffic calming measures to be effective.
Participants prioritized lower-impact traffic reduction measures such as one-way streets and bus gates – dedicated lanes for buses, taxis, cyclists and emergency vehicles – along with improved pedestrian infrastructure and public transport investment.
“Being confident and confident that you can get to your destination safely has a huge impact on everyone’s physical and mental health,” said Karen McGregor.
“Unfortunately, that is not the reality for many across Scotland. We know that older people and those with physical limitations sometimes face huge barriers when simply trying to get around their local area on a daily basis.
“Reducing traffic congestion and investing in safer, more accessible and better connected walking, wheeling and cycling links means that residents, regardless of whether they have access to a car, have greater choice and confidence in more options for short, everyday journeys.
“But these positive changes in our places must happen in a way that is fair for everyone. This research shows how important a factor that is in determining whether projects aimed at reducing traffic in our neighborhoods will be successful with the communities that live there.”
To create fairer, greener and healthier cities, Karen added, it’s essential to listen to a wider range of voices and lived experiences, engage with groups that are often rarely heard from, and deliver better places hand-in-hand with the communities that live there.
Sustrans collected the real-life experiences of study participants to explain the factors and barriers to being active. Read these stories here: