In many cities, including the one I live in, the major roads are plowed after blizzards within hours. I live on a small residential street, but it's unusually steep for this city, and I was surprised to see it beautifully plowed before 7 a.m. after the biggest storm in years.

But the sidewalks, even though they are owned and maintained by the city, have to be shoveled by the people who own the houses that front the sidewalk. Some people do it; others don't bother. To get to the corner, I had to walk down the already narrowed road, and got honked at by a driver who looked at me as if he was complaining that I wasn't on the sidewalk.

unshoveled sidewalk Our neighbor to the north didn't shovel either. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

It's another example of an attitude that's killing thousands of people every year, that puts the convenience of people in cars above the people who walk. As Matt Hickman notes in his recent post about the new Dangerous by Design report, pedestrian deaths are rising dramatically, up over 35 percent in 10 years in the United States. There are a number of reasons, including bad road design and the trend away from cars to bigger SUVs and pickup trucks, but one of the biggest is that the population is aging, and older people are more likely to die when their fragile bodies meet the front of a Ram 3500. Matt looks at where most of the hot spots for getting killed are, with a few exceptions:

They're all located — if not in Florida — in the Southeast or Southwest (predominately the former), with most falling within the Sun Belt, a region that's experienced substantial population growth in recent years and is home to a large number people over the age of 50, a segment of the population that, as mentioned, is at high risk of being killed while walking along roads. Those over the age of 75 are especially vulnerable, experiencing fatality rates nearly twice as high as the national average.

Pedestrian deaths are up in other countries, too. Between 2010 and 2016, they were up by 10.5 in Canada, by 11.6 percent in the U.K. In Sweden, the home of Vision Zero where nobody is supposed to be killed, they were up a whopping 35.5 percent.

aging population The population is aging all over the world. (Photo: WHO/United Nations)

In the U.S., changes in vehicles or the move of older people to the more suburban South are not factors across the board, but the common denominator all over the world is that the population is aging. And as I keep saying, we ain't seen nuthin' yet as the baby boomer demographic bulge starts showing up in these statistics.

This is why cities have to change their priorities, perhaps shoveling sidewalks before streets, and to start seriously investing in safe transportation alternatives to driving — and that includes walking as the most important mode of transportation. It's the only mode of transport that doctors recommend people of every age do every day, yet it's the one that cities and planners ignore in favor of cars. As Michael Enright of the CBC notes, that's because of the voting demographics.

Many drivers live in the suburbs of our large cities. Because mass public transit is such a mess, they need their cars to get around. They like to drive quickly. And suburbs are where the votes are. Politicians don't like to be seen waging "a war on cars." Until pedestrian deaths in the country's larger cities are treated as a major public health issue, not very much will happen. Cars will continue to speed and cyclists and pedestrians will continue to die.

As all those 50- and 60-year-old boomers start hanging up the car keys and walking for fitness and transportation, the politicians will have to get out of their SUVs and notice. Because not only do these boomers have the votes, they have the money. Ellie Anzilotti writes in Fast Company about a study done in Atlanta:

In addition to improving lives for older Americans, there's an economic benefit to communities and living arrangements that structure themselves in a way that allows older people to remain in place. The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) performed an economic analysis of the impact of welcoming retirees in the 20-county area around the city. By adding an additional 1,000 new residents aged 65 or older, the ARC found that the region would see a $7.8 billion increase in its GDP. Keeping aging people in communities — and attracting new people of traditional retirement age and above — is an economic force on par with tourism, says Mike Alexander, research and analytics manager for the ARC.

Of course it should be noted that Atlanta has some of the worst sidewalks in the country. If the city is going to attract new older residents, it will have to fix this, because walking is increasingly the most popular, if underrated, form of transportation. Professor Colin Pooley of Lancaster University notes that the number of people who walk for transportation is huge, especially for short distances. "But you wouldn’t get this impression from listening to politicians, reading policy documents, or observing investment in infrastructure." He thinks it'ss time to take action.

Walking needs to be taken more seriously as a means of transport (and not only as a form of exercise or leisure) — and should be actively planned for and given priority, as is beginning to happen with cycling. If more people walked and fewer people drove, it would not only benefit personal health but also cities would be more pleasant for all.

With an aging population, sidewalks are lifelines, and walking is the most important form of transportation. It can't be ignored any longer.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

Why pedestrian deaths are a public health crisis
It's time to prioritize walking over driving. Cities have to change their priorities and start investing in safe transportation alternatives like walking.