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Want to build a better Philadelphia? Expert says to design for ages 8 and 80 | Opinion

"If everything we do in our cities is great for an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old, then it will be great for all people."

Philadelphia skyline taken from South Street Bridge
Philadelphia skyline taken from South Street BridgeRead moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Imagine if you could see the world through the eyes of its most vulnerable populations: children and seniors. That's how I'm seeing Philadelphia these days, after attending a workshop led by the 8 80 Cities initiative, which teaches that "if everything we do in our cities is great for an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old, then it will be great for all people."

As a recipient of the Emerging Cities Champion fellowship, I, along with 19 other grantees from across the United States, toured the city of Toronto to gain a new perspective on building better cities. After seeing the best and worst examples of "8 80" practice in Toronto, our tour guides asked us to put on our "8 80 goggles" and see what our own cities can to do.

Creating a vibrant and equitable city for people of all ages, of course, takes more than changes to the built environment; it also requires access to housing, education, healthy food, and medical care. But there are simple projects Philadelphia can undertake to become more accommodating.

Increasing seating and benches in our public space

For able-bodied folks, seating in our public space is not always a necessity. However, seniors and young children rely on public seating to make walking and transit accessible to them.  For seniors, who are more likely than the general population to have mobility impairments, a bench can be the difference between access to a grocery store or staying at home. Philadelphia simply does not have enough places for people to sit. We need more benches (with backs) that provide comfortable seating throughout our city.

Make public transit cheaper for families

It is a challenge to get where you need to go if you have limited mobility or financial resources. Public transit is an important public service for both families with young members and for those who are aging. SEPTA allows seniors, age 65 or older, to ride free at all times on bus, subway, and trolley. However, SEPTA charges full fare for children over the age of 4. This is limiting to families who need to travel outside of their neighborhoods. For a parent with two children, a simple round-trip will cost $12. If Philadelphia wants to continue to provide equitable access to transit, they should eliminate the child fare for anyone under the age 12.

Improve access to rec centers

Part of building a livable society is to ensure that seniors and youth have the ability to engage with their neighbors, participate in their communities, and receive supportive services. One of the ways both someone who is 8 or 80 can do this is by having access to recreation centers, senior centers, or parks. As the city embarks on the Rebuild Philadelphia process, we need to make sure that neighborhoods of the city with large populations of aging adults and children have community centers that meet the needs of people of all ages.

Protect bike lanes

I bet you cannot picture an 8-year-old or an 80-year-old riding a bicycle in the streets of Philadelphia. That is not because people at those ages do not ride. In fact, in cities all over the world, they ride regularly and safely.

The reason you cannot picture that happening here is simply because not a single piece of bicycle infrastructure in Philadelphia was designed with kids or seniors in mind. If we want to see healthier generations who participate in active transportation, we must design our bike lanes for them. And even if they choose not to ride, protected bike lanes have been proven to make streets safer for all users and slow down traffic.

Enforce a citywide 20 mph speed limit

Seniors and children are disproportionately at risk of being killed or injured in traffic crashes. In 2017, approximately 27 percent of traffic fatalities in Philadelphia were seniors and children. Studies have found that at 20 mph the risk of death from being hit by a car was approximately 10 percent, at 30 mph that increases to 45 percent and at 40 mph it climbs to 95 percent.

The rates of death are even higher if you are older than 70. If Philadelphia is serious about ending traffic-related deaths, we need to not only protect students in school zones, but we need to protect seniors and children everywhere they may go in the city. By lowering the citywide speed limit to 20 mph and making a significant investment in road redesign to reflect this speed-limit change, we will have built our city and our streets with people of all ages in mind.

Dena Ferrara Driscoll is a family biking advocate@bikemamadelphia.