The newsletter of the Active Transportation Alliance

Modeshift Fall 2012


Illinois AARP leader wants streets that are accessible to all

by Joe Bean

Bob Gallo, Illinois state director of the AARP, has made it clear that Illinois AARP supports making streets safe and accessible to all—no matter a person’s age or ability. He came to Illinois AARP following four years as an AARP executive in Florida, in addition to holding leadership positions in Maryland and Louisiana.

Gallo, pictured right, talked recently with the Active Transportation Alliance about the AARP’s commitment at the municipal, state and national levels to the Complete Streets movement.

Active Trans: What makes Complete Streets a local, state and national issue?

Gallo: This is a universal issue. For the last 50 years or more, many if not all communities were designed around the automobile. There are some exceptions, such as Chicago, which has a large mass transit system. In the suburbs, whether it’s Illinois or other states, the automobile is the dominant form of transportation. Rural areas have virtually no access to easily accessible mass transit.

More than 8 million drivers in the United States today are over 65. Of concern to the AARP and our members is the important question of what happens when people age—and the automobile cannot be their dominant form of transportation. Demographics suggest that the question will become increasingly important.

What happens when seniors cannot rely upon the automobile as their dominant form of transportation?

Once individuals can no longer drive in our society and in this culture, they must deal with extremely limited—if any—options for getting around. They become physically and psychologically isolated. That can lead to depression and, in severe cases, to death.

Isolated seniors are unable to participate in activities and events as they’ve done all their lives and to make meaningful contributions to their communities simply because they are not independently mobile. Such routine but essential activities as going to the grocery store, or seeing a doctor, or visiting with family and friends becomes difficult, if not impossible.

How does Complete Streets seek to provide a solution?

The goal of the Complete Streets effort is to make all our streets safe and convenient for travel by foot, bicycle, mass transit—and automobile—for all. AARP studies and surveys tell us that 40 percent of adults 50 and older say that sidewalks in their neighborhoods are inadequate. Almost 50 percent say they cannot cross main streets close to their homes safely.

Significantly, half of the respondents to our survey said they would walk, bicycle or take the bus if those problems were fixed. Just consider the health benefits if those options were available, so people could walk to the grocery store, or ride a bike for pleasure.

As you pointed out, the infrastructure that would allow all our citizens to walk, bike or take public transit is all but non-existent in most of our communities, regardless of size. What’s the outlook for changing this and what is AARP doing?

Complete Streets is a vital component of AARP’s overall policy when we engage with municipal governing bodies, with state legislatures and with the Congress. We want to make our streets safe for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists, as drivers or passengers. A dedicated bike lane is part of the solution.

We need to repurpose the surface areas we have. But the reality is that creating a separate environment for bicyclists and walkers is going to be very difficult and expensive. No doubt about it. Here in Illinois, for example, the state of the state’s economy is such that even high priority budget items are being cut. And we know that Complete Streets is not the highest priority item in the state budget.

Consequently, we believe much of this work has to be done at the municipal level. Local politicians and civic leaders in Illinois and elsewhere are coming to realize that a Complete Streets effort has local benefits and can make a real economic contribution to the community.

How can such a concept of making streets accessible to all be of economic benefit to a community?

We have to stop talking and thinking about these things in isolation. We tend to think of transportation in independent units—rails vs. roads, for example. But when we think in terms of a system, when we see a bike rack on the front of a bus, we start to think differently, with the potential for positive results. I might not ride my bike from A to C, but I can ride it from A to B and take the bus from B to C.

Complete Streets is but one facet of community’s composition—and attractive qualities. People “buy” communities as they consider schools, parks, libraries, shopping, cultural opportunities and facilities, and they’re all connected by various forms of transportation.

When I lived in Florida, I saw this phenomenon first-hand. The Pinellas Trail, which runs for 37 miles from St. Petersburg north to Tarpon Springs, utilizes an abandoned railroad corridor. In the 20-plus years the trail has been in operation, we’ve seen a rebirth of small downtown areas along the trail. The small downtown retailers were losing business to the big box stores and malls. But as the trail became a destination for bicyclists and walkers, shops and activities followed them to the economic benefit of all. At the same time, towns along the way became multi-generational because the automobile wasn’t the only form of transportation.

What do you see as the biggest challenges today?

We need to recognize that current economic conditions are not in our favor.

Shifting demographics present another major challenge now and into the future. Community leaders and elected public officials must start thinking about the changes that are coming—and coming quickly. In my opinion, many municipalities are trying to attract young people to their cities and towns, but they are not preparing for the 70 million baby boomers moving toward retirement.

Today, the boomers’ needs are unique. Their priorities are different. And AARP sees Complete Streets as one of the most important ways we can recognize their needs and priorities. We see them as opportunities to address a growing and aging population.

Joe Bean is a volunteer writer for Active Trans. Bottom photo is by Dan Burden. 

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