With a Walk signal that lasts only 14 seconds, sensibly shoed Dorothy Bennett doesn't dilly-dally when she crosses the street on her way to Qualicum Beach's Seniors Activity Centre.
"I've almost been hit a couple times," said the 81-year-old Ms. Bennett, a volunteer at the 700-member centre, which is near the downtown's "very, very busy" intersection. "Older people have a difficult time crossing. Even younger people have to hurry across."
Some of Qualicum Beach's 3,400 seniors – accounting for two-fifths of the population – have complained to city hall that they don't have enough time to cross the street. Now, the Vancouver Island town, 50 kilometres north of Nanaimo, is deciding whether it will lengthen the duration of the Walk signal at the town's two major intersections.
Sophia Thornley, 86, agrees that the Walk signal's duration should be increased. "A lot of the women have walkers. It can be a real problem. But the men have scooters and they don't care," she said.
At the downtown intersection, the Walk signal is displayed for 14 seconds, but the total time from when the traffic lights change is 20 seconds, said Bob Weir, the town's director of engineering and utilities.
If the Walk signal duration was stepped up, it would be by more than 10 to 20 per cent (1.5 to three seconds) but certainly not doubled, said Mr. Weir, a professional engineer. Until the study, part of the town's traffic review, is finished sometime after the November civic elections, he was loath to put an actual number on the duration.
"It's about people's comfort levels," he said.
Still, Mr. Weir thinks 14 seconds should be enough time, given that the crossing distance at the intersection is 48 feet and the North American standard for an adult's normal walking speed is four feet a second. Thus, a 12-second signal would be sufficient.
The town's second intersection with traffic lights is near a school. It also uses the four-feet-per-second standard.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with the current guidelines." He added that he wasn't aware of any fatalities at the downtown intersection, although there have been reports of close calls.
But not everyone covers four feet in one second, particularly those with canes, walkers or disabilities.
In Ottawa, where intersections may be broader, some Walk signals are lit for a mere seven seconds. Across North America, the Walk duration can be anywhere from six to 40 seconds, depending on the size of the intersection.
Pedestrian concerns, and other aspects of senior-friendly planning, are issues that municipalities across B.C. – and across the rest of the country –will face as waves of baby boomers hit the streets.
By 2032, one-quarter of B.C.'s residents – 1.3 million people – will be 65 and older.
Of Canada's 33 major cities, Kelowna has the highest proportion of seniors, with almost one in five of its residents 65 and older. And of the country's medium-sized communities, Parksville, just 10 kilometres south of Qualicum Beach, is the oldest, with 34 per cent of its residents older than 64.
Forty-one per cent of the 8,500 residents are aged 65 and over in Qualicum Beach, the highest rate of any small town in Canada. The median age is 61.
Sidney, population 11,000, is another retirement haven on par with Qualicum Beach. The Vancouver Island community was also ranked in 2006 as one of Canada's 10 oldest communities, with 35 per cent of its residents aged 65 and older, according to Statistics Canada.
About five years ago, older residents raised a run of concerns about the length of the Walk signal, said Mike van der Linden, Sidney's manager of engineering and environmental services.
The town did a survey, timing how long it took seniors to cross at Sidney's three traffic-light-controlled intersections.
The lights had been operating on the four-feet-a-second rule, but after observing that older people needed more time to cross, three feet a second became the new standard.
In Sidney, the Walk signals are now lit several seconds longer.
Special to The Globe and Mail