Mobility ‧ Masters

ELDER-FRIENDLY MOBILE CITIES

Kwong Sum Yin

The Master, standing by a river, said, “It goes on like this, never ceasing, day or night!” In “Zi Han” of The Analects, Kongzi, inspired by the perpetual flow of the river before his eyes, exclaimed how every living thing and life itself are driven by constant motion day in, day out—much like a river. Water comes alive with the current, but once it stops flowing, it becomes stagnant and lifeless. Mobility is the essence of existence: we were born to move through the journey of life.

We take the ability to move for granted, but it diminishes with age. A number of research shows that senior adults who remain socially active lead happier and healthier lives. A recent study by Yale University found that persons aged 70 or above are better able to recover from illnesses and maintain independence if they walked every day and performed a moderate amount of physical activity. Chris Phillipson, professor of sociology and social gerontology at the University of Manchester, says if older persons stayed in “self-imposed house arrest”, their physical and mental health would deteriorate and they would be prone to isolation and depression.

According to a 2015 report published by the United States’ Census Bureau, in the next 15 years, some 1 billion people will be aged 65 or above, and, before 2020, for the first time in human history, individuals aged 65 and over will outnumber children below the age of 5. Yet, the majority of cities across the globe fail to take into account the needs of senior adults. For example, the United Kingdom’s Department of Health calculated the average walking speed required for pedestrian crossings as 1.2m per second—but the average speed of older pedestrians is only 0.7 to 0.9m per second.

In response to this irreversible trend, a decade ago, the World Health Organization set up its Age-Friendly Cities project in hopes of improving physical and  social environments to help people “age actively”. Now, 258 cities (not including Hong Kong) have joined the global network. What these cities have in common are their human-oriented approaches, walkability, enhanced transport systems and increased number of public spaces. In Toronto and Honolulu, for instance, “complete streets” are designed to be safe for all users—whether they are pedestrians, public transport vehicles or private vehicles—and to take into consideration the needs of users across different age groups.

The US, home to auto giants, has seen a number of its cities introduce innovative public transport measures. One of them is SUV ridesharing service Via, which operates in New York and Chicago. It charges passengers a flat rate and is especially convenient for senior citizens travelling in and out of town. Over in Europe, a front runner in public transport, Vienna reviews its public transport network once every ten years: in addition to increasing the coverage of public transport networks, such as underground railways, trams and buses, it also recognises the importance of feeder services, building transport interchanges and broadcasting arrival times at terminuses and online.

This enables citizens to obtain details on public transit, as well as pedestrian zones around Europe. Of course, Hong Kong has in place a public transport fare concession scheme for the elderly that allows senior citizens to ride for just HK$2. While the scheme encourages older adults to venture out in public, Hong Kong has done little to ensure pedestrian rights and safety. Although it prides itself on being a highly mobile city, Hong Kong’s emphasis lies solely on traffic. Here, 10.2 in every 10,000 pedestrians die from traffic accidents —10 times the number in New York and 8 in London. The average pedestrian’s safety is threatened, not to mention that of senior citizens! To become a truly world-class mobile city, age-friendly designs are the way to go.

Kwong Sum Yin