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Baby Boomers Aging In a Car-Dependent World

Don't blame planners or bureaucrats for not anticipating a walkable environment for older folks. Look in the mirror.
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Lloyd Alter’s recent piece, “The Issue for Boomers Won’t Be ‘Aging in Place,’” raised some important points about transportation, urban design, and getting old in America. 

The choice between no longer driving and losing one’s personal freedom, or continuing to drive and risking one’s own life and the lives of others, isn’t a new one. The vast majority of older people have been living in the suburbs for decades now, and the mobility challenges for car-dependent older adults have been with us for decades.

What is unique about today’s moment, however, is the sheer number of Baby Boomers who will be getting old at the same time, the degree to which society is now auto-dependent (after decades of suburban sprawl), and the likelihood (based on what we’ve observed about their response to aging, thus far) that Boomers will be even less likely than previous generations to relinquish their keys.

Our overdependence on cars is a well-established fact. The speed at which American society adopted the automobile is arguably the most significant and disruptive technological change in modern history. Here are some data on motor vehicle registrations from Robert Gordon’s masterful The Rise and Fall of American Growth:

Motor Vehicle Registrations per 100 U.S. Households

1900               0.1

1910               2.3

1920              38.3

1930              89.8

1940              93.0

In just four decades, the United States went from a country where no one owned an automobile to one in which there was nearly one motor vehicle per household. Today, there are two motor vehicles per household.

The widespread adoption of the automobile completely remade the face of the North American continent, and drastically changed the way that our cities and towns are designed and built, as well as the way that we navigate urban places and experience public life.

Although this change to an auto-dominated society is commonly viewed as happening after World War II, the reality is that we began reorienting our cities and neighborhoods around the automobile far earlier than that. Even as early as 1930, at the dawn of the Great Depression, there was already close to one automobile for every American household. The genie was out of the bottle, and our places would never be the same again.

The rapid adoption of the automobile is a great object lesson in the unintended consequences of technological change. A machine that promised (and has delivered) one type of freedom, has also limited our freedom in other ways. 

As Aldous Huxley said of science and technology, “[It] takes away with one hand even more than what it so profusely gives with the other.”

Yes, the automobile has helped us cover long distances more effectively, but it has also made us travel long distances for basic goods that we didn’t always have to. It has saddled us with significant social, economic, and environmental costs: air pollution, hundreds of billions of dollars in annual infrastructure costs, trillions of dollars in annual car-related household expenditures, tens of thousands of deaths, and hundreds of thousands of injuries each year. 

And, yes, it has put older people who cannot drive, or should not drive, in a precarious position.

When cars were first introduced, no one had to buy one if they didn’t want one. Now that we have reordered our entire society around them, outside of a very small number of cities, the use of an automobile is really no longer an option. 

Motor vehicles have changed our urban form to the point where very few people live within walking distance of their job, shopping, or other everyday activities. And for those who do, the walk to that place is likely to be unpleasant and unsafe, due to the way that cars have altered the design of our streets and neighborhoods.

We should think long and hard about the fact that, within several decades, we reordered our entire society, our built environment, and our way of life to serve this machine that we were told would serve us.

The unintended consequences of our overdependence on automobiles have fallen heavily upon the elderly. Even as their ability to drive safely declines, older people have a powerful incentive to hold on to their cars. The vast majority of older adults live in neighborhoods where giving up their car means that they will become prisoners in their own home. People keep driving, even when they shouldn’t, for understandable social and psychological reasons.  

Unfortunately, public transit isn’t any easy answer. Most older people live in suburban areas with poor (or non-existent) public transportation services, and, contrary to popular belief, older people are actually the wealthiest age group in the United States. Public transit usage has a strong inverse correlation with income, so even in places where public transit exists, older people are less likely to use it. According to APTA, only seven percent of public transit passengers are age 65 or older, while 15 percent of all Americans are 65 or older.

Autonomous vehicles have been suggested as a viable alternative for getting older adults to where they need to go. Don’t hold your breath. People underestimate the level of technological sophistication that will be needed to operate one. They underestimate the importance of having a human being present who can assist an older person at the beginning and end of the trip. Most importantly, they underestimate the pace at which the technology will be developed and implemented. Many credible experts do not believe that truly autonomous vehicles will be with us for decades—if ever. 

Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are probably one of the best alternatives for older adults who live in areas without viable public transportation, and who cannot, or do not want to, drive any longer. These services obviously do not help with the problem of car dependency, per se, but they do improve mobility for older adults and provide a reasonable option for people who should no longer be driving to give up their keys.

While older people will experience some technological challenges using ride-sharing services, these are likely to increasingly disappear as the next generation of technologically-savvy older adults replaces the existing one.

We are never going to retrofit suburbia to become significantly more urban. We lack the incentive, the will, and the money to make it happen. As Lloyd Alter writes:

Baby boomers are looking around their houses and thinking “What can I do so that I can age in place?” and investing in renovations, when all the data show that one of the first things go to is the ability to drive — long before the ability to walk. Instead, they should be asking “What can I do to get out of this place? How will I get to the doctor or the grocery?” Every single one of them has to look in the mirror right now and ask themselves, “What do I do when I can’t drive?”

Yes, it would make sense for elderly people living in suburban areas to move, but this is easier said than done. It is normal for a person to become attached to their house and neighborhood, particularly as they age. Decisions on where to live are emotional and are made with the heart as well as the head. There are cultural, psychological, and sociological barriers to leaving that beloved house and all of those wonderful memories behind.

In theory it would be far easier to have older people move to urban core areas where it would be easier for them to get around, rather than having them stay in the suburbs and continue to drive or expending considerable resources on cost-ineffective suburban public transit to transport them. And while ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are likely to help, human nature and our cultural ethos of personal autonomy make it likely that older people will continue to drive long past the point thatt it is safe for them to do so. 

There is another practical problem with the theory that moving from the suburbs to the urban core will help improve accessibility and mobility. Most metropolitan areas, with the exception of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Boston, have few neighborhoods where people can conveniently live without needing a car.

This theory also presupposes that the urban core has the amenities that people need. While urban core areas often have “good bones,” high population density, and a walkable street grid, the reality in many metro areas is that most of the shopping opportunities, medical offices, everyday amenities, and safe, convenient, desirable neighborhoods are in the suburbs. This is especially true in Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Cleveland, where the historic urban cores have been decimated by urban decline and disinvestment.

In practice, we are often left with the worst of both worlds: urban places with good bones which are impractical or unattractive for older people to live in or suburban places which are designed exclusively for cars, where all of the activity and amenities are. In many American cities, even people living in the heart of the urban core must drive for miles to get to a grocery store, a bank, or a doctor’s office, due to urban decline and suburban sprawl.

As critical as good urban design and walkable neighborhoods are, most older people are going to have mobility challenges, at some point, regardless of the built environment. Walking and biking become progressively more difficult as people age, too. 

Ultimately, Alter focuses so heavily on the trees of bad urban design, that he misses the forest of culture:

If urban planners and the politicians they work for had any sense, they would stop approving any more suburban sprawl and do a big intervention to allow mid-rise apartment construction everywhere in city centers where there is transit and pedestrian infrastructure that lets people get to their doctors and grocers without needing a car. Or they would adopt the principles of New Urbanism and make every new community walkable.

I grow weary of people blaming urban planners for every urban problem. The root of this particular problem is cultural, and the reality is that urban planners have very little power or influence in this country. 

Most urban planners hate our current built environment, and would love to change it. But they are trying to bail water out of the Titanic with a thimble. They are continually stifled, not by the politicians, but by the people that the politicians work for. The fact of the matter is that Americans like the urban development status quo, and efforts to change it are often met with bipartisan opposition. It’s one of the few things that we still agree on.

Yes, of course, we have an urban design and land use problem that results in many transportation problems.

It is not safe for older people to continue driving as they advance in age. It is foolish to think that autonomous cars will save us (they won’t). It is not financially feasible to send shuttle buses around on three-hour round trips collecting older people in suburban neighborhoods and taking them to grocery stores, banks, and doctor’s offices.

But these are all symptoms of a larger cultural problem. The real problem is the way that we Americans (both young and old) view old age and the NIMBY culture that will not allow the mid-rise, dense, mixed-use, walkable communities that Lloyd Alter dreams wants to make a reality. It is not the urban planners, or some cabal of faceless bureaucrats who are preventing this from happening. It is all of us.

We live in a society where we expect older people to muddle through their final years alone, in their own households. Multi-generational households, or situations where adult children live in extremely close proximity to their parents, and where they can help and interact with one another, are the norm in many cultures. Not here in America.

And it’s not just a matter of younger people shunting the elderly aside. Older people themselves, steeped in our powerful culture of radical autonomy, individualism, and self-sufficiency, often enter into a self-imposed exile, afraid or unwilling to ask for help. American culture has a perverse way of making even very old people feel like failures for needing assistance from others.

We live in a culture that worships youth and self-sufficiency. It is hard for older people to say “I can’t do this anymore, and I need your help.” Similarly, it is hard for younger people who could help them to say “I need to extricate myself from the never-ending rat-race of my busy and overscheduled life and help my older friends, neighbors, and family members.” Even if younger people tried to make the time to help, would employers, friends, and colleagues understand?

Our cultural challenge is a Gordian knot of dozens of interwoven, interrelated behavior patterns: transportation, urban design, the way that we view older people, the way that older people view themselves, and how we establish our personal, social, and political priorities. 

If we are to solve the problem of a lack of safe, affordable, and practical mobility options for older people, we are going to need to look in the mirror.

This isn’t ultimately a failing of the urban planners. This a failing of American culture. It’s not up to the planners to figure it out. It is up to each and every one of us.

Jason Segedy is director of planning and urban development for the city of Akron, Ohio. Segedy has worked in the urban-planning field for the past 23 years, and is an avid writer on urban development issues, blogging at Notes from the Underground.

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