In 10 years time, 55 million U.S. citizens will be over 65 years of age. Most of them (over 75%) will live outside cities, in rural and suburban areas. And if they can't drive, they're screwed. Public transport, as it is today, will fail them.
When we talk about declining car ownership, we're really talking about declining car ownership in cities. People still need to get around, and outside urban centers, public transport infrastructure is as bad as you'd expect in a country that's so wholly car-oriented. Even in Europe, where cities are closer together and we have better rail and bus services, you still need a car if you don't live in a city.
A new study from Sandra Rosenbloom of the Urban Institute details the coming transport apocalypse.
Currently, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) forces public transit operators to "provide demand-responsive door-to-door services to people with disabilities who cannot use or get to conventional bus services," says Rosenbloom. The problem is twofold. These services only need to be provided within a quarter-mile-wide corridor along existing bus routes, and because most old folks don't have serious disabilities, they are excluded from using these services.
"Many physical or medical problems that reduce an older person’s driving skills are not serious enough to qualify as a disability," says Rosenbloom. "The inability to quickly turn one’s neck, or correctly judge the speed of an oncoming car, or understand complicated traffic signs, or concentrate in heavy traffic."
And even if these things did count as serious disabilities, most of these folks don't live within a quarter-mile of a bus route anyway. Worse, these ADA paratransit services are so expensive ($3.54 billion in 2011) that few operators, says Rosenbloom, "are now willing to go beyond the minimum required by the law." As a result, these door-to-door services are overloaded, and yet still provide service to a tiny proportion of those who could see use them.
So what will happen when so many people are stranded, unable to drive, and left without a practical alternative way to get around? The most likely outcome is that seniors will drive anyway, despite the dangers. According to Vox, "drivers are way more likely to be involved in fatal crashes past the age of 75. And for those 85-plus, the data is even worse than it is for teens."
Rosenbloom projects the costs of providing more widespread service to the nation's disabled elderly, broken down by city, and the prices are manageable. In the most expensive areas, like Cleveland, providing "eligible" 65-plus travelers with eight return trips per month would cost $66 million per year (around $50 per trip). But that's just expanding the current kind of service. It still leaves out seniors who aren't officially disabled, but aren't fit to drive. Rosenbloom concludes that we should fund new services designed for older people who are not seriously disabled, instead of trying to extend a service meant for a different purpose.
But perhaps the answer isn't more transport. Ferrying people from here to there is impractical, and something of a losing battle. Even with the best bus service, a senior who can't walk to the bus stop will still take their car. The answer might be to make the suburbs more like cities, with mixed use streets. Instead of having to use a special bus, or waiting for their kids to drive them to the city, retirees could walk or take their wheelchair to the grocery store. Phoenix is already trying to make its urban sprawl more human-friendly, with light rail systems, and plans to bring mixed use to far-flung communities. And Liveable Cities is working on something called "Lifetime Community Districts," which will turn suburbs into something like the small-town neighborhoods of old, with walkable (or roll-able) distances, and services (schools, hospitals, coffee shops and stores) that cluster close together.
In future, the way old people live will change. Or rather, as today's adults grow older, our needs will change. We're already used to buying services and goods online, so we'll be much more self-sufficient, even when our bodies have given up on us. This brings its own problems—isolation is a big one—but we won't be reliant on our children just to take us to buy groceries, or to pick up medicinal marijuana for our arthritis. And if we do feel the need to get out, we can always order up an Uber and go by ourselves.
What's certain is that the current model won't work in the future. Some of us can avoid this the problem by choosing to live in cities, but if 75% of seniors are living outside of urban centers, something will need to be done.