Think for a moment about everything you do in a typical week . . . going to work or school or volunteering, visiting friends and family, getting to a doctor’s appointment or the grocery store, grabbing a bite to eat, catching a movie . . . and you’ll understand why safe, affordable transportation options are a key component of what we at AARP call “livable communities” – great places to live for people of all ages. Day-to-day mobility is critical to earn a living, raise a family, contribute to your community, and, really, enjoy life.
For generations in the U.S., the car has been king – particularly outside of big cities. Overall, about 86% of American workers commute by car with about 3 in 4 of those driving solo. And, while car ownership has seen a recent decline, 91% of U.S. households own at least one.
But how can you get around if you don’t want to – or can’t – drive yourself? This question is particularly important for older adults who want to stay in their homes and communities as they age. Today, 40 million Americans age 65 and up have drivers licenses, including more than 3.5 million who are 85 years old or older. Most will outlive their ability to drive safely by as long as a decade. Giving up their car keys is incredibly difficult. Without other options, it can mean a loss of independence and social isolation. In fact, studies show that former drivers have an increased risk of depression and are more likely to move into institutional care facilities.
That’s why AARP is actively engaged on a range of transportation and mobility initiatives.
In some places, that means supporting local action to increase investment in public transportation. A great example is the work that AARP Indiana staff and volunteers are doing to help expand and improve bus service in Indianapolis and Marion County. With innovative approaches like electric bus rapid transit and a revamped route structure that helps people travel efficiently between neighborhoods, the project could serve as a useful model for low-density cities looking for transit options that won’t break the bank.
But, improving mobility options is about more than buses and trains. It’s also about making it easier (and safer) to cross the street, bike to work, and walk around town to do your errands. AARP works with cities, towns, and states across the country on “complete streets” initiatives that focus on things like improving crosswalks and sidewalks so they can be navigated by residents of all ages and abilities. These seemingly small changes can make a big difference for a parent pushing a stroller, a teen riding a bike, someone in a wheelchair or an older adult who isn’t comfortable getting behind the wheel.
These solutions, however, only get us so far. But, thanks to technological innovation, we are on the cusp of game-changing breakthroughs. Ride-sharing through apps like Uber and Lyft may have started in cities, but they’re now changing the mobility landscape in communities of all sizes. In fact, Lyft says that 95% of the U.S. population is a mere 10 minutes away from a ride with one of their drivers, and both of the big names in ride sharing are partnering with health providers to help get people to and from medical appointments. We’re also seeing creative ventures from start-ups and non-profits that focus specifically on giving rides — and in some cases a little extra help — to older adults and people of all ages with disabilities, whether they’re going to see a doctor or do some grocery shopping. And the sharing economy ethos is transforming how we view personal mobility resources from something that you own to something that you pay to use only when you need it – whether it’s a car, a bike, or an electric scooter.
Meanwhile, auto and tech companies are racing to be the first-mover on autonomous vehicles – a development that has the potential to be truly transformative. And, it’s coming sooner than you may think. Today’s cars already come with the kinds of advanced technology features that are the building blocks of AVs . . . things like rear-view back-up cameras, ‘lane assist’ technology, and (my personal favorite) automated parallel parking.
While we wait for fully autonomous cars to come on-line, we’re helping AARP members and other older adults get ready. That means being comfortable with auto technology and jumping into someone else’s car. Through AARP Driver Safety’s SmartDriverTEK program, we are helping older Americans understand and use advanced features that are already available, and later this summer, we are launching pilot projects to educate older adults about using ride sharing services. We’ll also be testing a technology solution that will connect older adults with a range of mobility options, including public transit, bike sharing, volunteer drivers as well as ride-share companies.
These initiatives are incredibly promising. Taking an “all of the above” approach that combines safe, walkable streets with accessible public transit and a range of on-demand options, we can help millions of Americans stay independent as they age.
Nancy LeaMond is AARP chief advocacy and engagement officer. She leads the organization’s Communities, State and National Group, including government relations, advocacy and public education for AARP’s social change agenda. LeaMond also has responsibility for AARP’s state operation, which includes offices in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
You can follow her on Twitter @NancyLeaMond.