What keeps older drivers driving? Poor urban design


In articles like “It Won’t Be Pretty When Baby Boomers Lose Their Cars,” I’ve described how inconsiderate home designs can make it difficult for people to stay in their homes, but also how poor urban design makes it almost impossible to get out of them if they don’t know how to drive.

A recent Globe and Mail article, titled “How to Know When It’s Time for Older People to Stop Driving,” reignited discussion of the importance of cars to many older people, noting: “Driving is a lifeline for many retirees…a fundamental part of their way of life that allows them to maintain friendships, visit family, remain independent and participate in community activities. »

The article goes over different approaches to keep riding longer, but I couldn’t help but wonder if there was another approach: forcibly throwing the keys away as soon as possible and develop alternatives. But as I noted earlier – in “Will baby boomers age in place or stay stuck in place?” – it’s not a driving problem. It is an urban design problem.

Vancouver city planner Sandy James recognized this right away, noting that good public transit and walkable communities are key. Sarah Joy Proppe said it years ago in Strong Towns:

“By designing our cities for cars, and therefore neglecting our sidewalks, we have compartmentalised our elders in many ways. Not only does the inability to drive confine many older people to their homes, but the corresponding busy roads and landscapes inhumane streets add to the isolating effect by also limiting the ability to walk.”

Due to the way our suburbs are designed, having to hand over the car keys is apparently one of the most traumatic events of aging. You can read article after article about when it’s time to take the keys out of mom or dad’s car. (All articles assume someone is doing this to their parents, who want to continue driving.)

As Jane Gould wrote in her book, “Aging in Suburbia,” about 70 percent of baby boomers live in areas with limited or no public transportation. What will they do when they have to return the keys? Both Gould and Treehugger contributor Jim Motavalli thought self-driving cars might be the answer, but that doesn’t seem likely these days.

Lloyd Alter with a Gazelle e-bike.

Lloyd Alter

I live in a tram suburb and can pretty much everything I need within walking distance, and have my e-bike and good public transport if I can’t. I practically threw away the car keys. I used to think this would be a hopeless concept in the suburbs, where people have to ride everywhere, but the e-bike revolution has given me hope that it isn’t. In Europe, the use of e-bikes among baby boomers and older people has exploded, and big manufacturers like Gazelle and Islabikes are designing e-bikes specifically for the older market by making them lower, slower and more light. Studies have shown that e-bike users ride farther and haul more stuff, and there’s plenty of room in these suburban right-of-ways to build protected bike lanes. It could be the easiest, cheapest and fastest way to develop alternatives to driving.

There are many reasons to throw away the keys as soon as possible. It can save you a lot of money: According to Investopedia, the average vehicle costs $10,742 a year to own and operate, and that doesn’t include parking.

But perhaps the most important reason to hang up the keys is that it’s healthier. That’s why people in big cities like New York and London are healthier and slimmer. They walk more, and just living their daily lives in this setting provides exercise. Just walking can make all the difference: According to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, quoted in the Washington Post, “Walking has been described as ‘the perfect exercise’ because it’s a simple, free, practice, which requires no special equipment or training, and can be done at any age.


But that means you need a place where you can walk safely and places to walk to get the services you need. In the aforementioned Globe and Mail article, the car is what keeps seniors connected with family and friends. In their excellent brief “Cities Alive: Designing for Aging Communities”, the team at design firm Arup wrote:

“Planning decisions guide the city’s development patterns, determining the geographic relationships between residential areas, commercial destinations, industrial uses and community facilities. In walkable neighborhoods, people can walk from their homes places they want to go. , open spaces, wide corridors and transit stations all play a role in supporting the autonomy and independence of seniors.”

If you’re going to throw away the keys, you need a 15-minute town, as described by the C40 mayors in our article:

“We are implementing urban planning policies to promote the ’15-minute city’ (or ‘complete neighborhoods’) as a framework for recovery, where all city dwellers can meet most of their needs within walking distance or The presence of local amenities, such as health care, schools, parks, basic shops and restaurants, as well as the digitalization of certain services, will enable this transition. we must create a regulatory environment that encourages inclusive zoning, mixed-use development and flexible buildings and spaces.”

Designing our communities so that seniors can walk or cycle instead of driving has some interesting side benefits: anyone, at any age, can. But the main point remains that instead of trying to figure out how to keep our seniors driving longer, we should be figuring out how to fix our cities so they don’t have to drive at all.


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