Durable Growth, Transportation

Urbanism and senior living: After the driver’s license is gone

Petaluma Transit bus

Petaluma Transit bus

A few years ago, my wife and I sat down one evening to continue planning our retirement.  Our goal was to decide upon a town in which we wished to spend our later years.

Like any couple, our desires didn’t fully align.  We had different visions of what would be important to us in retirement.

Nor, until our later-in-life marriage, had our lives been spent in the similar communities.  Although we both grew up near Sacramento, I’d lived 18 years in the Pacific Northwest, while she’d spent most of her adult life in California cities from Redding to Laguna Niguel, so we brought different visions of the good life to our conversation.

But we worked through our differences and reached a mutually acceptable conclusion.  We wanted to live in a place just like Petaluma, but with a Nordstrom and a transit system that would allow me to ride to and from a Cal basketball game, even if the game went into triple overtime.  (Exactly what city met that definition remained an open question.)

In our focus on transit, we were foreshadowing the concerns of an increasing number of seniors.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been writing about the intersection of urbanism and senior living.  As should have been expected, I’m enthusiastically supportive of creating more options for downtown senior life.

But I’ve also been considering the lives of seniors who would benefit from urban life but can’t utilize that option because of the absence of suitable urban destinations or because of market finances holding them in suburbia.  Today, I’ll write about the effect of decreasing mobility on those seniors and about possible solutions.

Eventually, assuming we live long enough, we’ll all lose our driver’s licenses.  (Paraphrasing Maurice Chevalier, “It isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.”)

But with so much of American life dependent on the automobile, the loss of that mobility can be life-changing.  As Pete Lehnerwrites for the Natural Resources Defense Council, seniors who find themselves stranded by loss of their licenses are less likely to keep medical appointments, less likely to see old friends and more likely to show signs of depression.

Lehner also points out that the number of seniors, and therefore post-driving seniors, has been and will continue to grow rapidly.

Lehner notes that transit is one solution to the senior mobility problem, but cites the low priority often given to transit funding.  He cites Wisconsin where the ratio of road to transit funding is nearly 100 to 1.

As a member of the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee, I can confirm that transit funding is limited.  The $88 million price being bandied about for the Rainier Connection would be enough to fund Petaluma Transit for thirty years.

However, I’m unsure than any amount of transit funding can solve the problem of senior mobility in cities configured like Petaluma.  The sprawling nature of many subdivisions makes it impossible to design routes that will provide good transit access to most folks while still providing timely services for those trying to keep appointments or arrive at jobs on time. Drivable suburbia is a deep wound to the independence of seniors and transit can only be a small bandage.

But there are alternatives.  Writing in City Lab, Paul Supawanichsuggests that peer-to-peer ride-sharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, can also play a role.

Supawanich muses that the rides required by seniors might not occur with the same times or destinations typically served by the peer-to-peer drivers and suggests that small stipends might be needed to ensure that enough drivers are available to meet the demand.  However, he guesses that stipends plus fares would have a lower cost that alternatives such as taxis or transit vans.

Lastly, Liza Barth in Consumer Reportswrites of a modified peer-to-peer ride-sharing concept for seniors that predates Uber and Lyft.  After her young son was injured in 1995 by an older driver whose license should have been previously revoked, Katherine Freund began to look for alternatives to senior driving.

She created a community ride-share company, ITN America, that operates in thirty locations across the country.

While similar to Uber and Lyft, ITN has several key differences, in addition to its focus on seniors.  For one, many riders enroll by giving their cars to ITN in exchange for credits that can be used for rides.  For another, many of the drivers are young seniors, reinforcing the concept of peer-to-peer.  Lastly, many of the drivers aren’t paid in money, but instead get credits that they can use in their later years.

Are Uber or ITN perfect solutions to senior mobility?  Not really.  I’d still rather live in a place where I can walk a block and catch a streetcar that’ll run all night.  But they help address some of the mobility shortfall for seniors and it’s good that they exist.

Next time, I’ll step away from urbanism and seniors for a post.  Instead, I’ll write about a couple of interesting meetings that will occur in Petaluma next week.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

(Note: For those concerned, or perhaps hopeful, that I’ll be leaving Petaluma based on my comments above about a retirement destination, that won’t happen.   Since the conversation with my wife, various life changes have happened, including greater community involvement and more family members moving to Petaluma, so we’re in the North Bay for the duration.  Although I still miss a good transit connection between here and Berkeley.)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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