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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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Keeping Baby Boomers Mobile

By Roger W. Cobb and Joseph F. Coughlin
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The Graying of America

  • The percentage of older people in the United State is larger than it has ever been. Since 1900, the percentage of Americans over 65 has more than tripled, from 4.1 percent of the population in 1900 to nearly 13 percent today.
  • In sheer numbers, the older population has increased nearly eleven times since 1900, from 3.1 million to 33.2 million people.
  • The older population itself is getting older. In 1994, the 65 to 74 age groups, representing 18.7 million people, was eight times larger than in 1900; but the 75 to 84 age groups, with 10.9 million people, was 14 times larger and the over-85 group, with 3.5 million, was 28 times larger.

Every seven seconds, one of the 77 million people born between 1945 and 1964 turns 50. The so-called "baby boomer" generation is changing the very notion of what it means to be old.

Only a few decades ago, the norm for older adults was ill health, poor education, and a meager income. Although some baby boomers might still fit this profile, most don't.

Nearly 75 percent of today's older adults report that they are in good to excellent health. They are also better-educated and wealthier than previous generations. Recent surveys show they intend to devote more time during retirement to learning, study, travel, volunteer activities, and part-time work than did their parents. Learning for the sake of learning is among the fastest growing markets catering to those aged 50 or above.

Grayer but Still Mobile

The nation's largest funeral and cemetery companies lamented in a recent Fortune magazine that people weren't dying fast enough to meet revenue projections. This is the generation, which has placed greatest emphasis on improved health care, sanitation, nutrition and personal fitness. As a result, life expectancy has risen from approximately age 50 at the turn of this century, to age 76 today, and probably older in the next century.

Most experts agree that baby boomers are likely to remain mentally and physically vigorous well beyond age 65, and thousands of boomers can expect to live well past 100. According to Horace Deets, executive director, American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), a person who is 50 today may have half of their life yet to live.

By all predictions, the population will continue to grow older most rapidly between the years 2010 and 2030. By 2025 there will be more than 60 million Americans who are 65 years older, more than twice the number in 1990, representing 17 to 20 percent of the population.

This squaring of the population shows the aging of the baby boom generation and similar-sized groups to follow. It also shows that a greater number of older adults will become a permanent feature of the nation's demographic profile.

In 1999, the United Nations Year of the Older Person, the challenge to the transportation community is to understand and to respond to the changing mobility needs of not only the one in five people who will be over 65, but the faster growing group over 85 years old.

Will Boomers Still Be Able to Drive?

The lives and identities of baby boomers are inextricably linked to driving and to owning automobiles. Obtaining the privilege to drive and buying a vehicle were significant rites of passage for most of them. But determining when and if this generation ever falls into the category of "too old to drive" will not be easy. Driving is less about the number of years than it is about physical and mental alertness, and good vision.

Few would define 38 or 40 as old. Yet, even in the late 30s and early 40s the aging eye needs more light to see adequately at night. The field of view narrows over time, making it difficult to see many objects such as an entering vehicle, a darting bicycle, or a pedestrian. Likewise, more time is needed to adjust and see clearly after the glare of headlights. All this makes driving a problem through middle age and into one's senior years.

After age 50, flexibility begins to decline. Rotating the neck to check for a vehicle or a pedestrian dashing into the street becomes more difficult. After age 60 some may not have the strength to brake or steer adequately.

Mental acuity is also affected by aging. Perception and cognition change and often slow with age. For example, the ability to perceive and respond to changes in the traffic environment may slow over time. Some studies indicate a change in the ability to accurately perceive distance and speed. This is particularly important at intersections.

Finally, illnesses that are more common in older age may affect baby boomers' driving ability. These include arthritis, dementia, Alzheimer's disease and other health problems that reduce capacity or require medicines that diminish driving ability.

Many baby boomers believe they'll live forever. Sooner or later, though, most are forced to come face-to-face with reality.

Boomers Are Only Human

Compared to drivers between ages 25 and 74, younger and older drivers experience an inordinately high fatality rate, although for different reasons. As the graphic below shows, the number of deaths in driving accidents increases markedly after age 74.


Analyses conducted for the U.S. Department of Health (USDOT) suggest that the number of older adults killed in automobile accidents may rise to 23,000 in 2030, compared to nearly 7,000 today.

The number of deaths projected for older adults are comparable to the number of drunk-driving-related deaths in the mid-1990s. Some argue that this reflects a diminished capacity of the elderly to drive. Others suggest that the fatality rate indicates the increased frailty that comes with later years. If the high fatality rate for older adults is explained by diminished capacity, driving won't remain a lifelong transportation option for baby boomers.

Similarly, if the fatality rate is due to the frailty of older adults and the inability of current safety systems to protect them from fatal injury, until the car is dramatically improved, driving for aging boomers will become a major public safety, health and consumer issue in the next century.

Whatever the reason, the explanation remains an important research question and a compelling policy problem.

Families, Transit and Public Policy Choices

Regardless of age, everyone understands the terrible cost of losing mobility. Loss of independence leads to isolation; isolation hastens poor mental and physical health; failing health results in rapid decline and death.

Because extended families and social networks of previous generations have all but disappeared, tomorrow's baby boomer when no longer physically or mentally able, will not have the same pool of potential caregivers on whom to rely for daily transportation needs.

As a group, boomers are distinguished by having fewer relatives to whom they are emotionally attached. Boomers also have had fewer offspring. Those who do have children are usually separated from them not across town, but across country.

Unlike their parents' generation, baby boomers haven't participated in church and community-based social organizations that might offer transportation to seniors.

When the boomer population approaches 80 and above, they will have few friends still alive; and even if they are, they will have similar physical and mental limitations.

Most baby boomers will age-in-place in the homes in which they have their memories. Unfortunately, this means the majority of them will spend their declining years in automobile-dependent suburban and rural areas where there is little or no transit.

Public capital investments overwhelmingly favor large bus and rail services that reflect journey-to-work, suburb-to-city, city-to-suburb and city-to-city commuting patterns. That leaves the needs of aging baby boomers out of the capital transportation investment equation.

Keeping Mobile

There once was unprecedented public investment in new schools, parks, sidewalks and healthcare facilities to cope with the birth of 77 million baby boomer children. As boomers grew to adulthood, products were customized and marketed to exploit their enormous buying power.

Now, to ensure the generation doesn't become isolated and traumatized by diminishing physical and mental acuity, aging baby boomers must exert similar influence on public transportation policy.

Demand-response, or "paratransit" door-to-door service may be the appropriate model for senior baby boomers. Unfortunately, presently operating public paratransit is often unreliable, difficult to schedule and dispatch. Nearly all current providers require users to schedule their trips at least 24 hours or several days in advance. Inadequate service leaves many older adults, who may not be willing or able to drive, stranded at home.

Flexible paratransit service is expensive. It must be staffed by specially-trained drivers and dispatchers, and though paratransit fares are usually comparable to regular transit fares, $1 to $2 per ride, the actual operating cost for the service can approach $18 per ride.

Public funding for paratransit is limited so services are usually offered only to the disabled. Providers prioritize trips. Medical and food shopping trips first, and then other trips as resources permit.

Include Transportation Planning

Obviously, this is not the first generation to grow old and confront declining mobility, but its sheer size, habits, history of youth, and the likelihood that it will remain fit longer, demands immediate attention by individuals, by local, state and federal governments, by industry and by the university research community.

Each baby boomer must plan for transportation needs in the same way he or she plans for future health care, housing, and financial security.

For instance, transportation should be considered in the choice of a retirement location. A home in the mountains may be ideal at age 60 but may be a jail at age 75. The cost of getting around with and without an automobile should be figured into all retirement budgets.

Communities should be assessing the impact of zoning and development permits on older adults. Retirement communities and senior housing should be positioned near shops, services and transportation.

To encourage optimum mobility for seniors, there should be tax and other incentives to developers for incorporating paratransit, activity centers, sidewalks, lighting, and large-type signage.

By the same token, government, industry and academe should join forces and sponsor research on safety, innovative products and new transportation services for older adults. Through such research, the safety and comfort of all consumers, regardless of their age, whether they drive or not, might provide exciting and safer transportation alternatives.

While Congress has already begun funding national studies and inter-agency coordination in this direction, there is need for more attention to auto safety needs of older adults. Automobile access for physically impaired adults, integration of intelligent transportation systems, the safety of occupants, and the anticipated jump in the number of older and smaller-stature (women) drivers should be considered.

Lest we forget, baby boomers are synonymous with mobility and freedom. This is the generation of flower children who integrated classrooms, ended a war and walked on the moon. Scheduling a week in advance for a haircut, to visit a friend, see a grandchild, or simply to buy a container of milk, will not do. No doubt, baby boomers will demand, and demand loudly, that there be an investment in their transportation future.

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