What's Keeping Older Drivers Driving? Bad Urban Design

If our cities were designed properly, then we wouldn't have such a problem.

Image of an older woman driving a black car uphill.
You can only do this for so long.

Mick Tinbergen / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

In posts like "It Won't Be Pretty When Boomers Lose Their Cars," I have described how inconsiderate home designs can make it difficult for people to stay in their homes, but also how bad urban design makes it almost impossible to get out of them if they can't drive.

A recent article from the Globe and Mail, titled "How to know when it's time for seniors to stop driving," got the discussion going again about how important cars are to many older people, noting: "Driving is a lifeline for many retirees—a fundamental part of their lifestyle that allows them to maintain friendships, visit family, remain independent and participate in community activities."

The article goes through various approaches to keep driving longer, but I couldn't help wondering if there wasn't another approach: to forcefully throw away the keys as early as possible and develop alternatives. But as I have noted previously—in "Are boomers going to age in place, or be stuck in place?"—this is not a driving problem. It is an urban design problem.

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

"By designing our cities for cars, and consequently neglecting our sidewalks, we have siloed our elders in several ways. Not only does an inability to drive confine many seniors to their homes, but corresponding busy roads and inhumane streetscapes add to the isolating effect by also limiting walkability."

Because of the way our suburbs are designed, being forced to give up the car keys is apparently one of the most traumatic events of growing older. You can read article after article about when it's time to take away the car keys from mom or dad. (All the articles assume that someone is doing this to their parents, who want to keep driving.) 

As Jane Gould wrote in her book, "Aging in Suburbia," an estimated 70% of baby boomers live in areas served by limited or no public transit. What will they do when they have to give up the keys? Gould and Treehugger contributor Jim Motavalli both thought that self-driving cars might be the answer, but that's not looking likely these days.

Lloyd Alter on bike
Lloyd Alter with a Gazelle e-bike.

Lloyd Alter

I live in a streetcar suburb and can pretty much get everything I need within walking distance, and have my e-bike and good transit if I can't. I have pretty much thrown away the car keys. I used to think this would be a hopeless concept in the suburbs, where people have to drive everywhere, but the e-bike revolution has given me hope that this might not be the case. In Europe, the use of e-bikes among boomers and the older population has exploded, and major manufacturers like Gazelle and Islabikes are designing e-bikes specifically for the older market by making them lower, slower, and lighter. Studies have shown that people on e-bikes ride further and carry more stuff, and there is lots of room in those suburban road allowances to build protected bike lanes. This might be the easiest, cheapest, and fastest way to develop alternatives to driving.

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

But perhaps the single 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 that setting provides exercise. Simply 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 is a simple action that is free, convenient, does not require any special equipment or training, and can be done at any age.”

needed for a walkable city


But that means you need a place where you can safely walk, and places to walk to where you can get the services you need. In the aforementioned Globe and Mail article, the car is what let older people maintain their connections to family and friends. In its excellent "Cities Alive: Designing for Aging Communities" brief, the team at design firm Arup wrote:

"Planning decisions guide the development patterns of the city, determining the geographic relationships between residential areas, commercial destinations, industrial uses, and community facilities. In walkable neighborhoods, people can travel by foot from their homes to the places they want to go. Footways, open spaces, major corridors, and transit stations all play a role in supporting the autonomy and independence of older people."

If you are going to throw away the keys, you need a 15-minute city, as described by the C40 Mayors in our post:

"We are implementing urban-planning policies to promote the ‘15-minute city’ (or ‘complete neighborhoods’) as a framework for recovery, whereby all city residents are able to meet most of their needs within a short walk or bicycle ride from their homes. The presence of nearby amenities, such as healthcare, schools, parks, food outlets and restaurants, essential retail and offices, as well as the digitalisation of some services, will enable this transition. In order to achieve this in our cities, we must create a regulatory environment that encourages inclusive zoning, mixed-use development and flexible buildings and spaces." 

There are some interesting ancillary benefits that come from designing our communities so that the aging can walk or bike instead of drive: everyone of all ages can. But the main point remains that instead of trying to figure out how to keep our seniors driving longer, we should figure out how to fix our cities so they don't have to drive at all.