It Won't Be Pretty When Boomers Lose Their Cars

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mother in law's house
My mother-in-law's house with that rusting Saturn in the driveway. (Photo: Google Maps)

My late mother-in-law lived in a lovely side-split house on a cul-de-sac in suburban Toronto, and she stayed there after her daughter left home and even after her husband died 20 years ago. She had a car and could drive to the grocery store and the bank — until she couldn’t any more, and my wife had to drive 45 minutes out there to take her shopping, and to the bank, and to the doctor. Being a side-split, there was a powder room at entry level, a kitchen on the middle level, a bathroom on the upper level. When it got to the point that she could barely walk, it got difficult to decide whether to eat or go to the bathroom. Finally my wife convinced her to sell the house and junk the car and move to a retirement home. Four months later, she died.

aging in suburbia
Aging in Suburbia book. Book cover

Many baby boomers are going through this now, taking care of seriously old parents. (I'm off to my 97-year-old mom’s birthday party as soon as I finish writing this post). Many baby boomers are also setting themselves up for the same problem in the not-too-distant future. Jane Gould writes about it in "Aging in Suburbia," a fascinating and troubling book that covers so many of the issues we will be facing down the winding cul-de-sac. She notes that boomers and older age groups own 60 percent of the owner-occupied homes in America.

An estimated 70 percent of Baby Boomers live in areas served by limited or no public transit. If Boomers stay in their homes as they age and continue to drive their cars, do they put other drivers and pedestrians at risk? We have all heard of the elderly man or woman who can barely see over the dashboard and veers into adjacent lanes.

Most boomers do not seeing this happening to them; they are fine drivers. They have a good job and they can afford to get the roof fixed. They can make the payments on that refinancing they did to buy the granite counters in the kitchen — or not.

Moreover, suburban homes, many built thirty or forty years ago, are not energy efficient and require extensive upkeep and maintenance. These household issues do not suit an older, aging population. The Baby Boomers, who now range between ages 50 to 68, have begun to retire. Most of them have not considered, at a personal level, what they will do when their homes are too large, their incomes shrink, and their mobility needs are in flux.

It's different in older communities, built around streetcar and train lines so that people could go shopping or get to work without cars. The local High Street or Main Street supported a range of services and retailers so that you could get whatever you needed, albeit in smaller sizes and higher prices than the big box store in the suburbs. The houses were also designed differently and could be more easily divided. (That's what I did with mine.)

The development models promoted by the New Urbanists create new communities around these ideas; the urban preservationists promote the revitalization of Main Street for the same reason. These are development patterns that support not only seniors, but also kids too young to drive and millennials who don’t want to.

The oldest boomers are now just 68. But there are 78 million of them, and as they get older, the impact on suburbia will be profound. More and more of municipalities' taxes will be going to support them instead of schools and parks — Why? Because they vote a lot — while property values, and the tax base will decline as whole neighborhoods turn into senior citizens districts, with old Saturns rusting in the driveway like at my mother-in-law’s house. Transit costs will go through the roof as seniors demand services in low-density areas that cannot support it. The fact is, there is a major urban planning disaster staring us all in the face, which is going to seriously hit everyone young and old in about 10 years when the oldest boomers are 78. We have to prepare for it now.

google car
Google's cute little self-driving car of the future is no longer a thing; they have moved on. (Photo: Google)

There are things that both technology and people can do to ameliorate the situation; The self-driving car will be a boon. So might the Internet-enabled sharing economy:

The community values professed in The Whole Earth Catalog are vital ones for Boomers to learn as they resolve aging-in-place issues. Transportation is a key concern. With the Internet as background, and the share economy as foreground, older people have acquired options to share cars and rides. The share economy is likely to reinvent personal transportation and make it more feasible for Boomers to age in place, if that is their true wish. The next cusp of change is housing itself. The share economy may help Boomers identify renters for their guest quarters, downsize possessions, and discover fellow Boomers with similar needs.
Cul de sac commune
Close that cul-de-sac and turn it into a commune!. Stephanie Smith

There are other co-operative approaches. A few years back architect Stephanie Smith proposed the Cul-de-sac Commune, where a typical, inefficient cul-de-sac would be closed off and turned into a hub for communal living. Many have lots of land around them, the result of creating pie-shaped lots. Imagine densifying them with tiny houses, turning the backyards into farms, and the roads into recreation areas.

There are many things individuals, planners and politicians can do, but really we all have to start thinking about it now. Start by reading Gould's book.