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Keeping Our Eyes on the Road: How an Aging Population Will Get from Here to There

It cuts them off from family, social opportunities and civic activities. It makes it harder to go to the doctor or the pharmacy. It too often leads to depression, obesity, even alcoholism, and declining health in general.

I've seen it in my practice, but I'm sure many of you in this room also know a relative, friend or neighbor who's gone from vibrant and vigorous to sad and lethargic, simply because they have no easy way to get around.

One of AARP's most recent studies found that non-drivers over the age of 75 say they face severe restrictions on their daily activities. In fact, they were six times as likely as drivers to miss doing something they would have liked to do because they did not have the transportation.

The mobility challenge will be that much greater when it comes to this current wave of aging Americans. Not just because of their large numbers and their long life expectancy…but because the baby boomers are the most mobile generation in the history of civilization.

They've lived their entire adult lives in a society where driving and living are practically one and the same. Think about it. If you're turning 60 this year, it means you grew up steeped in the car-crazed consumerism of post-war America. It means you were getting your license when the interstate highway system was being built. It means your attitudes and values were being shaped at just the moment that the car was becoming a powerful cultural icon denoting status and independence.

These folks are attached to their cars. They want to extend their driving lives as long as they possibly can. And we should do everything we can to help them.

AARP is one of several organizations that offer Driver Safety Programs. 700,000 people a year complete the AARP course, where they learn to adjust their driving behavior to stay safe and confident as they experience the vision changes and slower reaction times that are a normal part of aging.

But for many elderly people—and it will probably happen to many more in the coming decades-there comes that day when they have to hand over the keys.

Then what?

As a society and as individual communities, we have to be ready.

But as a nation, we don't yet have a truly multimodal transportation vision. Other nations, like Sweden for example, begin their planning with the assumption that one form of transportation can't possibly serve the entire community.

But here in the U.S., 60 years of federal transportation policy has focused almost exclusively on the construction and maintenance of roads to accommodate the automobile. That mindset has to change.

We need more pedestrian-safe communities. Remember sidewalks? Sometimes it seems like they've gone the way of the Studebaker. So many neighborhoods are designed to make walking as unpleasant and dangerous as possible, especially if you're older and you don't move so quickly.

We need aggressive investment in our mass transit systems. In a recent survey we conducted at AARP, 60 percent of seniors said that there was no public transportation within 10-minute walking distance of their homes. The suburbs and rural areas are badly underserved in this area. And even many urban public transportation systems are geared toward commuters, offering infrequent service during off-peak hours or to areas where there aren't many offices and workplaces. We need greater innovation—more feeder routes, more dial-a-ride options, and more hybrid services.

And by the way, public transportation shouldn't just be seen as a last resort when driving is no longer an option. It should be prevalent enough in our communities that people are accustomed to using it regularly throughout their lives.

We also need to do more to encourage specialized transportation operated by human service agencies and non-profits. That includes clearing barriers that keep these agencies from obtaining insurance to cover volunteer drivers.

It's going to take more public dollars. It's going to take grass roots activism from the citizens who live with the consequences of these decisions every day. And it's going to take an increased commitment from our policymakers.

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