Seniors walking in Manhattan. Ed Yourdon on Flickr via Creative Commons.

Aging population needs walkable, bikeable cities

Seniors have the most to gain from pedestrian and cycling improvements—yet they often feel threatened by changes that provide alternatives to driving. Here are ways to include seniors in active transportation planning.

The first time someone accused me of being “ableist” I was shocked. I was advocating ways to make downtown more walkable, including pedestrianizing some streets. I view walkability as a means to provide access for all abilities. Yet here someone was telling me, “not everyone can walk, you know.” I’ve since encountered the “ableist” epithet on other occasions and in other forums. I truly think it is a meme being promulgated by Big Asphalt. It is the new “war on cars.”

Of course, it is ableist to insist on an environment that privileges only those who are able to drive. Only 60 percent of the American population can drive. Our automobile environments disenfranchise and endanger those who are physically unable or too young to drive, or too poor to own a car. The total number of nondrivers is expected to increase dramatically as Baby Boomers age.

Yet many of these Baby Boomers are tightly gripping the steering wheel, feeling threatened by any proposals that might impinge on their ability to go by car. It is understandable that older residents are resistant to active transportation proposals. As they lose physical mobility, they find themselves becoming more reliant on the ability to drive and park close to their destination. They don’t see themselves using protected bikeways or walking through downtown. Moreover, they fear pedestrian and biking facilities will reduce their access by car, especially if improvements involve removing street parking, reducing traffic lanes or closing streets to cars altogether. 

An age divide

Colleagues tell me that they too get pushback on proposals for bike and pedestrian facilities. People in public meetings say they won’t use these modes. Who comes to these meetings? Older people, including retires and other Baby Boomers, who are still driving and can get to the meeting by car. Those who most need an alternative, because they can’t drive or can’t afford a car, aren’t there. There is an age divide in support for active transportation projects—younger residents are much more supportive but too often aren’t heard.

It’s true that young people are more likely to walk and bike as well as use other modes. Young people today have many more options to driving, literally at their fingertips. App-based services target and cater to mostly the young, who navigate the world through their phones rather than from behind a steering wheel. Bike share users are disproportionately young, white, and college educated. That young guy whizzing by you on a scooter? Studies show that the users of electric scooters are predominantly young men. So, it’s no wonder new mobility services, including bike shares and e-scooters, are seen primarily as the province of younger people. Likewise, protected bikeways and other infrastructure that support new forms of mobility are viewed as mostly for the young and physically fit.

Yet it is seniors and others unable to drive have the most to gain from mobility options. Many older people see themselves becoming more dependent on driving as they age and lose physical ability to bike or walk longer distances. But they are wrong. We typically lose our ability to drive long before we lose the ability to walk. Able non-drivers and others with mobility impairments are potential users of new kinds of “Little Vehicles,” such as seated scooters or electric-assist tricycles, that can be used safely in protected bike lanes. Such vehicles are especially useful for those who can’t walk the distance to and from the transit stop.

Including seniors in active transportation planning

Cities have real reason to cater to older residents, and not just because they turn out to public meetings. Seniors will comprise an increasing portion of our populations, in what some planners are calling the “silver tsunami.” As seniors aspire to age in place, cities must plan for their needs. Supporting active transportation—making cities more walkable and bikeable—will be crucial.

Seniors have the most to gain from pedestrian and cycling improvements. How can we build support among older residents for these proposals?

  1. Include a diversity of vehicles as part of shared systems.

Bike shares have shown to increase cycling in many cities by offering opportunities for non-cyclists to give it a try without a large personal investment. Likewise, bike shares that offer a range of vehicles, including e-bikes, tricycles, and seated scooters, can help bring awareness to the availability of these kinds of vehicles. Detroit’s MoGo is an example of a bike share system that offers a variety of vehicles to serve a diverse abilities.

  1. Make bike shares accessible.

It is important that bike shares be accessible by means other than a smartphone. Older residents, even if they have a smartphone, are typically less comfortable using app-based services. Dockless systems, like many of the e-scooter services, must be navigated through an app. With station-based systems it is possible to locate bikes without a phone. The stations themselves make the system more visible and understandable and can include physical maps and instructions on how to use the system. A smartphone is not required to unlock a bike; users have the option to swipe their member access card or receive a printed code generated at the station kiosk.

  1. Integrate bike shares and facilities with transit.

Many Little Vehicles, such as seated scooters, e-bikes and tricycles, can help people who have difficulty walking get to and from the bus stop. Co-locate bikeways and bike share stations with transit stops, as well as parking for personal scooters and tricycles. In Milwaukee on-board stop announcements alert bus riders to nearby bikeshare stations.

A grandmother carries grandchildren on a three-wheeled cargo bicycle. Source: Urban Cargo Bikes.

Make bike shares part of the overall transit system.  Los Angeles Metro Bikeshare allows users to check out a bike using their transit card. In Pittsburgh, transit users can use the bike share system for free with their transit pass.

  1. Reach out.

Engage with communities that are underrepresented in using active transportation, including seniors. Many city bikeshare systems have outreach workers dedicated to expanding bike share use in underserved communities. These workers can reach out to seniors and help older residents understand the benefits of biking and bike systems and how to use them.

Community rides and workshops can be targeted toward seniors and retirees. Philadelphia’s Indego system hosts “urban riding basics” classes that focus on riding safely in traffic, choosing the best route, and using Indego bikeshare. Indego also offers adult learn-to-ride classes as well as monthly rides through different Philadelphia neighborhoods.

  1. Share the statistics.

According to Jana Lynott, senior strategic policy adviser with the AARP Public Policy Institute, we outlive our driving years by on average a decade.1 One in five people over 65 don’t drive. By age 80, 65 percent are no longer driving, while only 40 percent have difficulty walking. Seniors eventually have to give up driving even as they are still able to walk. 

Baby Boomers have famously resisted growing old. But they too will eventually succumb to the statistics. In fact, they are even more likely to become able non-drivers than their predecessors, as they remain physically active but lose eyesight and motor skills that diminish their ability to drive. Help older residents understand their future will probably involve walking and biking instead of driving, not the other way around. Active transportation facilities can help them maintain their independence when they can no longer drive.

Seniors going uphill on e-bikes. Source: Bosch Bike Systems.
  1. Include older people in renderings of proposals.

Help older residents see themselves in these projects. Show seniors and others of diverse physical abilities on seated scooters or tricycles in the bike lane, seated on benches, strolling or socializing on the car-free street.

  1. Plan for the “silver tsunami.”

As our population ages, cities must plan for the needs of older residents. Active transportation—making cities more walkable and bikeable—is a crucial part of that planning. Where we are growing old matters for our health. Physical activity helps older adults postpone their physical decline and provides them with feelings of independence and empowerment that contribute to social and emotional health.2 Walkable/bikeable environments support healthy activity and allow older adults to age in place. 

Perhaps no other group needs pedestrian and cycling improvements more than seniors and others with physical impairments. It would be ableist to not make our cities more walkable and bikeable.

1 Morrissey, Janet. “Companies Respond to an Urgent Health Care Need,” The New York Times, August 9, 2018. Accessed February 15, 2019.

2 Ford, D’Lyn. “Walkable neighborhoods linked with more active older adults,” NC State News, October 11, 2017. Accessed February 12, 2019.

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