Menus Subscribe Search

Old Without Wheels

• July 14, 2008 • 4:05 PM

About 600,000 elderly stop driving every year. How can we keep them mobile?

The Symptoms: America’s population is growing old fast. In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 40 million Americans were 65 or older, comprising about 12 percent of the total population; by 2030, the Census Bureau projects, that number will swell to 71.4 million, or about 1 in 5 Americans. And as people grow older, they become less eager or able to get behind the wheel of a car: According to the National Institute on Aging, some 600,000 people who are 70 or older cease driving each year, which can leave them cut off from crucial goods, services and social functions. AARP‘s “successful aging” formula reports that a third of older non-drivers complain of “frequently feeling isolated from other people,” whereas only 19 percent of older drivers say the same.

That’s partly because an increasing number of Americans are growing old where they have lived their whole lives: in rural areas, small towns and suburbs not serviced by efficient or reliable public transportation. Fewer than half of all American adults live near transit, and a third of Americans older than 75 have a medical condition that significantly affects their ability to travel efficiently. Arranging informal rides from family members or friends can fill some of the transit gaps, but a 2002 survey of adults aged 50 and older found that many are self-conscious about asking for rides. About half said “feelings of dependency” and “concerns about imposing on others” stood as obstacles.

The Disease: A seminal 2004 study from the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership and AARP called “Aging Americans: Stranded Without Options” found that in areas where adequate transit is available, older people tend to use it, making 310 million trips in 2001. But the report also found that half of all non-drivers older than 65 — 3.6 million Americans, in total — remain at home on any given day, in part because they lack transportation. Compared with older drivers, elderly non-drivers in the United States make 15 percent fewer trips to the doctor, 59 percent fewer shopping trips and visits to restaurants and 65 percent fewer trips for social, family and religious activities.

“Today, more than 3.5 million Americans age 65 and older risk isolation simply because they don’t drive, and their numbers will explode after 2025 when boomers enter their 60s, 70s and 80s,” AARP board member Byron Thames said of the report. “Federal, state and local policymakers must start now to plan for the time when Americans who grew up in cars put down their keys for good.”

But in a recent nationwide online poll of 378 metropolitan planning agencies, the New England University Transportation Center and the MIT AgeLab asked whether the metro organizations were ready to meet the needs of the older population. More than half responded that their current transportation services were insufficient, and 68 percent said the needs of baby boomers will force them to radically alter their existing transit systems. Only 11 percent reported that their regions are adequately funding the vehicles, services and other infrastructure that aging baby boomers will require two decades from now.

Initial Treatment: Capital funding for the nonprofit firms, human service agencies and transportation organizations that run many of America’s transit programs comes from the federal Elderly and Persons with Disabilities Transportation Program. But all of those different service providers have to be funded independently, with specific regulations governing who they can transport and where they can go. Even small communities can have dozens of different agencies and nonprofits operating sparsely occupied vans. In some cases, regulations actually forbid a van funded to transport the elderly from picking up, for example, the mentally retarded along the way.

The U.S. Department of Transportation also requires a 20 percent local match for federal grants, a level that can be difficult to attain for rural communities whose budgets are already strained.

A Second Opinion: In an effort to streamline funding and eliminate redundancy, President Bush in 2005 signed a law with the jawbreaker acronym SAFETEA-LU: the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users, with funding until 2009. The law requires all communities receiving Federal Transit Administration funds from one of three programs to create a local Coordinated Human Services Transportation Plan. In practice, that means a wide range of participants – from county board members to senior advocacy groups to residents – must agree on which transportation agencies, nonprofits and health providers are responsible for specific transport services. Beginning last year, communities couldn’t get money unless they had a coordinated plan.

Meanwhile, financing has been made more flexible. To come up with the 20 percent local match, communities can now use federal funds from sources other than the Department of Transportation, including Medicaid, Medicare and the Older Americans Act. For jurisdictions with populations under 200,000, certain federal funds can also be used for operating costs, rather than just for capital expenses such as new vans.

Follow-up Appointment: The Wisconsin Department of Transportation has emerged as a national model for creating a transit coordination program, bringing together the regional and metropolitan planning commissions of the state’s 72 counties. The agency developed a “toolkit” for local planners and a set of worksheets to compare and quantify transportation services and costs, so county boards have hard data in hand when seeking matching funds. Washington, Ohio and Minnesota have also pioneered innovative coordination plans.

But the federal mandate to coordinate transportation services has not proved as easy to satisfy elsewhere. Take, for instance, the droll, grim but brutally honest executive summary of one Southeast Alabama Coordinated Human Services Transportation Plan. It states: “Due to the lack of resources available locally, we found varying degrees of enthusiasm for the coordination process. For many, it was difficult to rationalize a coordination process when no resources or assets existed on the ground to be coordinated.”

Toward a Cure: The reasons older people stop driving vary: A recent survey by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission found that 42 percent of respondents 75 and older hadn’t driven in the past week because of general physical problems; 1 in 5 said slow reaction times made them turn in their keys; and another 18 percent reported vision trouble. Although studies have shown that older drivers and pedestrians are not more likely than younger people to get in an accident on a per-capita basis, the elderly are more likely to be in accidents per mile driven and are more vulnerable to injury in an accident.

Increasingly, volunteers have been plugging the gaps in senior mobility, a development that transportation activists generally hail as a key element of overcoming the transit problem. But there’s a worrisome aspect to one segment of volunteers: In 2006, the Beverly Foundation in Pasadena, Calif., conducted a survey of volunteer driving programs and found that of 500 drivers in 288 cities, more than half were 65 or older. Still, volunteer driver programs are springing up nationwide, from the Bus Buddy Program in Eugene, Ore., to Making the Ride Happen in Appleton, Wis., and the AARP’s 2004 study highly recommended an expansion of volunteer efforts.

“As we look to the transportation horizon, we need dignified, economically sustainable alternatives to the private automobile,” says Kathy Freund, president and executive director of the Independent Transportation Network. “Volunteer driver programs are public transportation’s parallel reality. I’m thrilled to see this report recommends policy to support them.”

Matt Palmquist
A graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Matt Palmquist, a former Miller-McCune staff writer, began his career at daily newspapers such as The Oregonian and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In 2001, he became a staff writer at the SF Weekly in San Francisco, where he won several local and national awards. He also wrote a humorous current affairs column called "The Apologist," which he continued upon leaving the Weekly and beginning a freelance career.

More From Matt Palmquist

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.