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Are We There Yet? Older Americans

Editor's Note: In this excerpt from Are We There Yet? we return to the Moving section and address automobile use and the critical need to provide alternatives for the aging Baby Boomers, who represent 20 percent of the nation's population.  

The situation of older Americans is more difficult since most want to “age in place,” according to AARP, which means they want to live independently in their homes and communities for as long as possible. The problem is that many of the communities in which they live do not provide alternatives to the car: three AARP surveys of older adults in 2010 found that almost 40 percent of the respondents did not have adequate sidewalks near their homes; 60 percent do not live within a 10-minute walk of public transportation; and 38 percent said their public transportation choices were not reliable.

The sheer size of the aging Baby Boomer population — 20 percent of Americans will be over the age of 65 by 2030, according to the U.S. Census — suggests that providing aging Americans with alternatives to driving will become a high priority. AARP says that one in five Americans aged 65 or older does not drive, and Americans over the age of 70 have an increased risk of accidents.

“For anyone living in an auto-reliant community, choosing not to drive can be associated with a dramatic lifestyle change and can produce feelings of dependence and isolation,” writes Emily Salomon of the Center for Housing Policy, which partnered with AARP on a 2010 report called “Linking Transportation and Housing Solutions for Older Adults.” “Nondrivers are often faced with limited alternatives. Many communities have poor pedestrian infrastructure, making walking an unsafe means of getting around.”

In fact, driving — typically measured as “vehicle miles traveled” or VMT — is in decline across the U.S. as it has been in many developed countries around the world. VMT peaked in most developed countries by the year 2000, says Todd Litman of the Victoria Transportation Institute; in the U.S. it peaked in 2007 and then started to decline. Litman attributes the decline to the aging population, rising fuel prices, improvements to other modes of travel, increased interest in city living, and increased health and environmental concerns, and says the implications are obvious: It no longer makes sense to invest so much money expanding roads and providing more parking.

Despite the overall decline in driving, however, the average American family with two drivers still drives about 20,000 miles a year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2009 National Household Travel Survey. This is expensive. The American Automobile Association (AAA) revised its estimate of the annual cost of owning and operating a car up 1.9 percent over 2011 to $8,946 a year in 2012, largely due to increased gas prices, which rose 15 percent from 2011 to 2012.

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