Aging drivers present new transportation challenge

Baby boomers, our giant population bubble generation born generally between 1946 and 1964, started driving at a young age and became more mobile than any generation before or since, reports the Associated Press.

When the 74 million boomers started building families, they acquired “his” and “hers” cars and helped spread a housing boom to the fringes of the nation’s suburbs. Traffic congestion spiraled when boomer women began commuting to work like their husbands and fathers. And with dual-earner families came an outsourcing of the traditional style of life at home, leading to the emergence of daycare, the habit of eating out more often — and the appearance of more and more cars and SUVs.

The family car … long ago.

Now, 8,000 “leading edge” boomers are turning 65 every day, and will continue to do so for the rest of the decade. That, too, could reshape the landscape of transportation in the U.S.

How long people in this population group continue to work, whether they choose to live in their suburban houses after their children leave home, or whether they flock to city neighborhoods where they are less likely to need a car, will have important ramifications for all Americans. If boomers stop commuting in large numbers, will rush hours ease? As age erodes their driving skills, will there be a greater demand for more public transportation, new business models that cater to the home-bound or automated cars that drive themselves?

This generation “has been the major driver of overall growth in travel in the United States, and that has had a tremendous impact over the past 40 years in how we have approached transportation planning,” said Jana Lynott, co-author of a new report by the AARP Public Policy Institute, an advocacy group for older Americans, on how boomers have affected travel in the U.S.

The report is an analysis of national surveys by the Federal Highway Administration of Americans’ travel patterns since 1977. The most recent survey, conducted in 2009, included over 300,000 people in 150,000 households.

As a result of changes over the last four decades, driven in part by baby boomers, the number of vehicles in the U.S. has nearly tripled, the report said, and total miles traveled has grown at more than twice the rate of population growth.

Since 1977, travel for household maintenance trips — a category that includes doctors’ appointments, grocery shopping, dry cleaning, and the like — has grown fivefold. The average household ate out once a week in 1977. By 2009, the average household was eating out or getting meals to take home four times a week.

But what really caught transportation planners flat-footed was the soaring growth in traffic congestion in the 1980s after large numbers of women started commuting alone in their cars, said Nancy McGuckin, a travel behavior analyst and co-author of the AARP report.

Highway engineers, who hadn’t anticipated the consequences of the women’s movement and dual-earner families, had just finished building the interstate highway system only to find it insufficient to meet the demands of the new commuters, she said.

Now that boomers are beginning to move into a new phase of life, their travel patterns and needs are expected to change as well.

Read the full Associated Press story … click here.

1 Comment

  1. Cars that drive themselves is the only answer that seems palatable. We are headed in that direction. It would also solve the “distracted driver” problem.

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