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The Boston Globe

Nation

Aging drivers present new transportation challenge

WASHINGTON — Baby boomers started driving at a young age and became more mobile than any generation before or since. They practically invented the two-car family and escalated traffic congestion when women began commuting to work. Now, 8,000 of them are turning 65 every day, and those retirements could once again reshape the nation’s transportation.

How long those 74 million people born between 1946 and 1964 continue to work, whether they choose to live in the suburbs 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.

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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?

It was the boomers who made ‘‘his’’ and ‘‘hers’’ cars the norm when they started building families and helped spread a housing explosion to the fringes of the nation’s suburbs. Traffic grew when boomer women started driving to work like their husbands and fathers. 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.

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, coauthor of a new report by the AARP Public Policy Institute, an advocacy group for older Americans, on how boomers have affected US travel.

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 US has nearly tripled, the report said.

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

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

Automakers are banking on boomers being able to stretch out their driving years with the aid of safety technologies — like adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning systems and blind-spot monitoring — that are becoming more common in cars.

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