As spring gives way to summer and the country emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, with nearly two-thirds of adults having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, Americans are eager for safe interactions beyond the confines of their households. To those who study how we live as we grow older, this drive for in-person connection offers a hint to a longstanding question: Can elder loneliness be solved with screens and virtual reality headsets alone? The answer is no. Video calls are a good social stopgap, but sooner or later most people need the real thing.
And that raises another question: If screens alone can’t bring us together, what in the realm of mobility and transportation can do the job?
The United States is not prepared for a future when nearly 20 percent of the population is age 65 or over, and nearly a quarter of that group will not be able to drive. To make matters worse, older Americans live disproportionately in rural and suburban locales where mass transit is scarce. The stakes involved are huge: nothing less than the physical and cognitive well-being of the fastest-growing segment of the population. Older adults’ levels of isolation, depression, and general life satisfaction — and even the age at which they enter long-term care facilities — are all connected to how easily they can get from point A to B.
Meanwhile, the seeming silver bullet offered by fully autonomous vehicles has turned out to be something of a dud. Massive technical challenges must be overcome before vehicles can operate at high speeds safely in all environments and weather conditions without someone in the driver’s seat ready to take over at a moment’s notice. That reality has proved so forbidding that a wave of consolidation has recently washed over the autonomous vehicle industry.
It’s not clear that the robo-taxi approach would have made that much of a dent in the elder transportation problem anyway. Older drivers often make the fraught decision to give up the keys not just out of the sense that it’s the right time but also because a specific health issue forces their hand. Frequently, such issues necessitate more help than just the occasional ride — such as assistance with getting into and out of a vehicle and accompaniment during appointments or errands. In such cases, the hands-off nature of even the most flawless robo-taxi would not help vast swaths of the older, non-driving population.
But the lack of a single technological silver bullet doesn’t mean a more scattershot strategy couldn’t work. There is a quiver full of possible approaches — a number of which hail from New England. Investment in such strategies could meet the needs of different subpopulations of older adults, extending mobility across the age span.
Two new approaches that are viable now, with little change to physical or economic infrastructure, are the subject of other articles in today’s Longevity Hub entry. Ryan Chin, cofounder of Boston’s Optimus Ride, describes the company’s autonomous vehicles, which, by limiting their operation to small, self-contained areas such as retirement communities create the conditions for safe autonomous travel. Another promising idea, put forward by Independent Transportation Network America’s founder Katherine Freund involves an innovative approach for setting up a nationwide tech-supported network of volunteer drivers.
Beyond these approaches exist strategies that are technologically proven but call for renewed public investment. A reinvigorated approach to mass transit, for instance, with a strong commitment to accessibility, could increase the reach of transit into suburban locales while making it not just usable but inviting to those with disabilities. Consider, for instance, calls to adapt the MBTA’s commuter lines to more resemble Munich’s S-Bahn, a rail system that operates with remarkable frequency thanks to its streamlined accessible station architecture and boarding procedures.
Another transportation option that many (albeit far from all) older adults rely on is the oldest mode of all: walking. A strong commitment to safe walkability — at all times of year, but especially during winter — when combined with mass transit and paratransit services would aid older residents.
Yet another approach would involve creating physical and regulatory infrastructure for small, low-speed electric vehicles. In several Sun Belt retirement communities, residents who feel uncomfortable operating a car have adopted golf carts as their primary mode of transportation. In such areas, every main road is flanked by cart paths. Meanwhile, environmentalists extol the low-emission, medium-distance travel made possible by electric bicycles. Cities and towns around the nation could undergo an infrastructure push to make electric golf carts and e-bikes both a viable, safe way to get around, at least when the weather permits.
When considering the possibilities for elder transportation, it’s important to keep in mind that the needs of seniors are diverse. One senior might find one innovation helpful but not another. The answer to such a variety of needs may be to think more broadly about what constitutes travel. Instead of approaching a given journey as a car or train trip, it may make sense to consider the merits of all conceivable transportation possibilities at once.
One promising approach involves combining different modes of transportation in one mobile app so that travelers can summon them or link them together as needed. This approach, known as Mobility as a Service, is still in its early days in the United States but has the potential to help people take advantage of new and even hidden transportation resources, from faith-based networks of volunteer drivers and area agencies on aging to idle school buses and airport vans. The ability to bring all assets to the table for older adults’ transportation could prove transformational for how we live as we age.
Countries around the world are discovering how crucial it will be to keep their older adults physically connected with the rest of society. Answers to that need may prove to be among the most important outputs that our regional longevity hub can offer in the coming decades.
Joseph Coughlin is director of the AgeLab at the Center for Transportation and Logistics at MIT and author of “The Longevity Economy: Unlocking the World’s Fastest-Growing, Most Misunderstood Market.”