As part of the planning for an ageing population, the Office of Seniors at the Ministry of Social Development has commissioned a series of articles on what life might be like in 20 years time. Here, Dr Helen Fitt and Dr Angela Curl write about transport and how the elderly will get around.
Everywhere we go we rely on transport of some kind.
The ways we get around - whether it's by car, truck, bike, bus, train, plane, or our own feet - have enormous influences on where we can go and what we can do.
How we get about is constantly evolving.
For many people, smartphones are replacing paper maps, timetables, and tickets; pre-loaded cards are superseding cash fares; the newspapers we used to read during the commute are being swapped for electronic devices; cruise control and park-assist technologies help drivers; electric bikes make cycling an option for more people; and online shopping can bring goods to our doors. Ride-hailing services (like Uber), bike-share schemes, and app-based ticket purchasing are starting to change the way we travel.
In future, we may use driverless cars or even private helicopter taxis. Video calling and even virtual reality may also reduce our need to travel. Sometimes though, getting away from home is desirable, whether it's to hug a friend in person, to be in the outdoors, or simply to feel the freedom of getting out and about.
Accessibility and mobility
Older adults often travel in different ways to younger people. Ceasing or reducing driving in older age can be problematic; it can lead to social isolation and threaten wellbeing, especially for those living in lower-density suburban environments that rely heavily on transport by private car. Although rates of driving among older adults are increasing, those aged 75 and over are less likely than most other age groups to have a licence. Older people undertake a greater proportion of their overall travel by walking, but the pedestrian environment can make this difficult. In order to support active ageing and ageing in place, we need to think about the changing needs of ageing populations when planning transport and designing homes and urban areas.
In the long run, autonomous vehicles may be able to help some non-drivers to have car-based independent mobility, but they could also fuel urban sprawl, creating environments that are isolating and difficult to get about by walking or cycling.
Autonomous vehicles are unlikely to be sufficiently cheap, versatile, and prevalent in the 2040s to enable all older adults to have unrestricted access. This means we cannot rely on autonomous vehicles to provide equitable and inclusive mobility in the short to medium term. Strategies should therefore include designing urban areas in ways that make it easy to get around in other ways.
Ensuring pedestrian environments are accessible for those with deteriorating eyesight, balance challenges, or cognitive decline is important. Further, mobility scooters, while presently relatively rare, may become more commonplace, and we will need to consider how urban spaces can accommodate more mobility scooters alongside pedestrians, bicycles, e-bicycles, and motorised traffic. Considering how wheelchairs and mobility scooters (and possibly autonomous mobility scooters in the long term) can connect people to public transport and how to accommodate more of these mobility devices on public transport will be important. We will also need to make transport information accessible to those with vision or cognitive decline.
Meaningful social connections are important for wellbeing. Facilitating social connections for people whose mobility is reducing should be a key priority for positive ageing, and this includes thinking about how we get around.
Public transport can facilitate access to people and places and can provide a social opportunity in itself as passengers talk with each other and drivers. Providing a comprehensive public transport system can be expensive; however, the health and social benefits are considerable. Connected funding policies can ensure the costs and benefits of public transport provision are spread across portfolios. Public transport that responds to demand in real time, rather than operating on fixed routes and timetables, may become more economically viable with vehicle automation. By the 2040s, public transport is likely to be quite different from today's bus and train services and, in some places, may look much more like a publicly funded taxi service. As we blur the lines between public and private transport, we are likely to need to have a national conversation about the definition, and funding, of public transport.
Walking and cycling provide opportunities for physical activity and can be encouraged by providing good pedestrian infrastructure and cycle lanes. By 2040, we could be taking advantage of technologies that make walking and cycling easier. For example, older signalised pedestrian crossings often do not allow enough time for some older people to get across the road, while newer crossings monitor whether pedestrians have finished crossing before the lights change. Thinking further ahead, we will need to consider how autonomous vehicles and other road users will interact and who will have priority. Vehicles could be programmed to give way to pedestrians and cyclists; for example, stopping to allow pedestrians to cross busy roads. Alternatively, pedestrians and cyclists may not be allowed to use certain streets if they are perceived to be slowing vehicles down. We need to consider how new modes of transport can be accommodated in urban environments in ways that facilitate active ageing.
Encouraging multimodal transport - where people use different kinds of transport for everyday activities - can help people to stay active, and connected. Mobility as a Service (MaaS) platforms typically use an internet-enabled device to search (and often pay) for different ways of travelling to destinations. As these platforms become widely available and more able to tailor recommendations to an individual's needs (such as suggesting step-free walking routes), they may make it easier for people to choose different ways to travel for different activities.
As transport systems evolve, we will see new options and possibilities, but also new constraints and inequities; for example, if some older people struggle to afford or to access technologies that other members of society are using. Considering both the big picture of how new technologies operate on our streets, and the smaller picture of how an individual with impaired mobility crosses the road to the shops, can help us to envision and work towards positive ageing.
■Dr Helen Fitt is a lecturer at the University of Canterbury, whose research focuses on social, cultural, and geographical aspects of transport.
■Dr Angela Curl is a lecturer in health geography at the University of Canterbury and researches social and health impacts of transport, and the mobility of older adults.