Guest blog: Charles Musselwhite – Beyond the car: Don’t forget the discretionary travel needs of an ageing population

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The recent House of Lords’ report from the Select Committee on Public Service and Demographic Change, Ready for Ageing, is a timely reminder of the importance of transport, travel and mobility in later life. The House of Lords report notes the importance of taking into account the needs of older people when planning transport (paragraph 279), but, I wonder, do we know what these needs are?

Older people are a group with diverse needs. On the one hand, older people are more fit and healthy than previous generations and many pursue an active life. In other terms, ageing is linked with increased physiological complications that may affect safe and comfortable driving, for example increased reaction times and reduced vision, that make it a time when giving-up driving is likely. Many older people are volunteers or informal carers, reducing the burden of state funded services, and people are going to have to, and indeed many will want to, work later on in life. In planning replacements for the car in later life, provision is usually centred around utility journeys, for example concentrating on journeys to the doctors, hospital or for shopping. Yet, the needs of a fitter, healthier, ageing society go beyond this; the need to provide access to social or entertainment facilities and events, the need to get out and see life going on, to visit the nature, to see the beach or the woods and to visit friends and family are also important. How do we allow for access to these journeys that might traditionally be labelled discretionary without recourse to the car?

The bus is one place discretionary travel has increased. The free bus pass has encouraged older people to make entirely new trips, allowing older people to visit places that they have not previously been to, often in the company of others. Geoff Andrews’ report for Age UK highlights the importance of travel for its social nature, for example those with free bus passes taking part in games such as ‘bus route challenges’ and ‘bus roulette’ (arriving at the bus stop and deciding where to go on the day), adding to the fun of a day out on the bus. But there are still barriers and challenges: there have to be buses in the first place, and where there are buses, confidence in using them is needed, especially for those who haven’t used a bus in years. In addition, providers of more ‘on-demand’ alternative mobility, community transport or community cars for instance, need to consider offering days out beyond those journeys traditionally seen as necessary.

It is vital that the local environment considers the pedestrian needs of older people. In later life, the amount of walking can increase; this is great for health and fitness of older people, regular walking or cycling can reduce cardiovascular disease by around 30% and reduce all-cause mortality by 20%. It’s a chance to take in the local area and immerse oneself in the local environment. But older people are over-represented in casualty statistics as a pedestrian, and research suggests more is needed to be done to provide a safe, let alone a desirable or pleasant, walking environment. As the excellent IDGO (Inclusive Design for Going Outdoors)(2) project states, improving the pedestrian experience for older people is vital and there is a need to consider safety issues, reducing traffic volume and speed, increasing areas to cross and allowing more space and room for pedestrians, but also increasing the attractiveness and desirability of pedestrian routes.

Finally, the promise of online provision reducing the need to travel is perhaps overstated. As we age we’re promised we won’t have to visit the doctor or the hospital, we will access such services via the Internet, and we already don’t have to visit the supermarket or shops, we can shop online. This might reduce the practical or utilitarian need for travel, but it doesn’t replace wider psychosocial needs. Travel is also about connecting with society, not just providing for individuals, it’s about being human, about seeing the world change, about random encounters with events outside of one’s own environment. To be mobile is to be alive and to be human. Take this away and the connectivity of society is reduced. Can a computer mimic or provide discretionary travel, with webcams and chat-rooms as part of the online health or shopping experience? Perhaps only time can tell.

So, we need to start thinking about how we provide for an increasingly diverse group of individuals beyond the car in later life. How travel provision can embrace wider social connectivity and offer more discretionary travel opportunities. After all, being mobile is important in later life, but we need to go beyond thinking simply in terms of transport’s utilitarian function.

Charles Musselwhite is newly appointed Reader in Gerontology at the Centre for Innovative Ageing, Swansea University. In 2011, he wrote a thinkpiece for the ILCUK on successfully giving-up driving.

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