Are we ready for the baby boomers?

Are we ready for the baby boomers?

Members of the baby boomer generation are beginning to enter, or plan for, retirement. A generation whose adult lives have been centred around the car and the freedom and status it afforded.

According to Department for Transport statistics, in 2012 some 86% of the baby boomer generation lived in households with a car or van. As they age, many will find they can no longer driver, either through choice or necessity. By the age of 70, the proportion of households with a vehicle drops by 20%. Are the baby boomers ready to make this transition? What will they expect from public transport? How can we meet these expectations?

The needs and expectations of today’s – and tomorrow’s – older people were the subject of an Age UK/International Longevity Centre seminar I attended earlier this week, hearing from a range of academics and researchers on ageing. The seminar is one of a series called ‘Community Matters’ exploring how communities need to adapt to an ageing society.

Suburban dreams, rural retreats

Suburban life tends to be centred around the car. Photo: Alan Murray-Rust

Facilitated by the car, many baby boomers moved to the suburbs to raise their families and will have aspirations to stay in those areas, or move to the country, to enjoy their retirement.

As Dr Kit Mitchell pointed out at the seminar, these areas suit a car-centred lifestyle but can leave people isolated once they leave their cars behind, or feel less able to use them. He asked how we can encourage people to consider this and to settle in areas where they will not be wholly car dependent, particularly as they near retirement. This is not an easy task, particularly as many of us do not like to think too far into the future, and if we do, find it hard to imagine how different our lives and needs might be.

Urban living provides shops and services on the doorstep, as well as good public transport links, but does not fit with many people’s current aspirations for retirement. Sophie Handler, of Age Friendly Manchester, suggested that cities may want to look at their image and branding. Do they present themselves as places where older people are included and valued or do images of young, working people dominate? Are the needs of older people considered in the design of public places and the delivery of services?

A hierarchy of transport needs

Wherever people choose to settle, Dr Charles Musselwhite argued that the provision of public transport tends to be focused on utility – getting people as quickly as possible from A to B, during hours that fit around traditional 9 to 5 working patterns.

Many baby boomers will have caring responsibilities that require travel outside of ‘normal’ commuting patterns

This model does not necessarily work for older people. They may wish to travel outside these hours or to travel from suburb to suburb to visit friends or fulfill caring responsibilities, rather than travel from suburb to centre to get to work.

Older people are not the only group that this model does not work for. Part-time or shift workers and people with caring responsibilities (often requiring suburb to suburb trips) are also disadvantaged.

Dr Musselwhite divided transport needs into three levels, applying to all age groups:

  • Primary needs: the need to get from A to B.
  • Secondary needs: the need for transport to confer status and a feeling of being ‘normal’.
  • Tertiary needs: the enjoyment and value of the journey in itself (rather than getting from A to B in the shortest time).

When people give up driving, he found that primary needs generally tend to be met but that secondary and tertiary needs are often neglected.

These are needs that are well fulfilled by the car – the car is traditionally seen as a status object and something that enables people to feel that they are like everyone else (although evidence suggests these norms are changing for today’s ‘Generation Y’). Car journeys also afford enjoyment and value in themselves – you can take a drive just for the sake of it and enjoy a scenic, rather than a direct route. Car journeys can uncover unexpected places and sights and enable exploration.

Enjoy the ride

Walking routes, like this one designed by Sustrans, should offer places to linger and discover. Photo: Dean Smith

How can we design public transport, walking and cycling provision so that it meets more of these secondary and tertiary needs that baby boomers are used to being met?

Here are some ideas from the seminar and elsewhere:

  • Deliver high quality bus services that provide a pleasant journey experience. Take the Transdev 36 bus service between Leeds and Ripon, for example – a very popular service with older people and one that provides a high quality experience, from the leather seats and visual stop announcements, to the beautiful scenery along the way.
  • Helping people to discover (or rediscover) local shops and services and providing them with information about the places they can access on foot, by bike or on public transport. This could uncover unexpected local gems within easy reach.
  • Support bus services that allow trip-chaining around, rather than into, urban areas. MetroLocal bus services, for example, run in areas not served by mainstream buses. They operate along a fixed route, but can be hailed anywhere along that route.
  • Provide walking and cycling routes to amenities that offer an enjoyable and attractive experience, rather than necessarily the most direct route. Research shows that people of all ages tend not to favour the most direct routes, but instead those that avoid obstacles and that feel safe. These routes should include rest areas, places that people will want to linger and opportunities to discover new things (such as an art trail or hidden viewpoints).
  • Encourage peer networks where older people can share their knowledge and experience of the local area and transport options with one another. The free bus pass has the potential to allow older people to explore as far and as wide as they like. Young people benefiting from free bus travel in London have been found to explore bus routes from end to end, whilst also using the bus as a social space during the journey to catch up with friends.

The baby boomers are a generation used to freedom, to having it all and not settling for second best – they are likely to be a strong force for positive change in the public services they come to use. Transport providers and planners need to get ready.