Happily mobile, year after year

by Feb 5, 2013Smart Cities

Antoine Belaieff

Antoine Belaieff is Director of Regional Planning at Metrolinx. He is a Professional Planner and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Management from McGill University, a Master’s degree in Planning from the University of Toronto and a Master’s degree in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability from the Blekinge Institute of Technology in Sweden.

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Think about how you and your parents live today. In the US, Canada or Western Europe, chances are that you depend on your car to get around every day. Have you thought of how your life would change if you could no longer drive? What alternatives would be available to you?

Painting Ourselves Into a Corner

Following World War II, we have built our cities and our lives around cars, which allowed millions of Baby Boomers and their kids to enjoy large homes, yards and unprecedented freedom. The 74-million strong Baby Boomer cohort – born between 1946 and 1964 – is now entering retirement age but few of them – or their kids – have given much thought to how they would get around in car-dependent communities. Transportation for America has sounded the alarm bell: in Atlanta, for example, 90 percent of seniors will live in neighborhoods with poor access to alternatives to driving.

At the same time, we know that the number of young people without driver’s licenses is increasing, so relying on kids and grandkids to get a lift won’t be as easy as in the past.

We do not need a vivid imagination to realize that mobility is essential to a great quality of life: the ability to visit friends and family, shop, attend religious and cultural events, or even critical medical appointments. Will Baby Boomers really allow themselves to be stranded in their suburban homes?

Baby Boomers Won’t Put Up With This

Baby Boomers are a special group. From the time they were born, they have reshaped markets and society through their age-specific needs, purchasing power and votes. As children, they have triggered suburban expansion. As young adults, they have resisted the Vietnam War and accelerated social change. As adults, they have changed the labor market with two-income families and transformed the economy from local to global and industrial to service-focused. Every social or consumer movement or trend in the last 50 years bears their imprint, and they know that. Their demographic weight has made them demanding consumers and citizens that marketers and policymakers are finely attuned to.

Broadly speaking, what do we know about seniors?

  • They generally have more time.
  • They are usually on fixed incomes.
  • As they age, many develop physical limitations that may constrain their ability to walk, sit long periods or see well, especially at night.
  • They often grow more concerned about their safety and security.
  • Especially in the US and Canada, many seniors have long sought warmer locales such as Florida and the Southwest for their retirement.

What is specific about Baby Boomers?

  • Baby Boomers are a wealthy generation, but income inequalities have grown in most developed countries, so many Baby Boomers are struggling, particularly in the current economic context.
  • Many Baby Boomers choose to continue to work, even part time, but many of them face no other choice.
  • Interestingly, Baby Boomers will be the first generation of seniors embracing  the Internet. In 1995, the oldest Baby Boomers were 49 years old. They encountered the Internet on the workplace and witnessed rapid adoption by their kids. This will completely reshape the face of retirement, allowing Baby Boomers to retire where they please and continue working in a wide range of occupations – not only as consultants or writers, but even making crafts that they can sell on sites such as Etsy.com. Their technological savvy will also facilitate the rise of an entirely new breed of mobility services.

The Opportunity

Senior mobility may seem an insurmountable challenge, but the sheer force and influence of that generation could turn it into a tremendous opportunity for policymakers and marketers alike – but only if they are able to reimagine transportation as a marketplace of integrated services. Examples of this shift are already emerging in the media and market:

Without challenging the mobility status quo, car manufacturers are busy implementing safety features to assist parking, stay in lanes, etc. It is not a coincidence that these features are coming on the market right now.

Driverless vehicles could be a boon to seniors as inexpensive taxis with no need for car ownership. See:

Not all seniors will continue to own or drive their own cars. Some seniors will self-regulate their driving, avoiding night driving or busy freeways, others will not want or be able to drive for a range of financial, medical and personal reasons. In many regions, Transit is a good candidate to serve these seniors’ needs.

For example, GO Transit is the regional public transit provider in the Toronto region, and an operating division of Metrolinx, my employer. Since its inception in 1967, GO has been focused on the commuter market and does not currently carry many seniors as a proportion of its clientele: just over 3% of GO Transit passengers are over 65, but of our 7 customer segments, 4 of them (representing 72% of our customers) are over 45.

This means that a large proportion of our clientele will soon no longer need or want to commute at peak times. However, they have come to enjoy taking GO as proven by our high satisfaction ratings. As taxpayers, they will likely demand solutions that meet their needs. We have an opportunity to continue serving a large group of customers who have been loyal to us.

The Promise of Integrated Mobility

In transportation circles, the catchphrase of the day is integrated mobility or mobility management, which asks the following questions:

  • In a nutshell, is this trip needed in the first place?
  • Can information or things be delivered to people, instead of people traveling to get them?
  • Are we focused on moving information, things or people – or are we just looking at moving vehicles?
  • What is the cost and impact of the trip on users and society?
  • What are available options in order of efficiency, cost and impact? Is this information easily accessible?
  • Are we looking at the entire trip from door to door, or are we too focused on the portion of the trip that we happen to control?
  • Is the travel experience enjoyable?

Outside of some progressive European and Asian cities, we are not doing a good job of providing integrated mobility. A hodgepodge of agencies at all levels of government regulate transportation. They and private companies provide infrastructure, services related to transportation. Conventional transit and specialized transit services are especially confusing with their patchwork of service providers, funders and eligibility criteria. Therefore, answering the question “who is responsible?” often lacks a simple answer.

Putting It All Together: What Does Integrated, Internet-enabled Senior Mobility Look Like?

One of the concepts that is emerging from integrated mobility mindset is called Car Freedom – an idea designed by the MMM Mobility Management Group, as part of their Urban Mobility Practice. Car Freedom is a platform that helps seniors transition from car-based mobility to integrated mobility. The concept is now being developed in Scotland and is being adapted to the Canadian and Australian contexts.

As a first step, the Car Freedom platform provides support to help users understand their mobility needs using maps. Where do they go on a regular basis? Are there destinations that may be in a senior’s routine out of inertia, e.g. a bank branch close to a previous home or job, and that could be replaced with destinations closer to home? The site offers resources to calculate the cost of owning and operating a car, and provides comparisons with other modes, e.g. taxi rides. The site also helps reduce barriers to selling a car, which can be daunting.

Car Freedom aims to lower barriers to alternative modes of transportation by providing information about – and access to – transit, taxis, car sharing, and providing consolidated billing that can even be topped up by relatives or social services agencies.

Car Freedom also aims at connecting users with one another to share their experiences as “integrated mobility pioneers”.

Taxis and car sharing services are two services emphasized in the current concept, but the beauty of such a platform is that it creates a malleable basis for an infinity of new services and partnerships:

  • An accompanying website could serve as a calendar, reminding them of upcoming events and appointments, linked to mobility options for each event. For example, the local community center could have a presence on the platform. Signing up for a course would result in an automatic search for mobility options, including shared rides with other participants.
  • Options could all be laid out, easy to compare in time and cost. Real-time traffic and transit information could be provided as well.
  • The site could help track and reward walking, to provide positive reinforcement.
  • Users could arrange to drive each other using car sharing.
  • Users could book new on-demand shuttle or taxi services – shared or private.
  • The same credits could be used for local deliveries – e.g. groceries or fresh produce baskets – so that goods move instead of the senior.
  • Medical facilities could send reminders to patients, and automatically reschedule transportation services if an appointment is changed.
  • Companies may want to attract seniors may be interested in sponsoring trips, e.g. to a mall.

The launch of the initial platform will be the toughest part as it requires cutting across silos of officialdom:

  • National, subnational and local levels – regulators and funders
  • Different social services agencies (health, veterans, etc)
  • Different transit agencies – conventional and specialized
  • Private sector players e.g. taxis, shuttles, car sharing

In many cases, it will require a visionary champion among the above list to initiate the development of the program, bring all the players around the table, plus any interested mission-driven non-profit organizations, and develop an initial platform that can then grow to encompass a growing slate of services. It will be worth it. Just in the US, 74 million Baby Boomers will one day demand mobility solutions designed just for them.

How Do We Go From Here?

As a transportation service provider, think about your business in 10, 20 years.

  • If you target the same type of customers, how large will that group be?
  • If you follow your current customers as they age, what type of products and services will they need and want?
  • What opportunities and threats do Baby Boomers represent for your business? Are you ready?

As an established company or entrepreneur with expertise in connected cities and/or transportation, what kind of new products or services could you design that would contribute to integrated mobility, and more specifically seniors’ mobility?

As a stakeholder in the conventional and specialized public transit system, what can you do to start and lead a discussion on Integrated Mobility or mobility management at a regional level, keeping seniors in mind as a key public?

  • The National Resource Centre for Human Service Transportation Coordination has resources at their website.

As a planner or elected official, how can you ensure that your community supports aging in place?

Understand and act to bridge the digital divide that would prevent seniors from accessing online shopping and new transportation services.

Learn from behavioral economists who argue that instead of behaving as a rational homo economicus, we behave rather irrationally. This explains why we don’t diet and exercise, and don’t save enough for retirement. It would also explain why we move to a car-dependent community five years before being unable to drive!

At a personal level, think about what would happen if you or your parents could no longer drive.

  • What kind of community would preserve your independence? Try Walkscore.com and imagine that you cannot walk very far.
  • What kind of tools would make it easier to get around?

With heartfelt thanks to Steve Cassidy at MRC McLean Hazel Ltd (part of the MMM Group) for sharing the Car Freedom concept with me and reviewing this article.

Photo by Lynn Friedman


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