Category Archives: suburbia

Autonomous Cars & Bicycle ‘s Best Friend (BFF)

 

A recent headline noted that Uber’s autonomous cars may be a danger to bicyclists. But, that was  short-lived. Autonomous cars are on track to be a bicyclists BFF (bicycles best friend).

 During the seven day pilot in San Francisco, test vehicles made some unsafe right-hook turns. Note: there were no injuries or mishaps. In SF, autonomous cars presented a hazard, but not for long.  The cars will “learn” new rules for crossing bicycle lanes. And, as autonomous cars reach a critical mass, they will also grow the critical mass for bikers.

First, some history. In a book titled “The Roads Were Not Built for Cars,” author Carlton Reid notes that drivers have forgotten about the debt they owe to the bicycle: it was cyclists who lobbied, and gained, flat roads more than 100 years ago. The first standards for road surfaces and geometry were designed for cyclists.  Mobility then took an unexpected turn, and the horseless carriage “co-opted” the paved space, pushing out bicycle riders.

In the coming era of autonomous vehicles, bicycles have an opportunity to regain their lost roads, and cycle back to an earlier time.

There are several reasons why autonomous vehicles pave the way (pun intended) back to bicycles:

Safer Modes

First, there will be a resurgence of bicycle riding as autonomous vehicles make the roads safer for all modes. Unlike human drivers, autonomous cars are programmed to obey the speed limit, seek caution making right hand turns, and avoid being too proximate to any object, including bikes. The roadways will become safer and the technology will reduce the number of cyclists involved in an accident with a motor vehicle; in 2014  there were 726 needless deaths and more than 50,000 injuries.  Improved safety will encourage new segments of riders- most likely, a resurgence of older people, moms, and school age kids.

Lane Splitting

The advantages go beyond accident avoidance. Autonomous cars use the road surface more efficiently and productively. One autonomous taxi, in circulation, is predicted to take six to 10 cars off the road. And, many autonomous cars, in pontoon formation, reduce crowding and congestion. Importantly, circulating autonomous cars also create less demand for parking; that frees up the rightmost traffic lane, and reduces the dreaded “dooring”.

Today, many roads are striped for two and four lanes of vehicle traffic, but in the future, they might be restriped to accommodate more bikes and fewer cars. Grade-separated lanes are the choice of both cyclists and drivers. Separated lanes will help persuade cyclists of all stripes to participate- those wanting to commute, those choosing to recreate, and those simply getting on a bicycle for the fun of it.

Retro Modes? The Last Mile

Grade-separated lanes go the extra mile- they keep traditional bicycle riders safer, and they might also open up the roadway, so to speak, to more low-speed electric powered cycles. Electric bicycles, and their newer derivatives, have yet to find a niche, but are relatively low cost, convenient, and age-friendly. Most importantly, they could be the missing link in the first-mile, last-mile connection with futuristic public and private autonomous vehicles. The electric bicycle can link from home to “curb stop” supplanting the need for a household car(s).

The benefits of a bicycle- to be outdoors, to exercise, and to go the distance, led to the initial building of roads. These desires and benefits did not disappear in the early 1900’s. They simply got pushed away and under, as new excavations were made to pave and widen road surfaces… for cars and trucks.

Autonomous vehicles can help return the roads to an earlier vision and unleash a thoroughly advanced era of travel by bicycle.

The Collectible Car As Endangered Species

Hagerty Group- Car and Driver 2014
classic cars

The collectible car may become an endangered species. It is not for lack of Bugattis, gullwing Mercedes, and air-cooled Porsches. The reason is that there will not be enough ready buyers who want to hold on to these legacies.

There are two complementary forces at work: The first one is generational. The Baby Boomers were the first generation to fully embrace the two-car, and sometimes three and four car household.  Boomers are estimated to own 58 percent of the estimated 5 million classic cars, says a Car and Driver interview with the Hagerty Group (see image too). But, only about 3 percent of vintage cars sell at auction and these cars are “the best of the best”.  Cites the Car and Driver article, “Boomers are beginning to age out of this hobby.”

A GENERATIONAL CHANGE

But, as we note in Chapter Seven in Aging in Suburbia, the times and tastes of the next generation are not so accommodating. A front page story in the Wall St. Journal notes that the next generation, kids of the Baby Boomers, do not have the same attachment to accumulated treasures. Millennials do not want ownership of their parents’ household, and many family heirlooms are stacked up in garages.  Ironically, these heirlooms share the space with the collectible car(s), and, for the more upscale, a garage/storage off-site.

Millennials don’t seems to want the cars, and, they probably won’t have a place to store these collectible cars either. In real estate markets, they continue to shun large suburban homes in favor of smaller, more urban/close in properties. And, newer Transit-Oriented-Development (TOD) properties, are typically built with parking maximums- no extra spaces for antique cars that stay stationary.

A TECHNOLOGY CHANGE

There is a second force, a complementary one, that exerts downward pressure on the market for collectible cars. Although there must have been tens of thousands of buggies and horse-drawn carriages in circulation before the 1900’s, few of them are preserved for posterity. First, they are downright unsuited for modern roads and travel- think of  how treacherous carriages seem in the Amish areas of Pennsylvania, alongside modern vehicles. Horses, who have to accommodate the hard pavements, might also wish for earlier times and trails.

As autonomous cars begin to enter the market, our roads and infrastructure must update to accommodate them and make journeys safer. For awhile, roadways may be suited for both the conventional cars and self-driving ones, but investment will tip towards newer technology.

NO FUN, NO COLLECT

Older cars will also seem less safe, and simply less fun to drive.  A vintage vehicle may have been adapted to run on unleaded gasoline (post 1990’s) but it will still tend to have white tailpipe exhaust and smell  like a petro can when the engine turns over.  If the vehicle preceded the mandatory seatbelt laws of 1969, and there is no headrest, then the front seats are likely to feel slippery and unprotected. The brakes and steering will not be as responsive as today’s vehicles, making the driving experience clunky, if not downright dangerous. With all these constraints it is not surprising that Millenials will not be celebrating the possession of their family’s old Corvette Stingray. Datsun 280Z, and even the ’57 Thunderbird.

When mobility changed from bicycles and horse-driven carriages to the gas and electric powered vehicle, there seems to have been little angst about keeping the old carriages around. And, even cars that were built pre WWII became less collectible when the Silent Generation aged and lost interest.


Perhaps TV shows and movies with wild car chase scenes will keep vintage gas powered vehicles in the forefront for a while longer, but Herbie, Hollywood’s first autonomous car, is moving in.

Autonomous Cars & Sprawl??

sprawlThe Baby Boomers are the first generation to “sprawl”- that includes the size of their homes, their travel distances to work, their car ownership, and even their waistlines!

Now there is concern that autonomous cars (self driving) will make sprawl even worse. A recent story in the WSJ, for example, speculates whether the savings from not owning a personal car will benefit Millennials will want to escape their cramped urban apartments for “bigger spreads, further away.” (Note: the full article presents both pros and cons).

There are several reasons to challenge the future relationship between driverless cars and urban sprawl. A simplistic answer is that if  “hands-free”  was the key factor, then millions of American commuters would already be taking the bus or train to reach their far-away homes. But, generally they don’t. It is estimated that ‘only’ about 600,000 Americans have extreme commutes of at least 90 minutes each way. 

CITIES AND SPRAWL

There are vital reasons why the “extreme commute” may not happen, even when autonomous cars come to market:

The first reason is that cities are going to be better places to live and they will offer a better lifestyle than today. They will be less car-centric and there will be fewer reasons to own private cars. Cities will also become safer for other transport modes, like walking and biking, since autonomous cars are programmed to obey the speed limit and stop signs. Most importantly, they bring new opportunities to repurpose parking spaces and parking lots. This transformation might be a boon to real estate developers and should increase the green-space, as well as the supply of urban housing.

The Baby Boomers are a cohort that enjoy car-travel, and they have matured  along with an auto industry that has became more reliable and affordable over time. This contrasts with younger generations, who have been weaned on computers, and lean towards life styles that are less car-centric. No one has quite nailed what this means to a cohort of Digital Natives, but there seem to be agglomeration effects. Instead of spending a leisurely afternoon driving to the out-of-town outlet mall or golf course like Boomers, Digital Natives might be more inclined to meet up at a local dive and then take short trips together around the neighborhood. So, while autonomous cars could take them “further” their choices might be closer.

COMMUTE  BUDGETS, TIME BUDGETS

The second reason to question the wisdom of long commutes via autonomous cars is more technical. It is associated with “commute budgets”.  As the term implies, people have fixed resources or  “budgets”; they generally do not exceed one hour of commute travel time per day. This axiom is associated with a transportation researcher called Yacov Zahavi. Athough Zahavi’s work was done in the 1970s and 1980s,  he discovered  across different cultures, and different geographic zones, people did not generally exceed the commute budget. It was something like a law of nature.

(Note: Zahavi observed, before Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), that commuters were unlikely to switch from cars to public transit because of the time-tradeoffs.)

In the future, long distance commuters could exceed the one hour “commute budget”, if travel was done with autonomous luxury and autonomous speed. That is the fear. But, one of the main deterrents is that this travel budget then bumps up into the daily “time budget” which is still fixed at 24 hours.  When commuters spend more minutes per day traveling to and from a distant suburb, they forfeit time spent on other activities.  Instead of sitting in a vehicle, people might prefer to do things such as coach their kid’s soccer game, go to the gym or get on  a bicycle for exercise, and even participate in person at civic activities (think bowling alone). So, while the autonomous car may let people continue to text or work while they travel and perhaps even be VR at the soccer game, it will not substitute for participating in real activities.

Beyond the travel time budget and the 24 hours activity-time budget, there is a third resource constraint: Almost all households maintain a transportation budget. In the U.S. today, the average household spends about 29 percent of its income on travel expenses. While the marketplace has yet to set a rate of “cost per mile” for autonomous travel, longer travel will cost more and potentially tip the economic balance between housing and transportation expense. It will also be subject to state and federal taxes, akin to the tax on gasoline today.

TRAVEL AND HAPPINESS

The third factor that will suppress excessive travel has to do with “happiness”. Even if autonomous cars could bring longer commute trips to more distant homes, travel is a derived activity-it is what “we do” to do something else. There is an interesting subset of research correlating wellness, happiness, and travel time.  Joe Cortright at City Commentary  reports on the literature between quality of life and daily commute time. Behavioral economists find that time spent commuting has the lowest positive rating of all daily activities. Longer commutes are also associated with a high incidence of obesity, back pain, and other health impacts. Even if your autonomous vehicle was super comfortable, these human impacts might continue to plague the trip.

SPRAWL NOT?

Note that the behavioral impacts come from the time spent in the vehicle, not necessarily the traffic. Time budgets are complicated. So, one of the unusual findings from the behavioral research is that more traffic congestion is NOT negatively related to people’s sense of well being and satisfaction.  While this needs further investigation, it is a clue to the future. Perhaps autonomous cars will not help people flee the city.

People generally see some benefits to being in a place congested with traffic- think getting to/from a sporting event, rock concert, school travel, or airport. It is all about being social- not about trekking long distances to reach a greener pasture. The Digital Natives may have already discovered that, and are far ahead of other generations.

Meanwhile, urban settings of the future will appear very different when residents can be comfortable and safe transversing on foot or bicycle, but also be able to seamlessly summon a vehicle on demand. Since the future cost for this transportation has not been established, we do not know the economic constraints (think transportation and time budgets). But, we do know, that people  contemplating long commutes still have to wrestle with a 24 hour time budget, at least for now.

 

Autonomous Cars for Boomers- Model 2016

Baby Boomers will be surprised to learn that their personal autonomous car has been invented…and it’s called the “TNC, Model 2016.”

Lest the picture deceive, TNC, stands for Transportation Network Company, an acronym for services like Uber, Lyft, Lift Hero and other ride share firms. Ironically, both Uber and Lyft are investing in the technology for autonomous cars. While that technology is under beta testing….more conventional TNC service will suffice for the coming years.

A SPRAWLING DEMAND :

The demand for autonomous cars, via TNC, has to do with the geographic sprawl of Baby Boomers. This is the first generation to settle far from urban areas, and develop homes without spatial links to transit or rail. Because of sprawl and low density, it has been uneconomical to provide transit service, vis a vis road building. Only 17 percent of Boomers live in dense cities with mass transportation. An estimated 70 percent live in areas served by limited or no public transportation (see references, Chapter One, Aging in Suburbia). The remainder have settled in semi-urban areas, where it has been difficult, until now, to solve “first mile/last mile” transportation issues so most Boomers drive.

Meanwhile, cabs/taxi service has been scarce and expensive; spotting a taxi driving on these suburban roads is like encountering an endangered species in the wild. Currently, the popularity of the TNCs has made taxis even less accessible there. Taxi drivers are said to be circulating less and congregating more in places where there is reduced TNC competition like airports. It would be unlikely that a suburban resident could ever “hail” a taxi- that is flag down a vehicle just passing by through the neighborhood. Yet, essentially, that is what a TNC app, enabled by a smart-phone, makes possible. The TNC may be the leveler between urban and suburban transportation.

OLDER TNC DRIVERS:

Meanwhile, a TNC presence is growing in suburbia… in many cases because Boomers are signing up as occasional drivers. It is estimated that a quarter of Uber drivers are age 50 and older.  Boomers approaching retirement age find that the gig economy provides them with a spare source of income (next avenue). It also helps them get out and meet other people. And, since Boomers are a generation that generally likes cars, and favors time on the road, driving for Uber or Lyft is an agreeable choice.

Meanwhile, Boomers have a growing demand for an “autonomous car” service. Uber even made a promotional video to explain the benefits.

SEEKING A RIDE:

An essential reason has to do with the age of the Boomer population. Today, the youngest Boomers are age 52 and the oldest are 72. A difficulty driving safely at night is one of the first onsets of advancing age.  Yet it is in the evening that people throw parties, patronize the arts and concerts, and go out to eat. One only has to visit the matinee performance of a Broadway show to understand the demographics of those who do not drive after-dark.

So, having a “designated driver” at night is likely to keep Boomers active and engaged…throughout the evening. Although they will not be taking an autonomous car, the TNCs can meet the Boomer’s current need to keep busy and engaged after dark. Over time, the Boomers will seek their “designated driver” for more occasions, expanding from service at night to more daytime trips.

Medical trips are a second arena where the “autonomous car”, via TNC, is making inroads among Boomers. As they age, Boomers need a way to get to and from doctor’s visits, medical centers, and hospitals and these trips are the fastest growing source of their travel demand.  Driving your personal car from suburbia, often to a large medical complex in a more urban area, is not fun. There’s the anxiety about the visit, the set-aside time to park the vehicle, and, of course, and the for-profit, per/hour hourly parking charge levied by most medical centers. But the real crunch, and need for the autonomous vehicle comes during the ride home. The driver, in this case the patient, is probably tired, and may be somewhat impaired by a prescription drug or pain reliever. It would be useful if someone, or something else, bore the responsibility for a safe trip back to suburbia.

MORE RIDES, MORE BENEFITS:

The future autonomous car brings other benefits for aging Boomers who settled in aging suburbs. The autonomous vehicle can be regulated to reduce traffic congestion, obey speed limits, and make the streetscape safer for pedestrians and bicyclists too. That can only bode well for Boomers who need to stay healthy and fit outdoors, without driving to exercise and spending hours at the gym.

It will seem odd to Boomers, who have spent so many years of their lives in their car, that they can now liberate themselves from it. But, as they gain years, they will need to shed old habits. Keeping fit, healthy, and socially engaged will take priority for them over almost anything else.

Cracking the Timely Mile

carclock

 

“The Timely Mile” is about to be cracked with Lyft’s new program called Scheduled Rides.

The “Timely Mile” is about waiting for a bus or taxi, and fearing that the service will not show up on time. Rather than run that risk, people will choose to drive themselves. Driving takes precedence when you have to get to the airport on time, or show up promptly for an appointment or business deal.

Scheduled Rides 

Lyft has a solution for the “Timely Mile” with a new program. The pilot, in San Francisco, is called Scheduled Rides. It allows riders tap a clock icon and set the desired time for a pickup. Their trip can be scheduled up to 24 hours in advance but cancelled up to 30 minutes before the requested time.

“Scheduled Rides” may seem like a small wave but it has the potential to be a bigger swell. The ability to control  “Timely Miles” can bring new riders, and new opportunities for transit network companies (TNCs).

Today, public transit and walking have become more accessible because the TNCs help sort out the “first/last mile” issues for users. Now, “Scheduled Rides” begins to sort out a different piece of the transportation puzzle. It can help time-sensitive car owners feel less dependent on the need to drive.

Old and Timely

Admittedly, transportation to/from the airport will be first.

Still, one the first markets for “Scheduled Rides” will be seniors. Seniors frequently depend on public transportation to get to and from appointments, but are still reluctant to use Uber and Lyft.  Since 1983, the number of medical trips made by people aged 50 and older has increased fourfold. Yet, transportation options have not kept up. An estimated 3.6 million Americans, of all age groups, miss or delay medical care because they lack appropriate transportation to their appointment.

It is a trust issue for elders, to know when a vehicle is scheduled to come, and when a different one is scheduled for the trip back home. The most needy and dependent seniors are accustomed to scheduling paratransit for medical trips, but there are numerous stories of the paratransit van not showing up on time, or even missing the stop entirely.  Currently, trips made in paratransit vehicles do not tend to serve anyone well… the average cost of a paratransit ride is currently $45.00 in Boston, and elsewhere.  Since the 1970’s, public transit agencies have had to foot the excessive cost of this specialized, one-on-one service.

Older people who use these services have been “conditioned” to book ahead, sometimes as much as a week in advance. When they switch to a program like Lyft’s Scheduled Rides there will be comfort knowing that the trip has been scheduled in advance. And, because so many older people are awkward using their smartphones for transportation, the 24 hour waiting period will give them the opportunity to check and recheck that they made the booking correctly. Over time, they are likely to become more familiar with how to do a successful booking with their phones.

A prediction is that once older people are comfortable and at ease with this process they will be willing taking many more trips on Lyft and Uber. These will be new trips for shopping, leisure, visits, and recreation.

Younger and Stranded

It would be an oversight to think that Lyft’s program only addresses the “Timely Mile” for the elderly. More than likely, the inspiration for the program came from an anxious Lyft employee working at home in the suburbs of Vallejo Ca. or Pacifica, Ca. wondering if they could make a 5a.m. flight from SFO without driving alone.

There are probably similar stories throughout the suburbs. These suburbanites are already registered with a TNC and use it when they work or travel to a big urban area. But, because they reside in America’s far-flung suburbs where public transit is scant, even taxi service can be unpredictable.

It is not to say that Lyft can guarantee that a driver and vehicle will show up in these far-flung suburbs…Lyft has not released the “behind the curtain magic” that powers the Scheduled Rides algorithm. In today’s suburbia, there does not appear to be a driver available for every need at every hour. That, in itself, may be an important reason that both Lyft and Uber are pursuing partnerships with autonomous vehicles. But, until that technology rolls out, having Scheduled Rides stitches closer together the needs of suburban residents and on-demand vehicles.

Lyft seems to be opening a new playbook- one that can blossom into shared rides everywhere/anytime.

Boomers Shape Auto Industry Trends

car+phoneBaby Boomers have shaped auto industry trends over the past forty years and they will continue to be influencers. Although America may have passed “peak auto” this cohort has not peaked when it comes to Detroit. The Boomers, currently ages 52 to 70, will have a substantial effect on the types of vehicles that are produced, and provide a ready market for innovation.

The underlying reason has to do with their sheer number, and demographics. Plus, of course, aging-in -suburbia.

AN OLDER, READY MARKET

In 2020 when the first self- driving cars reach the market, the oldest Boomers will be reaching age 75. Safety and mobility issues will be high on their agenda. By 2035, when most new cars are predicted to be capable of driving themselves, the oldest Boomers will be close to 90 and the youngest will be in their 70s.

Polls show that even today, there is a surprising level of interest in the self-driving car among older people. Autonomous cars will find a ready market with Baby Boomers as they grow older or frail. In contrast to other types of innovation, it is the disenfranchised- in this case, those who cannot or should not drive, who could be innovation pioneers. A Google car spokesperson, Chris Urmson, intuited this in a recent talk.

The Boomers differ from other generations in how they think about the need for cars. For this cohort, travel by car is synonymous with independence and well being. This association might have been cultivated by 40 years of popular culture- think images of cars and the good life depicted in TV shows, movies, SuperBowl Ads, and billboards. Having access to a car will continue to be vital to aging Boomers, as the majority do not know of a different lifestyle.

CHANGING THE OWNERSHIP

Meanwhile, as the autonomous car both prequels and propels mobility, there is a second trend that the Boomers will need to assimilate. Although Boomers may be accustomed to owning or leasing their personal vehicle, they are likely to discover, and prefer, a different business model.

Rather than owning a vehicle that sits idle 96 percent of the time, Boomers and other users will transact mobility with their cell phones in order to order a trip-based vehicle. Even in the suburbs, cars might evolve into a “travel-on-demand” service. This radical change has benefits for older people, who no longer need to buy and maintain a vehicle, and bear rising insurance costs. A car-on-demand will help ensure safer travel in a state-of-the-art vehicle. And, in keeping with their reverence, the car-on-demand might turn out to be stylish and luxurious too, a vehicle that can reflect their personal tastes, as well as the more basic need to travel.

EMPTY GARAGES AND FULL TRIPS

Meanwhile, imagine the emptiness of the suburban home with its capacious two- car garage and 400 to 600 square feet of open space. Planners have begun to talk about repurposing the parking spaces that the autonomous car will free up (up to an estimated 24% of the area in U.S. cities) but they have not paid attention to the more lowly suburban garage.

Boomers have had a love affair with the car throughout their lives, and current data suggests that they are not cutting back on their driving as they age. This is the generation that has innovated with cars in many ways: they ushered in the two car family, vastly increased VMT (vehicle miles traveled), and substituted vehicles for short trips instead of on bike or foot.
As they get older, the Boomers will continue to be the generation on the forefront of automotive change. As their age and infirmities bring new mobility needs, the automotive industry (and tech firms) will find this generation to be ready first-responders.

The Multigenerational Garage

firegaragedoor

Multigenerational households are growing in number and that’s a noteworthy trend for an aging population. But, the multifamily garage may be the source for the most vital trend. Today, about 20% of seniors live in a multigen household and their travel patterns do not fit the norm. A travel behavior specialist uncovered an unusual pattern.

But, first, what is leading different generations to live under one household?

On the surface, generations living side-by-side are “made-for-TV”,  like the fictional Ewings of Dallas who lived under one roof on the their expansive Southfork ranch. A recent WSJ story reinforces the growing demand from the well-to-do. They  are remodeling their “Next Gen“ homes with dual kitchens and side-by-side amenities.

MULTIGENERATIONAL TRENDS

But the reality that drives most multigenerational housing is less glamorous.  The rate of household formation among those 18 to 24 and 25-34 has been declining for some time- probably, say researchers at  Pew Social Trends, due to lower paying jobs or the lack of jobs. Meanwhile, the marriage rate in the U.S. has declined steadily, and single people are more likely to “stay at home.” A third factor driving the multigenerational household is immigration- modern immigrants are more inclined to live under one roof.

The number of multifamily homes is growing. In 2008, about 16% of the U.S. population lived in a family household that contained at least two adult generation or a grandparent and at least one other generation (Pew). By 2012, the rate was 18%, and Pew notes that it continues to rise, even as the economy recovers.

The multigenerational household may be a good trend for aging Baby Boomers, but for the current cohort of elders, the signals are mixed. Most analysts have been looking upstairs, and writing about the economic and cultural factors that bring these families together.  But the most interesting story may be in the garage.

ARE MULTIGENERATIONAL ELDERS MOBILE?

Do multifamily households tend to share transportation and does it become easier for the oldest member of the household (seniors) to keep their mobility?

According to travel specialist Nancy McGuckin  transportation in the multigenerational household is quite distinct from other household travel patterns.  She analyzed data from the 2009 National Household Travel Survey- approximately 8% of the sampled households qualified.

A key finding is that compared to all people 65 and older, the elderly parent in a multi-generational household is more likely to have a medical condition that makes it difficult to travel and is unlikely to be a driver. Although over one in five (21%) aged 65 and older do not drive, that rate is three times higher for elderly parents living with their adult children.  In the multigenerational household, 64% do not drive.

The reason these older people do not drive seems to be health related. In the multi-generational household,  51.5% report a travel disability, a medical condition that makes it difficult to travel outside the home. That number is nearly double the 26.7% percentage in the general population.

OF HEARTH, HEALTH, AND HOME

McGuckin’s transportation study points us to an interesting,  but hidden, link between health and home. If the elderly parent owns the multi-generational home, i.e. has title to it, there may be further complications. It would disrupt the younger generation to sell, so these elders will be less able to afford assisted living, a nursing home or additional medical care. In more than one way, they lack for alternatives and are literally, more housebound.

Hence, it would be useful to map the geographical locations of these multigenerational household.   A post World War II suburban home, with a sprawling layout and ample square footage, is likely to be beyond the reach of public transit and the Dial-A-Van. But, it might appeal to a large family needing schools and access to highways (for jobs).  An earlier style of multigenerational housing, the triple decker, often found in New England mill towns, might be closer to a bus stop and walking distance to a hospital.

 

Aging in Place: More Costs for Boomers

ecohealthA widely held belief is that it is best to age-in-place. The rationale goes like this: people are more comfortable in the house they know; surrounded by familiar objects and routines; old age is not a time to make big changes. Baby Boomers say that they plan to age-in-place, but they have not thought out the basis.

THE TRUE COST OF AGING-IN-PLACE…

In a recent blog, we suggest that Baby Boomers might find that the desire to age-in-place is in conflict with their need to stay “wellderly” (well+elderly). The suburbs do not contribute to a healthy lifestyle when residents are more sedentary, exercise less, and have more difficulty staying connected. If retirees become house-bound, they can suffer from more anxiety and depression. Baby Boomers are being sold a bill of goods about aging-in-place if they think that renovations like grab bars, non-slip floors, and extra lighting  are panacea to age-in-place. If the Baby Boomers choose to age-in-place in suburbia, they will come “head to head” with their lifestyle choices. 

MAKING GOOD CHOICES AT THE NEIGHBORHOOD LEVEL

Meanwhile, there is research from a different arena that informs us about the importance of making good choices at the neighborhood level. An University of Pittsburgh study conducted in Amsterdam (and reported in an open access journal called PLOS ONE), compared residents (of all ages) who lived in different types of neighborhoods. Neighborhoods were rated on a scale that assessed noise levels, vandalism, and an unsafe feeling when walking alone.

After controlling for outside factors, the researchers found that people who lived in “bad” neighborhoods were biologically older by about 12 years than those who lived in “safer” areas. The researchers measured the length of telomeres, which are thought to be a marker of aging cells. Telemeres are described as protective caps on the ends of chromosomes; they shorten with each cell division. At some critical length, the cell stops dividing or dies. The length of telomeres were measured in this study. They key finding, associated with locality, is this:  the subjects with shorter telomeres resided in the less safe neighborhoods with more crime or noise.

LINKING NEIGHBORHOODS AND HEALTHY AGING

Scientists are looking for links between the length of telomeres, weight, stress levels and physical mobility.  The research is too nascent for Baby Boomers to be asking their real-estate agent to report “telomeres scores” for different homes. However, they can use a short-cut to assess whether they should age-in-place or move. It is called walkability. If they can safely and enjoyably access places on foot like stores, community centers, and recreation, it is probably a neighborhood where telomeres are long, drive time by auto is short, and aging-in-place is going to be a healthy option.

The True Cost of Aging in Place

ecohealthIt is unsettling to think that aging-in-place can compromise your health. But, over the long run, it might. When Boomers wake up to the true cost of staying put, aging in suburbia may become an anachronism, a relic from their old, unhealthy days.

Twenty years ago, the Boomer mantra was to settle in safe, child-friendly neighborhoods. The mantra is changing as aging Boomers seek neighborhoods that will increase their activity levels, decrease stress, and help them stay “wellderly (well+ elderly) longer.

Keeping “wellderly” is not a new aspiration. Boomers like to think that they are healthy and, as a generation, they have embraced active lifestyles, gym memberships, and organic/healthy food choices. More than 1 in 3 say that they have a regular exercise schedule and the fastest-growing age group purchasing health club members are those age 55+.

BOOMERS AND HEALTH DATA

Despite this outward embrace, the wellness outcomes are not positive. Boomers are less healthy than the generation before them. (Some of this may be a reporting issue- as health data is now more carefully monitored). A 2006 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study found the psychiatric rate to be 21 percent among Boomers, compared with eight percent for the previous cohort. It was also found that 60% of 51 to 56 year old Boomer men born from 1948 to 1953 had chronic health problems, compared with 53% of the cohort born from 1936 to 1941 at the same ages. The Boomer generation is more likely than their parents to suffer from obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

The sobering statistic is that only 13 percent of Baby Boomers reported being in excellent health compared with 32% of those in the previous generation, and 52 percent of Boomers said they got no regular physical activity compared with 17% of their parents at the same age.

This is a generation that smokes less than their parents and has access to more comprehensive medical care, so what is going on?

SEDENTARY HABITS TAKE THEIR TOLL

The likely culprit is that Boomers are more sedentary- they walk less and drive more. Workers in the U.S. have an average commute time of 50 + minutes, shopping is spread out over a small number of superstores serving a bigger region, and, 2009 travel data estimates Americans make, on average, 470 car trips to stores each year. In other large economies, like Germany, car transportation is less ingrained in everyday activities, so seniors walk and bike more and that keeps their weight off. Sitting in cars is not good for the waistline: in fact, the most obese workers in the US are in the transportation industry- truck drivers, followed by bus drivers, and the like. But, time spent in cars does not tell the full story. Baby Boomers are often obsese  and have high cholesterol because of their life-styles and food choices.

IS IT HEALTHY TO AGE-IN-SUBURBIA?

If the Baby Boomers choose to age-in-place in suburbia, they will eventually come head to head” with their lifestyle choices. Although they plan to drive to the gym or yoga class, or do miles on an indoor running track, these recreational activities are seldom sustained over the longer run. Experts on aging-in-place foresee the ability to order things in, and have robotic help. But, staying indoors is likely to contribute to waistline woes, and fuel depression and anxiety.

So, the Baby Boomers will be facing-up to the health consequences of choosing to age-in-place. Aging consultants like to insist that modifying the home- things like installing grab bars, non-slip surfaces, and extra lighting will be the panacea. Literally, this is a bill of goods. The real need, for self-sufficiency, independence, and exercise- must take place at the neighborhood level. When health becomes the priority- it will hold more sway than keeping the now-empty family home and perhaps be more coveted than vacations, luxury cars, and appetizing restaurant meals.

Boomers and Real Estate

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Boomers and older cohorts own more than 60% of the residential real estate in this country.* Yet they make up only a third of the population. These people clearly drank the Kool-Aid that owning a home is a pillar of the American Dream. Perhaps Boomers even manufactured the Kool-Aid, for home-ownership is such a fundamental value.

The next generation, the Millennials, are postponing the aspiration to become homeowners, forging new paths for their American Dream.

OZZIE AND HARRIET MEET THE INTERNET

In previous blogs we observe that the “Ozzie and Harriet” style homes that Boomers favored are ill-suited to modern demographics. Millennials are marrying later, if they marry at all, living closer-in, and having smaller families. Boomers ignore these demographic trends at their own peril, because they must sell their large, “Ozzie and Harriet” manse to this next generation.
But, there is an even more unsettling issue for Boomers.

Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller observes that in ten years time, there could be another housing boom or bust. In a speculative article on the co-movement of house values, mortgage costs, and interest rates he observes a new, external factor:

“Culture changes- like those brought by the Internet- could also have a profound effect. When our social contracts are increasingly defined by social media, for example, the appeal of living in a permanent physical neighborhood could decline. We don’t really know. This is more sociology than economics.”

SEA CHANGE IN FINANCIALS

Shiller is conjecturing whether generational changes are underfoot. Supporting this viewpoint, the financial industry has noted a sea-change in rates of thrift and savings. According to Moody’s Analytics, people under age 35 have stopped saving. The Millennial generation has a savings rate of negative 2 percent, meaning that they are burning through their assets or going into debt.

The lack of savings is attributed to subtle factors, not simply to student debt or lack of jobs. One issue is that younger people say it is “too complicated” to learn about investment accounts, mutual funds, and IRAs. The other issue is that Millennials use their income for more experiential purchases. They express a priority to spend on travel, special events like weddings, reunions, and concerts, and, of course, eating out.

Harking back to Shiller’s speculation on housing trends, it is noteworthy that these experiential purchases- (vacations, travel, restaurants)- coincide with meet-ups, social contracts and social media. These are intensely social activities. The Internet may be the game-changer bringing about new needs. In the recent book, Aging in Suburbia, Chapter Six explores three different impacts that are fueled by the Internet. It is noteworthy that social experiences are trumping real-assets, including the older suburban homes so cherished by the Boomers.

WHO IS MIXING THE KOOL-AID?

So, looking forward, we need to ask not only who is drinking the Kool-Aid,  but more importantly, who is mixing it?

Striving to get a 30 year mortgage, doing the lawn on weekends, and getting a home equity loan for the DIY addition may have a more limited cachet for the Internet savvy Millennials. For Boomers…well, they have been there, done that.

*Aging in Suburbia, Chapter One, p. 36.