Category Archives: urbanization

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.

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.

 

Slowing Down is Age-Friendly

texting-while-driving

“Slowing down” is an age-friendly expression. But what if slowing down could actually be a good thing, and helped you live longer and better?

In the case of Aging and Transportation, slowing down, the traffic that is, carries benefits. 2015 was the deadliest driving year since 2008 with an estimated 38,300 deaths, and 4.4 million serious injuries (NHTSA data). While it may be coincidental, the four states that saw the biggest percentage rise in traffic deaths also have a surging population of aging Baby Boomers, namely Oregon, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.

Slowing down traffic speeds is particularly vital for aging Boomers, and others needing to cut back their driving. A primary reason is that reduced speed helps the older driver feel safer on the road, and it reduces the likelihood of injuring himself or an innocent bystander.

A car trip that takes them a few minutes longer will not be viewed as a deterrent. Here is the reason:

If a pedestrian is hit by a speeding driver at a default speed limit of 30 miles per hour (mph) there is a 30 percent chance that person will die. That number goes up to 80 percent if the driver is going 40 mph. At 20 mph, a safe speed limit for an urban area, there is a 98% chance the same pedestrian will live.  

A related reason for Boomers to support “slowing down” is that when roads reduce speeds they then become safer for all other transportation modes. In recent years the mode share for bicycles, walking, and transit has accelerated, particularly in urban areas. Although Millennials have led this trend, it bodes well for older people. Bike lanes and wider sidewalks unlock the streets to new modes. For seniors, this may encourage more travel on bike as well as short trips via battery operated scooters, small electric vehicles, golf carts, and other variants. Slower road speeds make these alternative vehicles more likely.

A third reason that slower speeds matter has to do with reaction time- an AAA site notes that during each mile driven- the average driver makes about 20 major decisions. Drivers have less than one-half second to react to avoid a potential collision. With advancing age, drivers have to manage slower reaction times, and often decreased muscular flexibility.  A lower speed limit gives the older driver a fraction of “time” to deal with the cognitive flood.

Meanwhile, there is a growing safety problem that plagues drivers of all ages. It is called “distracted walking.” Pedestrian injuries are spiking as more people walk, but are distracted from the pavement by their electronic gear and smartphones.   Lowering the speed limit gives drivers more time to react to something that crosses their threshold, like a pedestrian oblivious to a right turning car.  At some point the older pedestrian will be the one to amble, and the lower speed limit might help them safely transverse a wide, busy street.

“Slow” driving- an upper speed limit of 55 on the freeways, was introduced by the federal government in the 1970’s as a fuel saving measure, but raised to 65 mph in 1987.  Then, in 1995 Congress repealed the law, and returned the speed limit setting authority to the states.  Faster speed limits are the province of truckers, big states with dispersed populations, and anti-regulation groups.  The need for speed has also played well with advertisers that link fast cars to concepts like independence, performance, and sportiness.

But, “slow speed” is making a return, as it did in the 1970’s. This time it is an urban initiative. There is currently a council proposal to lower speeds in Boston, Mass. New York City lowered its default speed limit from the standard 30 mph to 24 mph in 2014.

Lowering the speed limit has more precedents. Drivers are accustomed to honoring reduced speeds around schools, hospitals, and in certain residential neighborhoods with school age children. Boomers can be pleased that their grandchildren are protected by lower speed limits in these special zones.

These same kids might be pleased if Grandma and Grandpa received equal protection. With a modicum of technology, cars can be programmed to travel at the posted speed and a smart chip can display speeding violations, or record them for a driver’s insurance company or “guardian.” Slowing down cars is now feasible- it is the driver’s who must also be won over. That may not be difficult since 21 percent of those  age 65 and older do not drive. The Boomers, who have isolated themselves in car dependent suburbs, will need to find ways to stay-on-the road.

Hollywood Meets Autonomous Cars

connected_mobility_web-grafik_en_02__mediumHollywood has prepped us for the autonomous car. It’s just that the message was subtle and it took a while to register.

In countless movies and shows, we witness the ultra-wealthy whisked away in black limousines and chauffeured vehicles…to consummate cliff-hanging phones calls and business deals from the back seat.  Another vivid Hollywood image is of stretched limos and tricked out Hummers occupied by jubilant rock stars and celebrities. Inside the blackened windows, we imagine an ongoing party replete with food, drinks, and more.

It is not clear that image of  the black car or the stretched limo  well describe our future autonomous cars, but they do provide context. In fact, a recent Ford motor executive commented on a future that looks like the movies.  At the 2015 LA auto show, Sheryl Connelly, said the future cabin could become a productivity capsule, helping people move with their office. Or, she noted, the car could be a place that shields people from incoming calls and email,  where they relax in comfort until they reach their destination.

Millennials and Baby Boomers are “miles apart” in their expectations for self-driving cars. A Carnegie Mellon survey polled 1,000 respondents  respondents about  what they would  do with the free time when the car took over the driving duties. Baby Boomers said they would read more. It is noteworthy that older respondents said they’d appreciate the increased safety provided by self-driving cars, especially at night, in heavy traffic, on unfamiliar roads or on the highway.

Younger people  had a different take: they dreamt of hosting mobile parties, eating lunch in the car, putting on makeup, and, of course, doing work. Perhaps the youngest  Millennials  watched a lot of Hollywood movies. Or, perhaps they saw the future and decided to claw back 50 minutes a day. 

The average commute time in the U.S. is 25 minutes. This does not include additional minutes spent searching for a parking space, parking, and walking the final leg.  And, at the end of the day the commuter turns around and does it all again….Often in a slog of afternoon or evening traffic.

This has not gone unrecognized. A recent report, circulated at the LA Auto Show, suggests that there is a relationship between time spent in congestion and interest in autonomous cars. In India, 85 percent of the surveyed population saw themselves using autonomous cars, while this figure in the US was 40 percent. People in crowded cities where parking space is scarce, waste hours in  traffic each day, so they see the immediate benefits of  the autonomous car. Note that the actual sample and statistics for the survey are not provided in the link.

Baby Boomers, a generation that celebrated driving, have routinized the commute- and found “audio” things to pass the time. They have been party to a succession of entertainment features, from over-the-air radio, 8-track cassettes, CB radio, CD players, and now, Sirius radio over the Internet.  But the phone, whether handsfree or handheld, has had more impact, and may accelerate the need for driverless vehicles. The National Safety Council’s annual injury and fatality report, “Injury Facts,” (2014) observes that the use of cellphones causes 26% of the nation’s car accidents,

Millennials have  taken it one step further and sought transportation options that let them take their hands and eyes off the wheel.

This may partially explain why they are the first generation to delay getting their drivers’  license, and to favor urban areas and  public transit.  Millennials have been the first to embrace Uber and Lyft,  although their elders (The Boomers) are now following suit. Millennials “get”  the benefits of autonomous cars, particularly the environmental impacts. But, the driverless feature may be of greatest significance for anyone who uses the phone while driving, and for aging Boomers, the elderly, and the disabled.

It may take a while before government indexes – the measures that capture GDP and Productivity catch up with what we are doing in our cars. Maybe the mobile office will let people work an extra hour or two everyday, as the Millennials wish. Or, eat on the go, literally. Perhaps  there will just be more time for games, downloads, and chat. If it turns out to be about entertainment, Hollywood will continue to inform us of  entirely novel things we can do in the confines of a moving vehicle.

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Synergy to Walk: Try Uber and Lyft

“Lyft red wagon pink mustache” Jeff Koterba April 29, 2014

Walk is a four letter word, as are Uber and Lyft….they all have synergy…helping people complete their journeys.

Although Uber and Lyft arrive in the same package as your household vehicle, on four wheels that is, they function differently in the transportation mix. They provide pedestrians with a back-up plan and a safety net, since phone apps show these carriers in geographical reach, circling about. Pedestrians no longer have to travel off-the-grid. This is as much a cultural change as a transportation one.  

But, walking trips are hard to measure- they often slip under or through the mode  count. That is because trips taken on foot are too short, or too hard to remember, or just too hard to enumerate. No matter- whether counted or not, walking trips are the critical ones. They keep people healthy and mobile, without needing to enroll in a gym membership. Walking trips are literally the foundation for a connected, citizen-responsive community. They are, literally, the “feet on the ground.” And walking is also the most inexpensive form of travel- it requires no cost, except a comfortable pair of shoes.

Part One:

Of Packages and Doctors

Sometimes walking is a one-way option…but the round-trip is not. The most likely scenario here is that the destination, say a food-store, is a reasonable distance away. But, on the return trip walking is not feasible. On the return, the pedestrian may have acquired a bag of groceries. Or, it might start to rain.  So, they need a backup plan.

Alternatively, if the trip involved a visit to a medical office or doctor, the pedestrian might be light-headed and needs to return home quickly. The point is that lots of one-way trips on foot make sense, but we often travel by car instead in both directions because we are not sure about the feasibility of the return trip.

Again, taxis make sense for the return- but since taxis tend to cluster around airports,  concert venues, and big office buildings- it requires some planning and wait time for them to show up. In low density areas, the waiting time can be considerable. But, in addition to time, there is simply the inconvenience and cost. No one who walks to Trader Joes and gets two or three bags of groceries wants to pay a cab fare that matches their grocery bill.  

There is tangible data, at least for Los Angeles, that Uber and Lyft drivers accommodate short, local trips, with more agility and cheaper fares than conventional taxi companies. These TNC (transportation network company) drivers are on-the-road part-time and seem to fill in the transportation gaps left by the bigger medallion firms.

 

Part Two:

Safety after Dark, Comfort in New Places

There is another reason that Uber and Lyft encourage people to take more walking trips, but it is less obvious than the heavy bag of groceries. It has to do with safety and security; somewhat like the fear people experience at bus shelters, due to the uncertainty of the wait time or worry about crime.

For people who do not regularly take a stroll, getting outside their immediate boundaries  can be “scary”- in the sense that it is unknown. They are not really sure what the sidewalk conditions are, perhaps a mile or two up the street, and whether they will feel “safe” in   new neighborhoods they encounter on foot….particularly if it is getting late, and there are not many other people around. In the past, summoning a taxi to such places could be somewhat of an ordeal. The taxi might be out-of-range, and then slow to show up. Taxis  don’t frequently circle places people walk…like hiking trails, bike/ped walkways, and scenic overlooks.

With a TNC, like Uber or Lyft, there are likely to be more accessible vehicles in the neighborhood, and the walker- straying afar- is more likely to be picked up. More mundanely, the college student who walks into campus in the morning but stays all day and into the evening to study at the library, now has a safe way to journey home after dark.  When taxis were the only option, people felt compelled to drive, even if they only need one-half the ride. With a TNC, they can be more secure that there is a ride back home.

Sum Up:

Until now, there has been a lot of dialogue by planners about Lyft and Uber taking transit share, competing with transit providers, and perhaps putting them out of business. The bigger picture is that Lyft and Uber are complements of many different transportation modes, and that includes pedestrian trips. It is simplistic to expect that people substitute one transportation mode for another. In real life, real people recombine, and remix…and that entirely reinvents transportation. The TNCs, Lyft and Uber, may bring ignite entirely new ideas “underfoot.”

 

A New Geography for Millennials

The Millennials are learning a new geography…thanks to technology.

Technology encouraged the Baby Boomers to settle in far-flung places: the suburbs exploded after WWII as cars became more affordable, ubiquitous, and reliable. Now, technology is on the move again, and so are people.

For the first time since the 1920s, growth in US cities outpaces growth outside of them. It is well documented that Millennials are opting to live in urban areas over the suburbs and rural communities. According to Nielsen polling, sixty-two percent of Millennials prefer to live in the type of mixed-use communities found in urban centers, where they can be close to shops, restaurants, and offices.  

TECHNOLOGY AT THE HEART

Technology is at the heart of these changing tastes. The desirability of car travel has tarnished as both commute trips and errands become long and stressful. Car trips are also energy intensive. Meanwhile, the technology of cyberspace is growing…and to coin a cliché, coming soon to a theatre near you. Cyberspace brings the contrasting trends to go big and to go small, simultaneously. The “big” is Urban. The small is situated in neighborhood Starbuck’s like places.  In addition to serving up coffee, Starbucks has created spaces where people can get out and co-mingle, WiFi enabled.  The “Starbucks Effect” satisfies a basic need for individuals to share a public space. Shades of sociability are gained for the price (and calories) of a frappucino.

GO BIG…GO SMALL… SIMULTANEOUSLY

The Starbucks Effects matters: many digital workers work as independent contractors, doing things like updating websites, writing code, and tweeking their online pages and identities. Many times the work will involve creating a buzz and interaction, but through the impersonal, and silent channels of the Internet.  Cyberworkers need to find outside environments that are proximate, but populated with diverse ideas and people.

Meanwhile, for businesses that employ these digital workers, the urban environment seems to be more productive for them than the office-parks and suburbs of the twentieth century. They are able to recruit younger, better trained workers, who like the city (a tautology). Urban settings are also said to foster agglomeration effects, and the speed of innovation. Urban economists who study modern trends say that density facilitates contact between smart people and fosters innovation. An interesting data point comes from the physicists Bettencourt and West and cited in the NYT.  When the population of a city doubles, there is an increase of 15 to 20 percent in human interaction. That might explain why innovations grow exponentially, and why our personal social networks become more valuable and useful when they are urban based.

 

WHERE THE HIGHWAYS WENT AND WROUGHT

One of the ironies of the past generation is that the passion for the car, a twentieth century invention, led U.S. cities, at least temporarily, to unravel and become economically and socially dim.  Inner city areas were blighted as the Interstate Highway network segmented and cut residential blocks. Jane Jacobs, the planner, was an advocate for the preservation of small-scale neighborhoods, at the expense of efficient highways. Her point was that the neighborhoods facilitated the free flow of information between city residents and that these exchanges were essential human needs. When the highways came, the sociability left.

Starbucks may have been one of the first corporate entities to identify this shortcoming and capitalize upon it by selling friendly Wifi space, along with a frappucino. Their undoing may be Millennial clients who favor more “local” outfits, such as Blue Bottle Coffee. But, then, the preference for Blue Bottle might give way to the next shop, one opened by a more local, next-door entrepreneur/owner. The point is that Millennials are trying to forge a sense of place and connectivity, and they are going to reach this place in a manner quite unlike their parents- it is not in the car.

The Autonomous Car: Double Blessing for Boomers

myscoot

The Autonomous Car will be a double blessing for Baby Boomers, the generation that is currently between ages 51 and 69.

Transportation experts know that the autonomous car is well suited to aging Baby Boomers, because it will keep them mobile, and enable them to travel- even when their health or eyesight fail. This is an essential problem, since even today 21 percent of the population over 65 does not drive.

The double blessing is more subtle. As people age, they have basic needs to get outdoors, to exercise, amble safely, and stay on their feet.  Older American tourists often comment that they walk extensively when they travel abroad, but have difficulty continuing the habit at home.  

MAKING STREETS SAFER..FOR PEDS

Here is where the autonomous car will help- by making the streets safer for all users, not only for drivers, but also for pedestrians and mobility devices, like the street legal scooter. Traffic engineers seem to design streets with the reaction times of an average 40 year old in mind. But, with an aging population, there are new baselines for the autonomous car to accommodate.

For example, an elderly person may require more time to cross a busy street. The elderly person may be tired, slow on their feet or riding a scooter.  At a busy intersection they may find the standard 15 or 30 second pedestrian walk cycle to be daunting. So, through no faulty of their own, they are stranded in the intersection when the light turns green. A car operated by a human driver will honk, swerve and hopefully, slide to a stop. The autonomous car will detect a pedestrian (age neutral) in the intersection and not move.

FIRST MILE/LAST MILE

The autonomous car accommodates this. Another need that comes with age is  “first mile/last mile” assisted travel. Older pedestrians may have the best intentions to get out, walk about, and keep mobile but first they need to get to a safe place… with sidewalks. Many Boomers, who plan to age-in-place live in modern suburbs that lack sidewalks, walkable paths or trails. They must first travel by car to reach a safe place to exercise. But what if they are not capable or able drivers? The autonomous car will help them cover the “first mile” and bring them to the walking track.

STREET LEGAL VEHICLES AND THE DARK

There is a third transportation baseline. A growing number of users, mostly older,  employ street legal electric scooters, electric driven wheelchairs, and in the future “Uni-Cub/Honda” like robots. Operators of these devices, riding on public streets, know how dangerous it is for them to co-mingle with bigger vehicles. In the daytime their mobility vehicles are barely registered by regular drivers, and at night they seem to be invisible. The NHTSA (see link below) reports that 72 percent of pedestrian fatalities take place when it is dark outside. The autonomous car will make mobility safer for riders of scooters and wheelchairs. It will detect them in all lighting conditions, and faster than human-drivers.

In the current configuration of sidewalks and city streets, older pedestrians face many risks. The risks come from driver’s who do not obey speed limits, drivers distracted by phones and dashboards, and simply human error.  The National Highway Traffic Safety  Administration  (NHTSA) reports that in an estimated 94 percent of crashes, human error is the critical cause. Vehicle related factors are the critical reason in only 2 percent. They report that in 2014 there were 4,844 pedestrian deaths, and 66,000 injured.  On average, a pedestrian was killed every 2 hours and injured every 8 minutes in traffic crashes. (Note: across all age groups). Two final numbers: Nineteen percent of the pedestrian fatalities in 2013, and an estimated 10 percent of those injured were people 65 and older.

THE DIFFUSION CURVE.. SAFE, THEN SAFER!

The autonomous car has a diffusion curve of some import. As more of these vehicles substitute for conventional cars, there will be fewer accidents between cars, and reduced pedestrian/biker/scooter collisions. Then, at some “tipping point” when autonomous cars outnumber conventional vehicles, the safety factor will grow exponentially as the rules of the road change. The results could lead to lower speed limits, reduced travel lanes, safer curb cuts, and the like. Streets will be less dangerous and more functional for both cars and people. Hence the double blessing.

This is only good news to an aging Baby Boomer population. Boomers are known as a  generation that continually reinvents itself and “rethinking mobility” can be their last and greatest reinvention. There is no reason to expect Boomers tol remain wedded to cars with steering wheels, when an autonomous car promises to extend the longevity of their “vehicle years.”  Even more importantly, the autonomous car will extend the longevity of their “non-vehicle years” and help them get out and about as pedestrians.

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.

Aging in Suburbia-Anew

densityBaby Boomers who want to Age in Suburbia might find a new way to do so:  they will be able to cut back on their driving, but still be near the center of their favorite neighborhood and stores. The new paradigm is called suburban density. Builders of shopping centers, office parks and malls are learning to blend. Their new building sites will co-mingle apartments (or condos), office buildings, and retail centers.  The design is borrowed from the cities, but customized for open spaces.  One of the key design elements is to circle these new dense suburban centers with better connections for pedestrians and bicyclists.

An example of “suburban density” comes from a development underway in a suburb of Indianapolis, called Keystone.  According to the Wall St. Journal, the developer plans a 198 unit luxury apartment building, next to an existing shopping center. Across the street is an (existing) upscale mall. The three properties will be connected by wider sidewalks, and with an intention to add a one-mile long trail that will loop around an adjacent lake.

It is not that suburban density has not been tried before- but it seemed to begin with the car at its center. So, the linkages between buildings depended upon driving from place to place, even if they were just ¼ of a mile, or less distance apart.  Older suburbs like Silver Spring, Maryland and Stamford, Connecticut come to mind. Zoning played a big role in the transportation problems- if the office building was isolated from home, and home was isolated from the shops, then there was not much reason to walk. It was easier to get in the car and drive….even if the destination was across the street.  In the newer paradigm, the priority is supposed to favor pedestrians and non-motorized transportation.

So, putting an apartment building in the center and densifying the suburbs is both an old, and new, concept.  It cannot come too soon for traditional suburbs, which are seeing the erosion of their commercial base and failing shopping malls. It is  estimated that that 20 enclosed malls have been shuttered over the last few years and there are another 60 on the endangered list.  A book called Retail Revolution: Will your Brick and Mortar Store Survive? posits that e-commerce is taking its bite and expenditures by middle-income shoppers are declining.

What may be overlooked in the declining sales numbers is that many of the middle-income shoppers are also Baby Boomers. Boomers are buying more online, contributing to e-commerce growth. At the same time, they are cutting back overall expenditures, because their families are grown and they have fewer, pressing purchases to make. Meanwhile, they need to save for retirement.

The retail community can hope that if the Boomers choose to move into these new style suburban apartments two trends will co-occur: First, Boomers will spend more of their leisure time, making purchases in the stores, restaurants, and entertainment centers. Also, some of the Boomers might hang on to jobs, and extend their working years by relocating near the office-park.  It all remains to be seen, but a denser suburbia is a glimmer of change that might not attract traffic (too much). It could advance a new place for Aging in Suburbia.

Housing Mismatch

etsyDateline Boston:  Home sweet home is getting pricey at both ends of the age spectrum. Young adults and their aging parents are engaged in an escalating and increasingly expensive struggle for….an affordable place to live. The first wave of a housing-mismatch is taking place in Boston, Mass., in San Francisco, Ca., and other metropolitan areas that team with affluent and young tech workers. Boomers live further out, in homes that are too big and need to downsize. Millennials are choosing to live closer-in, and prefer residences that require less upkeep. Neither group (Millennials or Boomers) can find alternatives that are affordable, per Boston Globe writer Deidre Fernandez.

A housing study, completed at the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, notes a housing market out-of-synch with its buyers. Millennials are finding it difficult to live where they work and play, and they are also strapped by high rents. It is difficult for them to save for future homes, since 1/3 of their income, sometimes more, is committed to paying the monthly rent.

The research study shows that between 2000 and 2010 Boston, Mass. (Suffolk County) experienced a 10.2% percentage- change growth in population ages 20 to 34, while the further-out suburbs experienced losses. Plymouth Mass., for example, had a 8.9% percentage change loss in younger residents. Over the same time period, average rentals went from an asking price of $1,462 in 2000 to $1,696 in 2010, and in 2014 they escalated to $1,957.

Meanwhile, lower income people are being pushed out further, presumably into the suburbs. Traditional triple-decker homes, a staple of Massachusetts domiciles, were once the province of working class families. Today, Millennials are choosing to live here, as these 3-plex homes are closer-in, near transit, and can accommodate several roommates.

So, the Millennials are moving towards the city- in this case Boston- while the population in the suburbs are getting older and poorer.

This is not promising news for Baby Boomers. If they have intended to unload their home in Massachusetts suburbs like Plymouth or Weymoth and move closer to the city, they will lack for affluent and eager buyers, Although their homes have appreciated, the appreciation may be less than they counted on for a comfortable retirement.

On the other hand, if they decide to age-in-place, their familiar neighborhood may take on a new character. The residents will likely be new immigrant groups, hourly workers who have migrated from the city, and other older people, like themselves. Over time, the tax base will erode- the one that has supported the good libraries, the quality public schools, and other public services. Unless the real estate values continue to appreciate and the fully employed move back, the tax base will not grow.

And, finally– there is the transportation. Always the transportation. With an older population that does not commute on a daily basis, public transportation, always a scarce resource, will be directed towards workers in other locales. Although the Boomers who age-in-place do not place a high priority on public transportation, there will be long drives to shop, to visit, and go to the doctor’s office. The suburban landscape has always been spread out, but it is become more so as malls close, and entertainment and shopping move to the Internet.

Boomers that age-in-place will continue to have their large homes, while a younger generation seeks something smaller, more connected, and most of all, closer-in. The Baby Boomers are a car-centric cohort that have built their lifestyles around automobiles. The Millennials, whether they live in Boston or San Francisco are Digital Natives, and are finding other ways to express their freedom, individuality, and (ahum) drive.