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The current auto-oriented development pattern is already wreaking havoc on local budgets. That will only get worse in the ensuing years. Another harsh reality we’re starting to face is the aging of our population. The ramifications of having a large population aging in suburbia will be increasingly hard to ignore.

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I have a deeply personal take on this phenomenon as I’ve seen my dad deal with it. He lost his license just as he was retiring. My dad suffered from a neurological disease that worsened over the years to the point where he had to use a walker to get around. In fact, it was this disease and the physical impairment it caused that led him to lose his license after one too many accidents. Frankly, I was relieved. Had he continued driving, someone was bound to get hurt. As much as he hated to admit it, my dad understood that.

Transportation expert, Todd Litman (who recently did a Strong Towns webinar), wrote an article which included these two graphs showing the increased accident risk posed by seniors.

But while it made sense for my dad to give up driving, it certainly wasn’t easy. It was a tough blow for him. Being handicapped made the independence offered by the automobile all the more important for him. Fortunately, my parents moved into a condominium development around this time. That single level condominium was a godsend in that it helped my dad win back some of his independence, especially after we remodeled the bathroom to make it handicap accessible.

The townhome development was designed in a walkable manner with low traffic volume, slow speeds and lots of sidewalks adjacent to green space, but away from cars. My dad thrived here. He purchased a 3-wheel bicycle and would bike around the development several times per day. The neighbors knew him and would keep an eye on him. This gave him something to do and helped him meet his new neighbors while providing fresh air and exercise. Most importantly, perhaps, the bikeability of this development gave him a sense of freedom and independence that he'd been missing.

While the condominium development was bikeable, the area surrounding the development was designed in a suburban fashion. This meant that while he could bike recreationally, running errands on his bike was far less safe, and therefore, not something he engaged in. Having the ability to bike to medical appointments or even bike safely to a bus stop would have increased his independence exponentially.

I often wonder how much better my dad’s quality of life would have been had he been able to live somewhere that offered the ability to bike safely in a mixed-use environment. Unfortunately, in Grand Forks, like most cities, there simply are not many choices in the market. Most housing options that are affordable for seniors and handicap accessible are located in auto-oriented suburban style areas that do not offer viable alternatives to driving.

More and more people will be grappling with the issues my dad faced as the boomer generation starts to retire. It’s a huge generation with around 70 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. The oldest are just turning 70. In fact, boomers and older age groups own 60 percent of the owner-occupied homes in America — most of which are in suburbia, according to Jane Gould, author of "Aging in Suburbia."

While growing numbers of boomers are downsizing and moving into downtowns and other neighborhoods near amenities, a large portion expect to stick it out in their suburban homes. A new study looking at the housing preferences of the baby boomer generation from the NAHB, the National Association of Home Builders, shows most baby boomers preferring single family suburban homes.

Ironically, this group also wants many of the features that come with walkable urbanism, as indicated by AARP’s study, What Is Livable? Community Preferences of Older Adults.

I’m not sure these folks fully appreciate what they are in for. This quote from Gould’s captivating book highlights many of the issues.

Moreover, suburban homes, many built thirty or forty years ago, are not energy efficient and require extensive upkeep and maintenance. These household issues do not suit an older, aging population. The Baby Boomers, who now range between ages 50 to 68, have begun to retire. Most of them have not considered, at a personal level, what they will do when their homes are too large, their incomes shrink, and their mobility needs are in flux.

The lack of mobility options is an especially troubling reality. An estimated 70 percent of Baby Boomers live in areas served by limited or no public transit. And even if there is transit, getting to the stops can be a challenge as it is not uncommon for suburban developments to lack sidewalks. This lack of mobility inevitably leads to a decrease in sociability. More than 50 percent of non-drivers over age 65 (over 3.6 million Americans) do not leave home most days, partly because of a lack of transportation options. Research shows that social bonds are a key factor for health and wellness, especially for seniors.  

This is a terribly unfortunate reality. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. If the outdated regulations we have been highlighting during this week’s housing focus were removed, there could be more options for people like my dad to live in walkable neighborhoods. Not only would seniors benefit, but our neighborhoods would benefit as well.

Top photo from Attaining Energy-Efficient Mobility in an Aging Society (AENEAS), a project of the Intelligent Energy Europe (IEE) programme. An excellent resource of ideas and case studies.