What happens to the “freedom” offered by the automobile when a person can no longer drive? Cars are often marketed as a means of “freedom” in our society, but car dependence has real human costs that are rarely factored into discussions of our transportation infrastructure. When an older person loses the ability to drive (and, to be clear, many people are perfectly capable of driving well into their senior years) it is seen as a loss of independence and self sufficiency, and such loss can be a serious blow to a person’s sense of self, affecting emotional and physical well-being.
Case in point: a relative of mine is reaching the point in her life when she can no longer drive herself. She’s in her 80s, widowed, and has no children. She’s mentally sharp, but a recent fall and a series of physical limitations have restricted her ability to drive, perhaps permanently. She lives alone in a modest suburban house in a quiet neighborhood with nice neighbors. However, like most suburban developments, spatial segregation and lack of alternative transportation make car ownership virtually mandatory. The nearest grocery store and pharmacy is 1.5 miles away—not terribly far by suburban standards, but too far to walk. The nearest public library and senior center, a little more than 2.5 miles away. Doctors and family members are even farther away.
In other words, suburban design has separated housing from the most basic human physical and social needs based on the assumption that these needs would be perpetually accessible by automobile. But what happens when the elderly are cut off from automobile use because of physical or cognitive limitations? The car-centered suburb basically consigns them to social isolation and loneliness unless they have access to someone with a car (who also has the time to drive them around). I’ve seen the result firsthand: depression and despair.
Of course, I do what I can for my relative, and it’s not as if we can’t get things delivered to her house, and there are dial-a-ride services, but all of these options require the carless person to be dependent on someone else. Unfortunately, it is too far for her to walk to the nearest bus stop (an atrocious corner that lacks shelter or a place to sit while waiting) and the buses run too infrequently in the suburbs to make them convenient or practical (the nearest line runs once an hour in the afternoons). What’s also missing from the car-centered suburb is the social interaction that comes from being able to walk a few doors down to a corner grocery store, butcher shop, or other neighborhood merchant. The carless person can’t chat with neighbors while out running errands in the neighborhood, and feel part of the social fabric. The circles of friends one has in the suburbs are accessed by car. The loss of the ability to drive removes people from all that. That’s what we’ve lost when we design suburbs around the “freedom” of the car. If she lived in a denser, mixed-use neighborhood, there would be more services and people nearby, and she probably wouldn’t feel so lonely, dependent, and trapped. Having lived in her house for the past 35-odd years and developed relationships with her current neighbors, my relative doesn’t want to move to a new place, and she shouldn’t have to. My point is that when we start shifting away from a culture of sprawl, there will be a host of additional social benefits for those who live in denser neighborhoods designed around walking and transit.
Catherine Lutz, in Carjacked, her excellent book on the myriad costs of the car culture, discusses the way losing the ability to drive robs older people of their independence and makes them feel, as one senior put it, like “a prisoner in your own house.”
The bottom line is this: a car-dependent society ages our old people more rapidly, and infantilizes them more, than a society in which mobility doesn’t require that the traveler have the substantial and specialized range of cognitive and physical skills that are needed to drive. [pp. 111-12]
We need to have a conversation not only about making our streets more bikeable and walkable, but about subsidizing and expanding local transit and changing our zoning laws to allow for more mixed-use development in the suburbs, so that smaller, neighborhood communities can once again become part of our social fabric. In order to do so, however, we’ll have to rethink 80 years of car-centered sprawl and the logic that gave rise to it.