There’s an old saying that “demographics are destiny,” and I was reminded of this while reading a recent report from the AARP Public Policy Institute about the impact of the baby boomers on travel in the U.S. over past 40 years. Using data from the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS), the researchers demonstrate how this enormous (and thus enormously significant) generation has been driving – pun intended – transportation patterns for decades and will continue to do so in the future.

Mobile Boomers

You probably know the basic story line already: the baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, were the first suburban generation. They grew up in a land of tract houses, backyards, strip shopping centers, and busy roads filled with cars. This post-WWII period also was an era of unrivaled prosperity in America, when new household devices like the washing machine and other household appliances made housework easier and faster, just as changing social norms and economic growth led to more women entering the workforce. So how did this prosperity change how people get around, especially the baby boomers growing up in it?

Baby boomers started driving at a young age, and both young men and women entered the workforce with more education than previous generations. When the baby boomers started building families, they acquired “his” and “hers” cars, spread a housing boom to the suburban fringes, and, with the advent of dual-earner families, exhibited a strong reliance on “outsourced” household support, such as day care and eating out, that required travel. As a result, during the past four decades, the number of vehicles nearly tripled, travel rates more than doubled, and total vehicle miles of travel grew at more than twice the rate of population growth. Since 1977, travel for household maintenance trips (nonwork) grew fivefold.

The baby boomers haven’t just traveled more than other generations at a particular point in their adult lives; they've traveled more at every point. Every year of the NHTS data since 1983 (when they were ages 19-37) shows that boomers traveled more miles per day than everyone else. So far the trend has persisted even as the baby boomers have increasingly become empty nesters, so it’s not just because of driving their kids around.

New Ways of Getting to the Doctor’s Office

Baby boomers have used cars to become the most mobile generation, but the NHTS shows that they may be shifting modes as they get older. Their vehicle travel (in terms of trips per person) increased throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, but started declining after 1995. Meanwhile, transit travel increased steadily over the years, with a notable jump in 2009 when gas prices were spiking (and transit travel increased among all age groups).

And transit is not the only mode of transportation getting more attention from baby boomers. The AARP researchers cite several interesting (though unfortunate) statistics that suggest that an increasing number of older people are using other means to get around. A study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration concluded that a surge in motorcycle fatalities is related in part to an increase in the number of riders over the age of 40. And another study showed that the average age of bicyclists killed in traffic crashes has risen from 32 in 1998 to 41 in 2008. The NHTS data show that baby boomers’ share of all trips by bike increased 64 percent between 2001 and 2009.

The baby boomers have spent the past decades wielding their enormous influence on housing and consumer market trends, but these days you probably hear the most about their future impact on health care. While the complexities of health care costs and practices is a subject for a different blog post, a chart in the AARP report stood out for me as a clear demonstration of how transportation is going to be a quality of life factor for the boomers as they age – and all of us for that matter. Check out the red line in this chart:

Medical appointments: more trips, same distance

We’re not traveling any farther to get to the doctor’s office than we did 26 years ago, but we sure are going there (and labs, imaging centers, therapists, pharmacies, etc.) a lot more often. As planners we spend a lot of time thinking about how to make employment centers, retail districts, and civic/cultural destinations more accessible by multiple travel modes. Medical “places” are just as important to our quality of life, and an extremely large cohort of people who are used to driving a lot are beginning to enter the phase of their lives where they (1) will need more medical care and (2) may eventually be unable, unwilling, or less likely to drive themselves.

A New Generation of Challenges and Priorities

Reshaping and redeveloping our communities to better integrate travel by transit, bikes, and walking is of course one way to tackle the issue. But retrofitting places and increasing accessibility is a long term evolutionary process and won’t reach everyone who needs it. Paratransit and similar human services transportation options are a vital piece of the puzzle, but challenges in coordination, funding, and service availability already exist – before the baby boomer retirement wave has hit. Whit Blanton of Renaissance wrote in the recent issue of the APA Florida newsletter about how local governments, agencies, and service providers are working to overcome these challenges. As they have been throughout their lives, the baby boomers are the vanguard of a new trend, but linking accessibility, wellness, and quality of life is a goal that every generation can appreciate.

--Dave Stamm, Cities That Work Blog


Slideshow Photo Pictometry