The car-centric California Dream lifestyle has defined freedom and opportunity in the Golden State for decades. But it poses challenges for a generation that expects to remain active and independent in retirement.
Innovations in transportation technology such as app-based ride hailing and autonomous vehicles offer great promise. But they leave many questions about how individuals and public agencies can make transportation options more accessible to the state’s diverse population of baby boomers.
As this group ages, seniors have become the fastest growing demographic in California. Their numbers will nearly double to about 9 million over the next decade. Many counties that will see the steepest increases in older adults are rural or suburban areas where most rely on cars to get around.
Regina Jones, 71, says Los Angeles area public transit and paratransit services are uncomfortable and inconvenient for senior citizens. She stopped driving while in her 60s because of a back injury and anxiety. (Sean Havey for California Dream)
“One of the things we know from prior generations is that cars are one of the last things people stop doing because they’re so useful,” said Lisa Schweitzer, an urban planning professor at the University of Southern California. But fatal crashes increase for every mile driven after the age of 75 and surpass the rate of even teenage drivers after age 85, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Surveys from AARP show more than two-thirds of seniors in America live in car-centric suburban neighborhoods and hope to stay there.
The incentive to age in place is even stronger in California, where Proposition 13 locked in lower property taxes for long-time homeowners. The explosion of real estate prices in the state means moving to denser central neighborhoods more amenable to transit or walking is out of the financial reach of many.
More Seniors Behind the Wheel
From 2000 to 2017, the number of licensed Californians over age 65 increased about 150%. In 2017, there were more than 31 million seniors with driver's licenses, up from about 12.3 million in 2000.
Licensed Californians in 2000 Licensed Californians in 2017
Source: Federal Highway Administration
Los Angeles resident Regina Jones had her dream of downsizing to a compact neighborhood dashed by high prices.
“I just wanted someplace with good walking-distance shopping and a little place to grab a bite to eat,” she said.
But when the 77-year old tried to sell her longtime single-family home in central L.A. about 10 years ago, she found she couldn’t afford to move to the neighborhoods she desired, like Culver City or West Hollywood.
Family photos and vintage mementos adorn Regina Jones' bedroom in her central Los Angeles home. Jones wanted to downsize, but could not find an affordable home in a community “with good walking-distance shopping and a little place to grab a bite to eat,” she said. (Sean Havey for California Dream)
Eventually her daughter and son-in-law moved into the large family home with her to help take care of the utility bills and upkeep. But Jones, who stopped driving in her 60s due to a back injury and anxiety, was still left with few good options to get around.
“It just stopped me,” she said. “I just stopped doing things. I was also in a depression, a horrible depression. It was a very low time for a while.”
A growing body of research demonstrates that isolation is one of the biggest threats to the health of older adults, and transportation plays a huge role in the problem.
“The two are interlinked,” said Stephanie Ramirez, associate state director of advocacy with AARP California. “Transportation is a critical need for older adults to be able to access health care and access opportunities to be social in their community.”
A 2017 study by AARP, Stanford and Harvard universities found socially isolated seniors were more likely to die prematurely, require care in a nursing facility, and incur an additional $1,600 a year in Medicare costs, totalling $6.7 billion in annual expenses nationwide.
Meanwhile, non-driving seniors in Los Angeles made fewer trips outside the home and endured long, uncomfortable rides on public transit or risked potentially hazardous walks on busy streets, according to a joint study by UCLA and USC supported by AARP in 2018.
While Jones enjoys better access to transit than many suburban neighborhoods in California, she finds walking to bus stops, the lack of seating while waiting, and the often long trips with multiple transfers to be uncomfortable and inconvenient.
It's freedom for me. I just call Lyft freedom.
~ Regina Jones, Active senior and Lyft user
Jones also has access to two paratransit services — dial-a-ride programs provided by the city and county — that provide door-to-door rides for seniors and others with disabilities. But those come with their own challenges — the need to plan a day or more in advance, wait up to an hour for pickup, and share the ride with strangers resulting in no predictability about how long a trip will take.
“It just became harder and harder as I healed and started wanting to do more,” Jones said.
It costs Regina Jones about $300 a month, a third of her income, to use Lyft to get around, including a visit to her opthamologist in Beverly Hills. (Sean Havey for California Dream)
Paratransit also faces institutional challenges. The service is mandated under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act but comes with no federal dollars to help local agencies pay for what is a hugely expensive operation. The Brookings Institution found transit agencies lose the most money on dial-a-ride trips. They cost an average of $23 per ride, while fares are limited to double a regular transit ticket — in Los Angeles that would be $3.50.
Jones has taken to using the ride-hailing service Lyft for most of her trips as a more convenient, though more expensive alternative.
“It's freedom for me,” she said. “I just call Lyft freedom.”
But that freedom costs about $300 per month, about a fifth of her monthly income. Jones can afford the bill now, but she couldn’t if she had to cover the high cost of living in California on her own.
“I think the solution is an economic one,” said Ramirez of AARP.
Many cities in California provide seniors who are unable to drive some form of subsidy for taxis, either through discounted fare coupons or the option to apply a paratransit fare toward the full cost of a private ride.
Regina Jones, 71, uses the ride-hailing app Lyft to get around town — to visit friends, run errands and attend doctor's appointments. (Sean Havey for California Dream)
Ramirez would like to see more cities expand that subsidy to options outside of traditional taxi services, as is happening in the San Gabriel Valley city of Monrovia.
The city of around 40,000 people had been spending about $1 million a year in county sales tax revenues on dial-a-ride services, which were not well-used due to long waits and infrequent service. So instead, officials launched a pilot program last year, using the funds to partner with Lyft to provide heavily subsidized rides for a mere 50 cents throughout the service area.
Schweitzer of USC pointed to a similar contract her university has with Uber to provide subsidized rides around campus.
“That’s something that cities can also do,” she said.
A few localities are experimenting with a hybrid approach, leveraging the technology of ride-hailing apps and applying them to a more traditional public paratransit model known as microtransit.
Regina Jones requests a Lyft from her phone after an opthamologist's appointment in Beverly Hills. Jones says the ride-share app is “freedom.” (Sean Havey for California Dream)
Pilot programs have launched in West Sacramento and Los Angeles that allow users to hail a shared ride within minutes using an app, avoiding the advanced planning and unpredictable waits of traditional paratransit. They get picked up in shared vanpools, much like paratransit, and can be taken to or close to their destination within a set service area for a subsidized fare that is much lower than private ride-hail.
Schweitzer is also optimistic about the potential for circulating autonomous vehicle fleets to provide convenient service to non-drivers with the touch of a button on an app.
“That would be helpful,” said Schweitzer. “It would probably do a great deal to lessen the isolation that people who are car-dependent feel.”
But she cautions, for these technology solutions to work and to meet the huge demand that’s anticipated, they’ll require big investments by the public, on the order of the massive ones the state made to build the freeways at the dawn of the baby boomer era.
“As a society, we need to realize that things cost money, and that taking care of people in a way that allows them to maintain their health longer is actually a savings,” she said.