A fairly recent news item told us that there are now more than 200 centenarians driving on UK roads. It is a statistic that might draw one to a new report, called The Future of Transport in an Ageing Society, by the International Longevity Centre with support from charity Age UK. They explored the transport challenges arising from an ageing population, by analysing data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) and conducting workshops with transport experts.
This topic will clearly be taxing for rural practitioners, given the limited transport options in rural areas and given that rural populations are both older and ageing faster than their urban counterparts.
Across England only 30% of the 65 plus age group can be called regular (that is, at least weekly) users of public transport, whilst 32% of them never use public transport. Its use peaks among those in their 70s, before tailing off again for older age groups. This probably reflects higher car use among those still in their 60s and reducing travel within the 80 plus age group.
Disaggregation of this data indicates that older people living in rural areas are about half as likely as those in urban areas to be using public transport on a regular basis. Some 18% of the older cohort in rural areas said they did not use public transport because none was available. Only 2% gave this answer in urban areas.
Some of the report's most telling findings are for older people who both have no access to their own private transport and have difficulty in walking. More than half this sub-group don't use public transport, surely indicating that the needs of a core group are not being met.
ELSA data also shows a sizeable share of the elderly population struggling to access healthcare facilities. Scaled up, the survey results imply that 1,450,000 million over 65s find it difficult to travel to hospital and 630,000 find it difficult to travel to their GP. Those with travel difficulties are more likely to be very elderly, in poor health and on low incomes. In what may be a rural finding, they are also more likely not to hold a free bus pass.
The two most common reasons given by older people for not using public transport are that it is inconvenient or doesn't go where they want to go. Of course, some of this may be based on perceptions and some may compare convenience with their car. However, many of those without a car still cite inconvenience.
The Buses Bill which was announced in the Queen's Speech is still largely an unknown quantity. From what little we do so far know this report suggests it has the potential to improve local transport planning and encourage service integration in ways which could help meet the needs of older people.
Driving is easily the most common transport mode for older people. A notable trend has been the growing proportion of older women who hold a driving licence.
Reasons for giving up driving are largely concerned with deteriorating health or worsening vision. The report draws the fairly obvious conclusion that viable alternative transport options are needed for when driving becomes difficult. It also refers to rapidly developing technologies, such as auto-parking and rear view cameras, which might help those with limited upper-body mobility to drive for longer.
In another nod to technology the report considers the potential for websites or mobile phone apps to manage lift sharing schemes, with users able to request lifts or respond to offers that are posted. This could add to the informal lift sharing that frequently takes place within rural communities.
The report also looks at walking and cycling, citing its health benefits. One specific suggestion is to allow pedestrians longer at pelican crossings. Typically they are calibrated based on pedestrians crossing at 2.7 miles per hour or faster than the average walking speed of older people.
Walking and cycling groups aimed at older people can broaden the appeal of these activities. For those with less stamina, the availability of public benches can be a key to enable walking.
Local transport policy does not often feature in public debate and got barely a mention during the General Election campaign. One reason, among others, this seems unfortunate is its relevance to our ageing population. Finding cost-effective solutions in rural areas will continue to prove a significant challenge, but it is not one we can afford to duck.