Elderly travel and sharing mobility

Aging has a significant impact on mobility and travel behavior. Access to reliable, affordable, and safe transport is essential for older people not only to meet their daily needs of shopping, churchgoing, or visiting a doctor but also to maintain social contacts, helping to avoid loneliness and isolation. There is a connection between travel and quality of life and well-being. When older people are unable to travel, it is often due to illness, low income, or isolation, and less to aging itself (Holley-Moore, Creighton 2015).

In the coming years, the elderly travel will grow not only because of the increasing share of older people in societies but also following the changing lifestyle and technological advance. Today, it is already clear that the travel behavior of the new generation of the elderly will differ from that of the past generations. The so-called cohort effect will apply. The cohort is, in this context, a group of individuals who have gained collective experience in the same period of their life course. If, for example, the mobility of the working population born in a particular year was already very strongly characterized by individual car use in younger years, there is a high probability that this group-specific behavior will be preserved and carried forward into another (subsequent) life phase (Wittwer, Hubrich, 2016). Assistive Technologies (ATs) and Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are among major factors that would help to extend the length of the community residence, the so-called ‘aging in place’ (instead of moving to a residential care home) (Hubers, Lyons, 2013).

gray volkswagen beetle parking near bushes surrounded with tall and green trees

In the field of personal mobility, most of the literature in past decades focused on the driving problems coming with age (driver’s reflexes, agility, and vision, etc.) as well as barriers in use of public transport by the elderly citizens (Marquié, Gabaude 2010). The latter is, for example, the distance to public transportation, fragmented public transport networks, technical obstacles, also true for disabled passengers, etc. But seniors who are dissatisfied with their lowering driving capabilities are also dissatisfied with their ability to use standard public transport (Akamatsu et al., 2006).

Statistically, vehicle kilometers traveled per driver peaks in the forties, declines steadily through sixties, and declines more steeply after that (Hidaka, Shiga 2018). Journeys undertaken by senior citizens are usually shorter than those of the working population because of a smaller scope of mandatory activities (Wittwer, Hubrich, 2016). Regular car users (well-skilled drivers) when getting older are still satisfied with their driving capabilities. The problem they truly perceive is changes in motion control (the ability to master one’s surroundings, e.g., the controls of a vehicle or the own body), for it is a physical function not reinforced by skilled driving (Akamatsu et al., 2006, Schmeidler, Fencl 2016). Problems also arise with multiple driving procedures to be carried out simultaneously and reaction to untypical situations like a necessity to change lanes to avoid a collision, etc. (Bekiaris, Baten, 2002). Giving up driving occurs more likely to health problems than to age alone (Holley-Moore, Creighton 2015). Even if the public transport is not the only option (flexible transport services, pre-paid- and traditional taxis, cycling), alternatives to the car are still underused by older people in western societies (Luiu, Tight, Burrow, 2018). In fact, the use of other modes might be more problematic for the elderly than driving a car (Bekiaris, Baten, 2002, Marquié, Gabaude 2010). The cohort effect of taking their own vehicles into subsequent life phases by the new generations of senior citizens already applies, for example, in German society (Wittwer, Hubrich, 2016). Besides, there is a proven link between car driving and well-being (Hubers, Lyons, 2013). A questionnaire survey made in the US confirmed that even with no cost constraint, elderly drivers would not buy a fully automated vehicle unless they can disengage the self-driving function and drive the car themselves if they wanted to. Older adults simply value their ability to drive. The same study has shown that older adults who no longer can drive still prefer rides from volunteer drivers over other transportation options (Rahman et al. 2019). The latter makes them potential customers of traditional ride-sharing. Up to date, the elderly people are not, however, equipped with devices and apps that would enable them to find a ride-sharing travel opportunity.

Older drivers are less likely to be involved in minor accidents. But they are proportionally more likely to be a fatality in a road accident due to increased frailty rather than ‘bad driving’ (Akamatsu et al., 2006). They are, in fact, less probable to be involved in an accident than young, less experienced drivers or middle-age groups with recurring road traffic violations experience. Yet, the Japanese researches, who compared the Japanese driver data with the detailed accident statistics database, confirmed that elderly citizens exhibit problems in their driving methods regardless of accident or violation history (Nishida, 2015). Although some public pressure arises on driver’s license relinquishments at certain age or state of physical fitness, and already some insurance companies decline insurance to elderly drivers (e.g., in the UK), license relinquishment might end with unfairly penalising many older drivers, who – with some smart elderly driver-targeted measures – could still drive with low probability of an accident (Holley-Moore, Creighton 2015, Nishida, 2015). The general policy in Europe is that older driver programs should support continued driving for as long as drivers are capable of meeting specific medical and safety criteria (Polders, 2015).

Intuitively we might say that with less travel with age and lower-income, elderly travelers could make use of shared cars. Still, the elderly drivers might be experienced enough but no longer physically fit to drive a car with proper attention and motion skills. On the other hand, media often inform of accidents caused by drivers in shared vehicles. Intuitively, we could say that drivers who only lend cars are not experienced enough in day-to-day car travel. (As car sharing is a relatively new technology, there are still not enough statistics to state hard facts.) But maybe there are ways to couple these two groups of road users with each other (less skilled non-daily drivers and experienced but less rigid elderly drivers) by imposing some requirements as to the shared cars’ driving assistance equipment or automation of some driving procedures (like parking, distance keeping, emergency braking/slowing down, intersection and lane change assistants, active pedestrian protection systems. etc.). Driving assistance and automation tools might be tailored for different driving experience and age-determined factors, the so-called cohort behavioral patterns.

Currently, these technologies are developed without applying a user-centered approach for older drivers. Still, in the coming years, elderly road users will transform from a minority group with special needs and habits to one of the largest road user groups (Polders, 2015). The mean frequency of elderly drivers on European roads is expected to reach more than 20% by the year 2020 (Schmeidler, Fencl, 2016). The development of those technologies will be hence a safety must. In the case of elderly drivers, the precondition is that driving assistance and (semi-) automation tools should act as their companion rather than just another nuisance they must cope with (Bekiaris, Baten, 2002). This would be as much assistance as possible with the lowest information overload because of narrower sensory capacity (Schmeidler, Fencl, 2016).

Consequently, there seems to be an opening for semi-automated or (car-sharing) or fully automated vehicle sharing (autonomous taxis, ATs, or shared autonomous vehicles, SAVs) for both the elderly and non-daily users as those groups seem to need some automation to drive safe. Currently the automatic cars might be divided into four groups (1) fully automated, no driving license required/privately owned, (2) semi-automated or fully automated with switching to self-driving, driving licence required/privately owned, (3) fully automated, no driving licence required/shared use and (4) semi-automated or fully automated with switching to self-driving, driving licence required/shared use (Hidaka, Shiga 2018). Indeed reliable autonomous vehicles may not be commercially available until 2030 or 2040. Still, the demand for semi- or fully automated vehicles for the elderly will be rising with changes in age compositions, age-related declines in individual travel needs, increasing rates of driver’s license relinquishment, and regional factors including the level of service for alternative modes of transportation available.

Technology improvements useful in the aging society are hence seen in both assistive technology in cars and driverless cars. It is doubtful that currently tested/used Level 2 and Level 3 automation is enough to fulfill the apparent needs of elderly people, who are no longer fit to drive under normal conditions. Yet today, they still would be the right solution for elderly drivers, still fit to drive, to compensate for first signs of the aging effects (Schmeidler, Fencl, 2016) as well as non-daily users. Quick implementation of advanced automated techniques would rather not be possible among drivers, who never used any driving support. One of the general features of old age is adherence to the hitherto way of life, and the unwillingness or inability to accept new forms of behavior (ibidem). One could expect that only those used in their early or middle age to driving-assisted vehicles or semi-automated driving would accept a higher level of automation. The open question is also how many car-accustomed elderly drivers would switch from the old ‘traditional’ car reaching the end of the life cycle to shared vehicles with much more advanced driver assistance tools.

Increased interest in vehicle sharing is linked to lower household incomes (Rahman et al. 2019), hence actual for both many non-daily users as well as many senior drivers. The other interested group is young adults, who, for different reasons, prefer car-sharing (Wittwer, Hubrich, 2016) being able to use its advantages due to their smart technology skills. The latter is hence among the non-daily drivers, also in-need of driver support to be safer in road traffic.

Besides cars, bicycles (with e-bicycles more suitable for the elderly) and e-scooters (rather not ideal for elderly riding) that are already a part of sharing schemes in cities, the alternative option tailored for the elderly or disabled might be e-mobility scooters. Like bicycles and e-scooters, they are slower than cars and require separate pathways, as well as the implementation of adequate regulations (Gitelman et al. 2016). It may be problematic for the elderly to keep them in the house or the apartment, or they could be not affordable to many senior citizens for full ownership (Holley-Moore, Creighton 2015). They could be hence eligible for a sharing scheme with to peer/from peer delivery on demand, contrary to bicycles available at the docking stations or e-scooters left at pathways.

One of the critical factors for the sharing economy still not grasped by the literature seems to be inadequate skills in using modern technologies by the senior citizens. In fact, it is still around 10-15 years that people retiring could, in their vast majority, be not accustomed to using advanced apps on their smartphones. Cities are getting smarter, but it is still many years ahead till retiring citizens will be naturally accustomed to using smart technologies. The open question is then how to fill in this technological gap. The issue is not only about transport. It is an overall approach – technologies are hoped to assist active aging (Hubers, Lyons, 2013). The same is true for other aspects of elderly travel. The elderly travelers lack proper information as to travel options. The outstanding problems are understanding ticketing options, timetables, maps, and directions both at stops/stations and on-board (Luiu, Tight, Burrow, 2018). Smartphone apps could also facilitate peer to peer flexible transport provision (Holley-Moore, Creighton 2015).

The ICT techniques to boost the understanding of the public transport system are recognized today and implemented in many cities (Hounsell et al. 2016). Still, to use the smart sharing mobility technologies or even traditional ride-sharing options, the elderly would need access to specific webpages or apps. But what they need is often some additional training and devices (hardware) with bigger but more simplified displays and more optimized typefaces than a typical smartphone or tablet we commonly use today. By designing the webpages and apps (software), there is a necessity to reduce both the visual demand imposed and the user interface workload. The apps for the elderly could also include some additional assistance, like choosing the route according to its difficulty or training the route via Google Street View before it is taken by the elderly driver to give him or her a safe feeling (Neven et al., 2018).

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