Are footpaths the new roads for the independent elderly? Or do we need slow speed lanes? Or is the futureFUTURE autonomous cars?


The numbers have it, as Charles Handy used to say. In the last 20 years, the proportion of people in Australia aged over 85 years has almost doubled. By 2022, there’s expected to be around 4 million people aged 65-84 years: the same as the current population of Sydney, and approximately one sixth of the population. As we’re ageing better, the numbers of us over 85 years will continue to grow.

The life expectancy of someone born now will be to live well into their 90s. So when we’re thinking about the sort of infrastructure we need for the independent elderly, we’re thinking ‘Big’ and ‘long term’. Not just in regard to those aged in their 70s and 80s now, but for everyone in the future!

A few years ago, when I started noticing elderly people out and about in shopping areas on their mobility scooters, I asked the provocation, “Are footpaths the new roads for the independent elderly?” Those in their last decades of life who wanted and needed to be independently mobile but who might not be able to or want to drive a car.  I wondered if those   communities with an large ageing population would start to see their footpaths as the new roads?

Then I started looking at how ‘busy’ and full footpaths in shopping streets were – with cafe tables, parents with baby ‘carts’, people with dogs, advertising signs, trees and plants, utility posts, and the odd rubbish bin! As I watched the elderly on their mobile scooters, I could see that there wasn’t much room to manoeuvre.  So I asked another question, “Do we need slow speed lanes rather than just bike lanes?” A mobility lane where young and old could travel on more sustainable forms of transport be they pedal or electric powered, at a slow speed that enabled safe co-use?

That was in 2011. A mere four years later, as I write this in 2015, the futureFUTURE of mobility for the independent elderly has shifted from the futureNOW of mobile scooters to considering the potential of autonomous (self-driven) cars, and multiple smart phone apps for car ride sharing. The social and financial economics of transport for the independent elderly is shifting dramatically as the inflexion point of digital – artificial intelligence and the internet of things -accelerates how we respond to changing demographics.

Alas, what’s not shifting as fast is the futurePAST habit so many institutional decision-makers have of looking at problem solving in too narrow a frame. Not understanding the power of a solution that can take into account not only futureNOW and futureFUTURE trends but also the value of common cross-demographic needs.

Slow speed lanes within our communities, and for getting in and out of our cities, would increase the health and well-being across age groups – and across all fitness levels. A exploration of slow speed lanes would enable us to demonstrate that we understood and valued the inter-dependence between all groups in our communities and cities. And, if we acknowledged our interdependence, we’d all be better off – now and in the future.

Hey, I’ve got another idea. Why wait for decision-makers to catch up. I’d love to help a community that wanted support to try out futureNOW and futureFUTURE solutions for sustainable, safe mobility. If that’s you, get in touch.