For Roland Dion, 81, who lives on the eastern edge of San Diego, being isolated in a place where the car rules is all too real a possibility.
"Out here, it's cars," he said. "Cars, cars, cars, cars." Doctor appointments, grocery shopping, movie theaters, even reaching the beach from where the Dions live all require a car. "If you don't have a car, you're stranded," said Dion, a retired marriage and family therapist. He and his wife, a master weaver, moved to California 38 years ago from Connecticut.
Although he still drives 16 miles — on three freeways — to writers group meetings, he has decided the time has come to plan for a carless future.
On a recent afternoon, he took a first step in that direction. He and his wife, Rosemarie, also 81, drove to the Grossmont trolley station, part of the Metropolitan Transit System, and rode the green line toward Old Town, where they spent part of the day exploring. They traveled in a group led by Judi Bonilla, a gerontologist and founder of We Get Around. The organization is a fledgling nonprofit that promotes the use of public transportation for adults who believe they may be near the end of their driving days.
But in places like San Diego, the transition is not an easy one. From their home, the nearest bus stop is a 1-mile walk away. "I can still do it," Dion said. But his wife cannot.
"All of this is well and good while you have your health," he said. Yet, he allowed, "You can't do all the things you used to do."
The situation the Dions face now is likely to become more common as aging baby boomers age even more. During retirement planning, transportation is often an afterthought. Yet, figuring transportation into plans is essential, experts say.
According to the American Journal of Public Health, Americans are outliving their ability to drive safely — a woman, on average, by 10 years, a man by seven. Overall, the ability to drive safely as one ages depends on health. Some people can drive into their 90s, while others begin to cut back at 65.
And yet, most people prefer not to think about the day when they have to rely on others or use public transportation for routine activities. "People avoid the topic," said Beth Shapiro, a clinical social worker in Rockville, Md., who runs the Jewish Social Service Agency's "To Drive or Not to Drive" program.
"When people make retirement plans, they make no transportation plans because they assume they're going to drive forever," said Katherine Freund, founder and president of the Independent Transportation Network, a nonprofit that provides rides for older adults, with 27 affiliates throughout the country, including in Sarasota. Nationally, for those over 65, 2 to 3 percent of what distance they travel is on public transportation, 8 percent on foot and the rest by car, Freund said.
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Not driving by choice is different from realizing you are no longer fit to drive. Deciding to drive less typically happens incrementally. People might decide to stop driving at night to unfamiliar places, for instance. But regardless of the reason, not driving can limit your autonomy, even your social life.
When planning ahead, think about whether you prefer to stay in your community, plan to downsize or will relocate. According to a 2014 AARP study, by age 65 and older, 87 percent of people want to remain in their current community as they age.
"If you're 55, you have to project out into the future," said Bonilla of We Get Around.
In car-oriented areas, people often rely on family and friends for transportation. But there aren't always younger family members available to drive those in their 80s and 90s, and sometimes family members live in another city or state.
Transportation is the second-highest household expense after housing, according to the Office of Planning, Environment and Realty, which is part of the Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration.
Those living in households that are car-dependent spend 25 percent of income on transportation. By living closer to work, shopping, restaurants and other amenities, households can reduce transportation costs to 9 percent of their total income.
Whatever decision you make about where to live and transportation, here are some guidelines from experts:
• Analyze your current neighborhood in terms of where you typically need and want to go, and determine how you might reach those places if you weren't driving.
• Look at the social support where you live.
If you plan to continue driving, AAA offers resources like making sure your car suits you ergonomically and information about renewing your driver's license where you live.