Aging Boomers could cause transportation shakeup

By Chris McCahill

Suburban Baby Boomers hoping to age in place are beginning to put new demands on our transportation system, according to a recent New York Times article. Once they can no longer drive, many older folks find themselves needing in-home services or drivers that can offer more assistance than many taxi or TNC drivers are used to providing.

Private companies and healthcare providers are stepping in to fill that gap in many places. But where they aren’t, transit agencies could face more pressure to provide new services—including costly paratransit services. According to Brookings, those costs have already quadrupled since 2000 in many areas.

On the other hand, while Boomers do seem to be hanging on to their homes longer than expected, several studies suggest that’s about to change in a major way. It’s not clear how the housing market will play out, but this could shift transportation needs away from the exurbs toward more central locations.

Analysts from George Mason University, Fannie Mae, and the University of Southern California indicate that a ‘baby boomer sell-off’ is not far off. And when that happens, they argue, there might not be enough younger buyers to soak up all the supply. Researcher Arthur C. Nelson made the same point back in 2013. “The Boomers in the exurbs are going to be in a real pickle,” he said.

This is important for DOTs as they think about where to make the most critical transportation investments. If these older folks move inward, demand for transit and other urban transportation options could increase. And if younger generations do end up buying those suburban houses, it could be unwillingly for many of them. We discovered from the most recent National Household Travel Survey that younger folks making the most money continue to drive less each year, which could signal continued growth in urban areas.

While there’s no way to know for sure what will happen, the travel demand models that many agencies rely on to evaluate future transportation investments could be misleading them. Unless planners are deliberate about testing these different possible growth patterns, their models likely assume a single outcome, which in many cases is continued suburban growth.

Chris McCahill is the Deputy Director at SSTI.