Senior mobility solutions come of age

Enlighten • Pulse #1 • 7 min
By Jean-Pierre Montal

With population ageing, the mobility of older citizens is an increasing challenge for society as a whole. We take a look at the issues and some of the long-term solutions available for improving senior mobility.

First, we need to clear the road ahead! This means redressing some of the misconceptions and stereotypes that often blur our vision and lead us to the wrong conclusions.

Seniors – a diverse population

The first obstacle we need to overcome is the “senior” myth. We all know, of course, that the population is ageing. As a proportion of the global population, the number of people aged 60 and over is forecast to double from 11% in 2000 to 22% by 2015 (Source). In France, the number (Source) of over-85s is expected to reach 4.8 million by 2050, compared with 1.5 million today. But the idea of the “average senior citizen”, with clearly identified set habits is a pure invention with no factual basis.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines seniors as people aged 60 and over, whereas employers tend to make this distinction for anyone over 45. “People age at different rates and experience the ageing process in different ways. A 60-year-old who regularly uses a smartphone and an 80-year-old who has no concept of the Internet obviously don’t have much in common. Lumping them together in the same sociological category doesn’t make any sense,” says Pierre-Marie Chapon, an expert in population ageing and managing director of consultancy firm VAA Conseil. “Mention the elderly and two stereotypes spring to mind: the always-on-the-go senior or the homebound, caredependent person. But in reality, senior profiles are much more diverse and hard to pin down.” Fully comprehending this diversity is absolutely essential to understanding the day-to-day lives of older populations, which to a large extent are shaped by their degree of mobility: people who get out and about lead healthier lives (see box, “Reversing the downward spiral”).

A « perilous journey »

As they get older, people tend to keep to their travel patterns, so a pensioner who used to take the bus to work is likely to continue using the same means of transport. Nonetheless, the older they are, the more people see travel as an arduous, complicated experience, or even “a perilous journey”, according to Nicolas Menet, a sociologist at Adjuvance, a consultancy firm specialising in population ageing, innovation and startups. “When thinking about their planned trip, they tend to focus on the tricky parts and then, gradually, choose not to go out at all.” As a result, the amount of time spent travelling gets less and less. In France, it has fallen from an average of 50 minutes for 60 to 74 year-olds to 28 minutes for the over 75s. In fact, a growing proportion of older citizens end up never leaving their homes for a week at a time. This is true for 14% of 75 to 85 year-olds and 30% of over 85s (Source).
Safety is another concern for seniors who use public transport, and the older they get, the less safe they feel. Several factors contribute to this: discomfort and a lack of cleanliness onboard or at stops, noise that prevents them from hearing next-stop announcements, and narrow pavements. Whatever the reason, this inevitably leads to shrinking horizons, with older people not venturing far from home and then gradually not going out at all.

A frugal innovation is the way to go

The key to encouraging older citizens to make more use of public transport is to focus on real needs. “We must steer clear of ‘plans’, ‘measures’ and ‘policies’ when it comes to senior citizens,” warns Pierre-Marie Chapon. “On the contrary, we should aim to make targeted, practical and long-term improvements – not necessarily involving technology – that bring immediate benefits to passengers.” This can include improving the design of seats, making timetables easier to read, installing more grab handles and bars, and clearly distinguishing information buttons from emergency buttons. “This is what’s known as ‘frugal innovation’: instead of reinventing everything, the goal is to make existing networks easier to access and use,” explains Nicolas Menet. Listening carefully to elderly passengers is essential. In Lyon, for example, buses are fitted with a real-time “trip sharing” feature that lets passengers convey their feelings while onboard to get an accurate picture of their expectations.

Another aspect of frugal innovation is training, especially for bus drivers. Waiting for elderly passengers to be seated and then moving off again more smoothly can have a profound effect on their travel experience and their perception of bus travel in general.

The city of Berlin provides another example of frugal solutions, with guides on hand at selected stations to assist older passengers. As well as municipal and public transport employees, the public also need to be “educated” about the specific needs and difficulties that ageing adults face when out and about. The Austrian city of Salzburg ran an awareness campaign to encourage schoolchildren and young adults to offer assistance to fellow older passengers on public transport. This type of support between the generations makes elderly passengers feel safer and removes some of the barriers they may face.

Practical digital solutions

Digital technology is another key lever – provided the focus is on practical improvements. Digital tools will only be adopted if they offer immediate benefits, such as clearer route displays, clearer information about connecting services, walking distances to and from stops, clearly marked areas under repair/construction, and timetable changes. Improvements such as these can alleviate some of the stress and hurdles facing older passengers, ensuring a smoother travel experience. However, the main obstacle here is that few over-76s make use of digital services, especiallyfor transport. Some cities, such as Helsinki, have taken a proactive, educational approach to this issue. The city’s Adult Education Centre offers courses in media and IT for the over-65s (22% of adults who attend the centre), with mentoring and coaching. This type of response addresses the needs of today’s older generations and should be implemented quickly to improve their lives. As a result, today’s 50-yearolds – tomorrow’s senior citizens – will be more likely to use digital tools developed to make travelling easier.

New modes of transport for grater mobility

In addition to these highly practical, passenger-centric improvements, new modes of transport that enhance the mobility of our more vulnerable fellow citizens are also being developed, helping tackle the issue of the first and last mile in particular. These include car sharing schemes and ondemand transport services, which have gained real ground in recent years. Other solutions already rolled out include self-service electric bike hire scheme for short trips, as well as shared autonomous vehicles, set to become a growing part of the mobility mix in the near future. These and other solutions will enable ageing adults to lead better and more independent lives.



Reversing the downward spiral

Nicolas Menet, sociologist at consultancy firm Adjuvance, France, which specialises in population ageing, innovation and startups.

« Mobility is a critical issue but is often misunderstood. This is mainly because senior citizens themselves don’t clearly convey their expectations: they often see bad travel experiences as part and parcel of growing old. But another reason is that some stereotypes are hard to break. It’s generally thought that older people are reluctant to use public transport because they’re still attached to their cars. The truth is they often give up driving because of heavy traffic and parking congestion. This can lead to ‘disengagement’, a theory well-known to population ageing experts, who observe that older adults naturally withdraw from their day-to-day activities. Similarly, another important dimension is that, as people age, they feel more distanced from public services. If public transport service providers don’t take account of these natural shifts in behaviour, a downward spiral sets in and people simply stop travelling on a daily basis. As well as a worrying trend, this is potentially a real public health issue: if people don’t get out and about, their quality of life and wellbeing deteriorate. As we’ve seen, public transport is a major social issue with surprisingly broad repercussions. »


Pierre-Marie Chapon, an expert in population ageing, has picked three projects for Pulse that address the mobility needs of older citizens.

N°1 Customised travel services in hong

In the densely populated city of Hong Kong, a fleet of 1,270 minibuses provides a 24-hour service covering all districts. There are two different colours of minibus – green and red. The green minibuses serve specific routes and offer the fastest option. Red minibuses operate on routes that are not always fixed. Passengers can get on and off anywhere between the starting station and the terminal, bringing them close to home.

N°2 Smart travel app for Berlin

As part of its holistic approach to mobility, Germany’s capital is building smart features into facilities along its extensive public transport network to make travel easier for more vulnerable users. These include an application that alerts passengers about possible problems on their routes, such as an escalator under repair or a lift out of order, and suggests an alternative route.

N°3 Dijon seeking public opinion first

The French city of Dijon installed several different models of urban equipment, including seats in a pedestrian street. It then polled people’s opinions over a two-week period, paying particular attention to the response of older citizens. This participative approach enables the authorities to effectively gauge expectations and develop the best solutions for all users.


Keoscopie International: global mobility insights

From Montreal to Brisbane, Paris to Doha, London to Beijing — all around the globe, people are using public transport, though differently in different places. Private cars are a feature of the landscape, to a greater or lesser extent, as are new forms of mobility like ride sharing, electric bicycles and self‐service scooters. Lifestyles, working habits and smartphone ownership also vary from one country to the next. By analysing all these statistics, Keoscopie International, a global study produced by the Keoscopie observatory, provides insights into mobility worldwide with some surprising findings.

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The Millennials, those born between 1982 and 2003, have a different approach to mobility than previous generations. They make greater use of public transit as part of a multi‑modal lifestyle. A survey by the American Public Transportation Association sought to understand their mindset.

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