At the STS Forum in Kyoto in October, one of the most interesting topics discussed was the huge challenge Japan faces dealing with its rapidly growing elderly population. The situation is particularly acute in rural areas, because most young people have left them to find work in the big cities and public transportation services are so limited that the elderly fight to hang on to their cars way past the time they are able to drive safely. As one speaker pointed out, this is leading to a growing number fatalities among young people caused by elderly drivers who, for example, press the accelerator rather than brake pedal.
Even though the UK and other developed economies don’t have quite the same proportion of elderly people in their populations, they too will face the same issues over the next two or three decades. A big danger is that many old people will end up spending the latter part of their lives virtually marooned in their homes because they are physically incapable of making it to the bus stop – much less getting to the clinic or hospital for a medical appointment or even the café or shop for a natter with friends.
Cost is the most serious barrier to providing more responsive rural mobility. Because they are catering to a low population density over large areas, conventional transportation services are sporadic even though they are often heavily subsidized. Expanding these services using buses may help to improve convenience for some people, but the economics are unsustainable and the impact will be marginal.
Autonomous vehicles coupled with ride-sharing apps provide a potential solution to addressing the problem of rural mobility by reducing labor costs and just as importantly increasing the utilization of fleet capacity. Indeed, companies such as Voyage have already started to adopt this approach in retirement communities in the US.
Taking this model beyond the managed confines of gated communities to the unpredictability of the real world won’t happen overnight of course, but it’s certainly an avenue that the public and private sectors should look at more closely in order to improve mobility not just for the elderly but everyone living in rural locations.