Coping without a car (1) – how does it affect lives?

I showed in my last blog that private transport is the dominant mode for older New Zealanders. So – how does lack of private transport affect their lifestyle and quality of life? A few years ago, the New Zealand Institute for Research on Ageing went out and asked people from all over the country. Their average age was over 80 and all had been without private transport for at least six months. The Office for Senior Citizens developed an information pamphlet arising out of the research findings, which you may have seen, and published the report. See

Ceasing to drive clearly has a considerable impact, and some interviewees became quite emotional when they talked about what had indeed been a life-changing event.  One man said: “I couldn’t go fishing or anything really. It made me a total prisoner in here.”  And a woman said: “I couldn’t do things with my grandchildren – drive them to school and pick them up – and go to see people.”

There are again clear gender differences in attitudes to driving and to giving it up. The impact seems greater for men than for women, because women generally have better social networks, are more home-oriented and have more home-based hobbies. They are also more used to being driven. More women than men of this age have never driven and women tend to give up driving earlier. Also, women tend to have more knowledge of public transport from earlier in their lives when they were involved in children’s transport or were left without transport when their husbands took the car to work. On the other hand, men frequently associate vehicle ownership and use with a sense of individuality, independence and status.  Many older men have been brought up to expect to take charge and may consider it demeaning to be driven, or to use public transport. These gender differences have been observed in research from other countries too.

Losing private transport has an impact on social contact. The interviewees reported that most of their contact with family takes the form of visits to them. They cope by staying at home and being visited. As one woman said: “You don’t go visiting when you are as old as this – you just stay put.”  The same can be true for contact with friends, unless they also lack transport: “They (my friends) are all in their 80s and they also have lost their licences – so I rarely see them”.

However, a fair amount of contact with friends or acquaintances takes place on neutral territory, such as the bowling club, church functions, the RSA or other club premises. This emphasises the importance of transport to such venues.

Whether or not people cope well without a car relates to a lot of things – where they live, what other transport options they have, personal health and mobility levels. Contact with neighbours can be reduced by the lay-out of houses and sections and by steep terrain. High levels of workforce participation nowadays cut down the opportunities that older people have to be neighbourly with younger people. If older people can walk with ease and use public transport, this can compensate for a lack of private transport, provided bus services are available and accessible. Where people are limited by disability or ill-health, they risk becoming isolated and housebound. Outlook on life and the extent to which people feel dependent on others are also important, as having control over your life is important. Personal attitudes also influence the extent to which people are willing to consider alternative forms of transport, such as mobility scooters.

We asked people about their weekly pattern of trips, linking social networks with transport. Having regular trips may help in finding suitable transport when you don’t have the flexibility of private transport. Most of these regular trips were for shopping and church, but also for club meetings or recreational activities, such as bowls or cards. Monthly meetings, of organisations such as Probus, historical societies and adult education activities, were mentioned. Only a few respondents said that they had no regular trips, but there were examples of people with serious health problems who go out only once a week – to a Stroke Club or day care for Alzheimer’s patients.

We asked people to tell us about a recent situation in which transport was a problem. They often mentioned the availability of public transport and lifts. Travelling in other people’s cars may not be convenient because of access, for example getting into the back of a two-door car, or other reasons.

“My husband has to go to hospital every six months for a bladder check and they fill him full of water. He can’t use a bottle in someone else’s car.”

“A fortnight ago, after cards, I was offered a ride coming home. I was only part of the way out of the car when the driver took off. I was jammed and ended up bruised with two stitches in my head. It was a male driver whose hearing was not very good.”

A lady whose husband has dementia had to synchronise two people when she went out – one to remain with him and another to take her. In addition he would not go in a car unless his wife was with him.

Medical or health emergencies can present problems. The cost of travelling to hospital by taxi can be considerable. Even if an ambulance takes the patient one way there is always the cost of the return trip. People mentioned not being able to get to special occasions such as reunions and funerals/tangi: “Could not go to a reunion in H because I would have had to take all my own bedding. I can’t do this on public transport.” Others missed shopping opportunities, such as sales, seasonal fruit and vegetables, and the opportunity to shop at a leisurely pace: “My son is always in a hurry and just grabs things off the shelf.” Missed opportunities for spontaneous outings for pleasure, were mentioned, such as going for a drive around the coast, to see the spring flowers, or to have fish and chips on a Friday night.

The issues arising from losing private transport are a mixture of problems relating to “serious” transport needs, such as for medical emergencies, but also to optional or “discretionary” travel, including pleasure outings, spontaneous trips and visits to friends and relatives, which may cease altogether. These may be seen as less vital, but they are crucial to quality of life for older people. This distinction, between “serious” and “discretionary” travel, is significant, and will come up again when I look at how people meet their transport needs.

Dr Judith A. Davey
Age Concern New Zealand voluntary policy advisor
Senior Research Associate, Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit
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