Coping without a car (2) – How do people cope?

Keep the car
Older people adjust to life without private transport in a variety of ways. They may travel by different modes or make changes to their lifestyles. We found that some keep their cars even when they no longer drive. This makes them feel less dependent, but they still need to find a driver. This strategy may work well, for example, in a retirement village where there is a pool of drivers. But often these cars were rarely used. This situation probably reflects a wish for independence and feelings about become “beholden” when seeking or accepting lifts.

Get lifts
Lifts in other people’s cars are by far the most common alternative transport mode. All the interviewees used lifts, many almost every day. Friends and neighbours were the most frequent sources, but family lifts were often preferred, as this was seen as “part of family life”.

Lifts were most commonly used for shopping – food and general – and for travel to recreation and entertainment.  Attitudes around asking for or accepting lifts link with my earlier observations about “serious” or “discretionary” travel. Older people may feel less reticent about asking family and friends for lifts if the purpose is clearly necessary and serious. Lifts to recreational activities or to visit friends may not be seen as serious travel, and people are less likely to ask for lifts for these reasons.

There are advantages and disadvantages in using lifts as a means of transport. The advantages included lower costs, getting transport door-to-door and the opportunity to have contact with other people: “It’s enjoyable going with whānau. You can catch up on titbits (of news).” But there are disadvantages, summed up in these comments: “It’s OK if they are coming past but I hate taking people out of their way. I want to be independent.”  “It makes me obliged to them, I don’t like to impose, I would rather say nothing.” Several people mentioned how they tried to repay people who gave them lifts, offering cash or petrol vouchers or responding with gifts.

Use public transport
Public transport is not available everywhere and fewer than half of the interviewees used bus services (rail passenger services figured in only a very few cases). The proportion was higher in metropolitan centres.  The main barrier to public transport use was access – getting to the buses and getting on and off, rather than frequency, although the older people were not well served by public transport at night and on weekends. One respondent, when asked where her nearest bus route was, said – “It might just as well be in Hong Kong!” – indicating her inability to reach it.

Only a minority of the interviewees knew about community transport – door-to-door transport provided by voluntary or community agencies – and few used it. What services there were tend to be related to medical and hospital appointments and the activities of organisations, such as Age Concern and the RSA, although retirement villages often offer community transport for shopping and outings.

Use taxis
A high proportion of respondents took taxis, but their cost was a serious barrier. Taxi transport tended to be used for “serious” travel and emergencies, and for getting home in bad weather, at night or with baggage. The Total Mobility (“TM”) scheme started in 1981 and provides taxi vouchers, representing significant discounts for people with serious mobility constraints. Most respondents knew about TM and just over half used it. However, in some areas services are non-existent or unreliable. Taxis are not well-suited for short trips or for trips with multiple destinations. One couple said that they went past their local cinema to one further away because they were embarrassed to ask for a taxi to go to the nearest one (even though the walk there would have been too much for them). Others did not find it acceptable to keep a taxi waiting while they popped into several shops or dealt with business in several locations.

Use mobility scooters
Fewer than one in five of the interviewees had a mobility scooter, but a higher proportion would consider using one, if their condition deteriorated, if they could afford it, or if their location was more suitable for one. Men were much more likely than women either to have or to contemplate having a mobility scooter, perhaps because they are seen as similar to motorised transport. Scooters are helpful for people reaching services, but more generally for recreational travel and just “getting out”, as several comments showed: “They are wonderful in a small town. It makes me feel I am not shut in.” Others were uncertain or had a negative view of mobility scooters – only one person can ride at once, it is difficult to carry a lot of shopping on them, and they do not give protection in bad weather. One person thought that having a scooter might reduce walking (and thus be seen as lazy) but for some people it increases opportunities to reach pleasant surroundings for a walk. There were some who had tried scooters but decided against them. “Too old and deaf, not keen on it. There is enough junk in the shed” (male respondent, aged 90).

Since they ceased to have access to private transport, some of the respondents had walked more and some less. Walking can be a way to travel and also beneficial exercise, but this depends very much on health status and mobility. Half a kilometre was considered a long walk for half of the people interviewed. One man said: “I have to rest every 50 metres and I am slow on pedestrian crossings – the lights change before I am over the road.” His wife said: “I have arthritis and chronic asthma – I don’t like crossing on my own, I wait for someone else.” This suggests that, for many, walking may not be a substitute for private transport. Uneven footpaths and difficult road crossings are obstacles to safe and easy walking. People with mobility problems tended to use lifts and taxis as their main ways of getting around. Others were more likely to use independent modes – walking and public transport. Thus health status clearly influences choice of transport mode and level of dependence.

Stay at home
One way in which older people without transport cope is to stay at home more. Some people have services delivered to their homes, but this is not common and they are missing the social contact and stimulation which comes when people leave their homes. Shopping is a common form of recreation. When people had cars they were able to have a day out visiting various shops and making comparisons before purchasing. Some respondents expressed resignation and acceptance of staying mostly at home and this attitude probably leads to an understatement of transport difficulties: “What can you expect at my age”. Often people see no answer to such problems, apart from adjustment to a more confined lifestyle.

So what is to be done …check back here in a couple of weeks to see some ideas on what would help.

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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