Beyond our stereotypes of Oktoberfest and Autobahns, Germany seems to have created a better environment for aging-in-place. They have developed alternatives for aging and driving that could be imported, along with their fine cars and good beer. Despite their love of cars, they have developed a transportation network that is less car-dependent and age-friendlier. It is also safer and, importantly, healthier.
First, background: Germany has the third-largest proportion of elderly people worldwide, after Japan and Italy. The life expectancy is 85 years for women and 82 for men. GlobalAirWatch and HelpAge International recently ranked Germany fifth in a study on the quality-of-aging. Their report has an interesting observation:
“With 90 percent of people over 50 saying that they had friends or relatives they could count on in an emergency, the country (Germany) was well above average, and people largely felt safe, free to make their own choices and satisfied with the public transport system in their area.”
Next, we turn to information about the transportation system in Germany. This comes from extensive research done by Ralph Bueler at Virginia Tech, and then tweeted by CityLab.
As we cite it, keep in mind that manufacturing vehicles is a pivotal industry for both Germany and the U.S. Car ownership rates in Germany are high, but do not top the rates in the U.S. However, it is the difference in trip taking (i.e., when and how the Germans use their cars) that is astonishing: Germans take 9 percent of their trips on public transit, 24 percent by walking, and 10 percent by cycling. The comparable numbers for the U.S. are 2% transit, 11% walking and 1% cycling.
The differences do not stop there. Despite the higher number of walking and bicycle trips, the fatality rate in German is only 1.6 people per 100 million kilometer (km) cyclist miles, and 1.9 per 100 million km pedestrian miles walked. The comparable rates for the U.S. are 5.5 fatalities (bicycles) and 9.7 (walking).
These comparisons are for all age groups- not just the elderly. In a separate paper, Bueler and co-authors* report that the percentage of Germans age 65 and older who walk at least 30 minutes a day was five times higher than the share of elderly Americans (28.6% vs. 5.9%). Likewise, the percentage reporting 30 minutes of cycling per day was 13 times greater for the elderly in German than in the U.S. (6.5% vs. 0.5%).
But, add to this an additional and astonishing statistic. It is estimated that 12 percent of the German population is obese, compared to nearly one-quarter of those in the U.S.
The obesity rates are based on self-reported data, but if true, there is a trail to follow. This trail is about having a transportation system that enables people (of all ages) to be less car-dependent, keep more fit, and somehow, be less vulnerable to pedestrian and bicycle accidents too. It is also about living in places where there is less need to drive and stocking up on milk and bread does not entail a trip in the car.
As a society we have not accumulated full knowledge about the linkages between aging well and transportation choices. But, we can speculate. We do know that there are important connections between ‘health and obesity’ and between ‘health and safety’. Baby Boomers in the U.S., can look to Germany for ideas on aging, well-being and transportation.
*R. Buehler, J. Pucher, D. Merom and A. Bauman, “Active Travel in Germany and the U.S.,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Vol. 40, no. 9, Sept. 2011.