Boomers, Aging, Parking

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The best friend of aging Baby Boomers may be parking, as in foregone parking. Younger generations have already made this discovery and are forging lifestyles with less park and drive.

Parking is not something that people ages 51 to 69 (the Baby Boomers) pay much attention to. They might give it a minute of thought if their windshield is ticketed for an expired meter or extended stay. Surprisingly, parking has the potential to make the Boomers’ retirement more affordable, active, and healthy.  While financial planners are busy selling Boomers on retirement annuities, parking reductions should be promoted by city planners, builders, and automotive engineers. There are two reasons.

The first reason is fairly straightforward. The Boomers are fast approaching an age when they will need to slow down, and that includes their vehicle usage. When they become less able to drive well, vehicle automation can keep them on the road- longer and safer. Today, well-equipped cars, from Toyotas to Fords, can self-park. While that option might seem frivolous to many Boomers, self-parking is an engineering milestone.  In 2015 vehicle automation can detect a parking space but in the near future it will help (aging) drivers sense and avoid collisions.

Meanwhile, as Baby Boomers become empty nesters and evaluate whether to downsize, it is homes, not parking, that are at the top of their list. Books like Aging in Suburbia are starting a conversation about alternatives. Should Boomers buy into an age 55+ community, seek a townhome closer to the kids, or sell entirely and travel?  With 75 million Boomers on the verge of retirement, this demographic tsunami is not going undetected. The real estate industry is examining how to sell relocation to a healthy, but aging cohort.

Real estate developers who follow the conventional playbook anticipate that Boomers will choose smaller properties laden with jazzy upscale features like a stainless steel kitchen and hardwood floors. The Institute of Homebuilders assumes a two or three car garage is needed, and if outdoors, a ‘sufficient’ ratio of units to paring spaces.  Therein is the crux of change. The new buzz is about parking and in this case, the absence of it.

In the past, developers of 55+ communities, town homes on the fringe of urban areas, and most high-rise buildings were required by municipal codes to apply a parking formula. The formula locked them into a minimum of two parking spaces per residential unit built. When a new building was near transit or rail, the parking requirements were relaxed, but slightly.

Today, as planners and developers envision purpose-built communities for aging Boomers, traditional parking requirements are coming under scrutiny. Zoning boards and developers are beginning to reexamine the maximum and minimum space rules. As they do so, Boomers can plan for a retirement that will be more affordable, active, and healthy.  It promises to keep the essential, and overlooked issues of mobility and transportation in the forefront of retirement planning.

Let’s examine the first claim that retirement can be made more affordable. Affordability is important, since an estimated 34 percent of Americans age 50 plus use credit cards to pay basic living expenses because they do not have enough savings (AARP, 2013). More than fifty percent still have mortgages to pay off. There is financial hope.  When people retire, or at least one family member gives up the daily commute, a two-car household can downsize. That’s an economic windfall, since the annualized cost of keeping a mid-size vehicle on the road is nearly $9,000 (AAA, 2014). Downsizing the fleet also brings a financial windfall for developers. It is estimated that parking represents about ten percent of typical building costs, often more (VTPI, 2013).

These savings are a bonanza. Some developers will pass on the lower building cost so units can be more affordable. Others may work with architects and designers to produce more age-friendly amenities, such as indoor-outdoor pools, gardening plots, or an annex for take-out food and restaurant demos. There are entirely new options to be discovered when builders do not have to plow their construction dollars into acquiring extra land and then pave it over for cars. The savings, and hence possibilities, are even more extreme when builders do not have to dig costly underground parking facilities.

Boomers choosing to buy or rent in new age-friendly communities may like the neighbors or the clubhouse but they will not be an easy sell unless a minimum standard is met for location and accessibility. Herein is the ground truth for the second axiom about aging well. When planner and builders rebalance the requirements for parking against other types of mobility, the outcome leads to a healthier, more active lifestyle.

When Boomers relocate they will need to equate ‘location’ with ‘lifestyle’, and that will require viewing with fresh eyes. With just one car or perhaps none, will the new place be near enough to a doctor’s office or medical facility?  Can they walk to a grocery or convenience store, and are they within a quarter-mile of public transit or car share? Are there sidewalks, open spaces, and recreational facilities?  Equally important may be proximity to a school or university, so that Boomers can continue their life-long learning and interaction with other age groups.

The benefits do not end there. For Baby Boomers, going light on the car comes heavy with health benefits. As we have pointed out in earlier blogs, aging cohorts in other countries drive less and walk or cycle more. In the process, they get helpful exercise.   Germany provides a good comparison, since it has both an aging population and an economy centered on car production. Despite a high rate of vehicle ownership, nearly thirty percent of Germans age 65 and older walk at least 30 minutes a day and this rate is five times higher than that in the U.S.; the cycling rate, at seven percent, is 13 times greater.  The health savings accrue for in Germany only 12 percent of the population (all ages) is obese.

The benefits for the aging Boomer population are cumulative: First hand discovery of a less car-centric lifestyle will prepare Boomers, both emotionally and physically, for getting older. It keeps them ahead of the curve and trains them to take the necessary steps now to remain independent and to live alone when they cannot, or should not, renew their driver’s license. The real bonus is that they will stave off the day when this is necessary, since there are health benefits from exercising more and replacing car trips with shorter ones on foot.  Downsizing their living space is important for Boomers, but downsizing their parking brings different issues into play and is of equal importance. For Boomers, it is about hitting the reset button, and rethinking if a troll to park…could become a stroll.