Life After Cars

Douglas W. Texter

DO YOU REMEMBER the days before you could drive? You felt like you were on a leash. No freedom. No fun.

I have news for you: Those days could return.

One of the post-age-65 nightmares that we don’t talk about enough: Most affluent retirees live in the suburbs. Homes are miles from grocery stores, medical offices, movie theatres, restaurants and—perhaps most important—drugstores.

In the suburbs, the stream of city-based public transportation usually slows to a trickle. Sidewalks are mostly nonexistent. Even when they’re there, a five-or-six-mile hike to the nearest drugstore is probably too much, especially now that we have summers when the heat index soars to 115.

Do you think you’ll always be able to drive? Don’t be so confident. That’s what my father thought. He was a retired school principal first licensed to operate a motor vehicle when Franklin Roosevelt held office. Having developed balance issues in his 60s, Dad was placed on Dilantin. Despite the medication, his balance issues grew worse and came to a head in his mid-70s.

One day, I received a call from Dad. He was distraught. “The bastard took my license,” he told me.

Apparently, the neurologist treating my father had decided that the balance issues now compromised public safety. A mandated reporter, the neurologist duly informed the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Thus, my father’s driving privileges were deposited into the dustbin of history.

From a safety perspective, I don’t question the neurologist’s decision. My dad had been getting into minor accidents. After he died, I learned that there had been more incidents than he’d mentioned. When I was getting the house ready to sell, I discovered a sliding glass door in the dining room had been smashed. I called the local police to make a report. As I talked to the police officers, one told me that my father had knocked over some mailboxes with his car. “He never told me about that,” I said.

The officer smiled and said, “He was probably embarrassed and didn’t want you to know.”

While rescinding my father’s driving privileges preserved local mailboxes, the action devastated my parents. Married in 1956, they were that era’s definition of independence. They went where they wanted when they wanted. They would motor from their suburban home to a destination 100 miles distant just for a little get away. They lived life on their terms.

For about six months after my father lost his license, my mother drove. Then she had a stroke, and her driving days ended. For the remainder of his life, my father took taxis everywhere, even to the convenience store for milk. This state of affairs did not constitute a pleasant existence for either of my parents.

Independence had disappeared.

Despite the pain of license revocation, there was a slightly humorous epilogue to the story. When my father became sick, I began flying home to Erie from Minneapolis. When I’d arrive at Erie International Airport, I would call for a taxi to take me straight to the hospital. I would give my first and last name, and the taxi dispatcher would ask, “Is this Walt’s kid? How’s your dad?” Practically every taxi driver in Erie had gotten to know my father. They were genuinely sad when he died.

Unless you want to end up as a celebrity to taxi and Uber drivers, you might take steps to ensure that your post-driving days allow you as much access to the world as possible. To be honest, the problem of life after cars isn’t an easy one for most senior American suburbanites to solve.

I see three possibilities. First, you can live near children who are willing to repay all the hauling you did. Unfortunately, college-educated children often move far away from their parents.

Second, you could move into a senior living facility that’ll have outings. Personally, I’d find such a situation terrible: summer camp for geezers. Perhaps an alternative could be finding an all-ages intentional community that would swap transportation for chores. Few intentional communities exist in the U.S., and those that do might be reluctant to take on very senior members.

Third, you could move to an urban location where you can walk to most necessary amenities. In this country, though, very few truly walkable and safe cities exist. One article notes that “a study in the Journal of Medicine and Health found that the rate of social isolation was twice as high for seniors who did not drive as for those who did.” It may be true that no man is an island, but it can certainly feel that way in the suburbs without a car.

The article’s author, Daniel Herriges, argues that “the most important and highest returning investments our cities and towns can make now are in access for those who don’t drive.” While Herriges is correct, major changes in the infrastructure of most cities and towns seem unlikely. Thus, you’re left with few good choices if you’d like to move from the suburbs to a walkable environment.

My own plans involve moving back to Pennsylvania when I retire. Pittsburgh offers some walkable neighborhoods, such as Shadyside, and senior-safe public transportation. I’ve also considered moving back to Philadelphia, where I went to college. Parts of the city, especially South Philadelphia and Center City, are both nice and walkable. But Philly’s public transportation system, SEPTA, can be a little terrifying, especially at night. What was edgy when I was 19 might be discomfiting at 70.

If I do move back to Philadelphia, I’ll probably follow in the family tradition and become that old guy that all the taxi drivers get to know.

Like father, like son.

Douglas W. Texter is an associate professor of English at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas. Doug teaches a composition I course that focuses on personal finance. His essays and fiction have appeared in venues such as the Chronicle of Higher Education, Utopian Studies, New English Review and The Writers of the Future Anthology. Check out Doug’s previous articles.

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