Age-friendly urban mobility

From the time we are old enough to take our first steps, we crave the independence that mobility provides. This craving does not dissipate as we get older – independence is a major contributor to successful ageing. Among Americans 65 years or older, “having the ability to do things myself” was rated higher in importance (95 percent, very important) than any other aspect of life besides good health (according to the AARP Healthy@Home Survey, 2008).

Mobility is key to our independence and affects almost every aspect of well-being for people of all ages, because it influences our ability to connect with the people, places and activities that are both essential to and enrich our lives. Older people face particular mobility challenges, as frailty, vision and hearing impairment, and other aspects of physical deterioration make it more difficult to use various transport modes, including riding public transportation, driving and walking. Given the global growth in the senior population, innovative approaches are required to understand and develop solutions to meet their transportation needs. These solutions are not one size fits all – they certainly vary by region/geographic area, and, even within a region, may also vary for different sub-populations of seniors.

In the US, where so much of the population relies on driving as the primary mode of transportation (and where public transportation options are not readily available in many areas), a major challenge in many regions of the country is how to ensure mobility for older people once they have to give up their car keys. On any given day over half of non-drivers who are 65 years old or older stay home in part because they have no transportation (according to the “Aging Americans: Stranded without Options”, Surface Transportation Policy Project, 2004).

Community-based, private and non-profit organisations and groups are working to develop various solutions and services to replace the reliance on driving one’s self. One such organisation is ITNAmerica, whose mission is to provide dignified, affordable transportation to seniors by providing rides in private cars using a mix of volunteer and paid drivers. Rides are provided 24/7/365 for any purpose within a particular service area. ITNAmerica’s non-profit business model is designed to bring together community organisations, healthcare providers, local businesses and families to weave a strong web of community support for providing mobility to seniors.

Volunteer drivers are a critical axis of ITNAmerica’s service model. (Photo source:

In Singapore, where there is an extensive public transportation system, the key urban mobility challenge may well be associated with the accessibility of public transit options to people as they age. This includes ensuring that people who are otherwise capable of riding the MRT or bus are able to get to and from the station or the bus stop, an issue known as the first- or last-mile (or more aptly, kilometer) problem.

Even with the relatively high density of bus stops and MRT stations that are characteristic of some areas of Singapore, an older person may have difficulty walking to a stop or station, if, for example, they have to climb stairs to go across a pedestrian bridge or cross a busy intersection. Older Singaporeans may face other mobility challenges as well, such as dealing with crowds, increased motor vehicle traffic, and even the rapidly changing Singapore landscape, where old landmarks previously used for way-finding no longer exist.

The Singapore Land Transport Authority’s (LTA) Green Man Plus is one example of an innovative age-friendly technology solution designed to improve the pedestrian experience for older people. An older pedestrian can tap a special senior concession or Green Man Plus card on a reader mounted on some traffic poles in order to request additional crossing time. By only providing the option for additional crossing time to those who need it, traffic flow is not slowed down on a regular basis at every light change.

Tap for longer crossing time with the LTA’s Green Man Plus. (Photo source: Land Transport Authority)

The LTA’s Master Plan includes many other provisions for enhancing the physical accessibility and age-inclusiveness of all modes of transportation in Singapore. The plan states that “as our population ages, we must ensure that our transport system caters to the needs of the elderly as well as less mobile Singaporeans, so that they remain active and engaged in society”. Even within the elderly population in a given region, these needs may be diverse.

The key to understanding diverse transportation needs is being able to collect and analyse data that reveal travel and activity patterns and preferences. In Singapore, the LTA conducts the Household Interview Travel Survey (HITS) every four or five years (the 2012 survey is currently underway). Analysis of data from the LTA’s 2008 HITS reveals a number of interesting behaviour patterns with respect to ageing and transportation. For example,

  • The number of trips people make declines with increasing age.
  • The share of trips made using MRT/LRT decreases as people age, while bus and taxi mode shares increase.
  • Older men tend to make more trips than older women, and they exhibit very different mode share patterns.




Under 60 years old



80 or older

Older (60+) Males

Older (60+) Females

Percent of trips via*:







Public Bus














Car/van/lorry (as driver)







Average daily number of trips **







* Percent of trips do not sum up to 100 because some modes are not shown here.
* Does not include walking trips other than those used for work or school, or to connect to other mechanized modes.
Source: Data from 2008 Household Interview Travel Survey; analysed by the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research & Technology’s Future Urban Mobility Group.



Other data that we looked at from HITS shows that the activities associated with travel as well as the reasons for not travelling also differ dramatically by age group – and younger “seniors” (those 60 to 69) look very different from older age groups in terms of their travel and activity patterns.

The Future Urban Mobility Group at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research & Technology (SMART-FM) is working to develop innovative mobility solutions for people of all ages. As part of this research, we are exploring forward-looking technology-based solutions that can be applied over the next decades to meet the urban mobility needs of elderly people. Specific areas of focus include:

  • Innovative survey approaches using smartphone and digital technologies to better enable collection of richly detailed travel and activity data from seniors who may have difficulty remembering or actively recording details of trips.
  • Technology-based approaches to solving the last-mile problem for seniors, for example by using information and communication technologies to enable more efficient ride-sharing schemes and other services.
  • Development of passenger-centric public transportation services to meet mobility demands in real-time.

These approaches will enhance the mobility of all segments of the population and will particularly benefit the ageing population.


– Shari Gershenfeld is a research fellow at Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology and the principal of AgeWise Consulting in the US. She was recently a speaker at the Ageless in Singapore Conference.




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One Response to “Age-friendly urban mobility”

  1. Shari Gershenfeld October 11, 2012 at 4:50 PM #

    Clarification for non-Singaporean readers: MRT/LRT are the Mass Rapid Transit and Light Rail Transit systems in Singapore.

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