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Retiring boomers could pose challenge for transportation, infrastructure planners

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By The Associated Press
Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012, 6:54 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Baby boomers started driving at a young age and became more mobile than any generation before or since. They practically invented the two-car family and escalated traffic congestion when women began commuting to work. Now, 8,000 of them are turning 65 every day, and those retirements could once again reshape the nation's transportation.

How long those 74 million people born between 1946 and 1964 continue to work, whether they choose to live in their suburban houses after their children leave home or whether they flock to city neighborhoods where they are less likely to need a car will have important ramifications for all Americans.

If boomers stop commuting in large numbers, will rush hours ease? As age erodes their driving skills, will there be a greater demand for more public transportation, new business models that cater to the home-bound or automated cars that drive themselves?

It was the boomers who made “his” and “hers” cars the norm when they started building families and helped spread a housing explosion to the fringes of the nation's suburbs.

This generation “has been the major driver of overall growth in travel in the United States and that has had a tremendous impact over the past 40 years in how we have approached transportation planning,” said Jana Lynott, co-author of a new report by the AARP Public Policy Institute on how boomers have affected travel in the U.S.

The report is an analysis of national surveys by the Federal Highway Administration of Americans' travel patterns since 1977.

Over the last four decades, the number of vehicles has nearly tripled, the report said, and total miles traveled has grown at more than twice the rate of population growth.

Since 1977, travel for household maintenance trips — a category that includes doctors' appointments, grocery shopping, dry cleaning and the like — has grown fivefold.

But what really caught transportation planners flat-footed was the soaring growth in traffic congestion in the 1980s after large numbers of women started commuting alone in their cars, said Nancy McGuckin, a travel behavior analyst and co-author of the AARP report.

Highway engineers, who hadn't anticipated the consequences of the women's movement and dual-earner families, had just finished building the interstate highway system only to find it insufficient to meet the demands of the new commuters, she said.

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