Recently, I was interviewed by Julia Langdon (a Fleet Street legend) for a programme on BBC Radio Four called ‘Am I too old to drive’. The programme looked at how and when we should stop driving.
Older people continue to drive for a multitude of reasons, but retaining their independence is a significant one. For many people, especially in rural areas, there are few other options if you can not drive. Poor public transport, with limited bus services, few train stations and a lack of door-to-door services have led to a a car-base society, especially outside of the cities and bigger towns. This can be particularly difficult for older people who may not be as physically mobile. For decades, we have planned our shops, businesses and leisure facilities around driving, often with scant regard for what happens if you can’t or don’t want to drive.
Week in and week out, we hear from people who no longer have access to public transport. Their regular bus service has gone either due to local authority budget cuts or the end of a commercial service. A community transport driver in rural Suffolk told us that he often picks up passengers who have not left their house in months due to bad weather or lack of public transport.
If you live in an area with no public transport, losing your ability to drive can be an end, not just to your independence, but your being able to get out and about at all. Getting to hospital and doctors appointments, going out socially, visiting friends and family, even going shopping, all become almost impossible without a car.
But it’s not just older people who are affected by loneliness and isolation when there is no public transport, young people and those on low incomes, who can’t drive or can’t afford to run a car, also suffer in a society built around cars. One parent told us that since the village bus services ended her children are no longer able to meet friends at the weekend or take part in out of school activities, which understandably has a huge impact on their confidence and self esteem.
The Government’s recent Loneliness Strategy recognised that loneliness and isolation affects not just the health and wellbeing of individuals, but is currently ‘one of [the] most pressing public health issues’ affecting England. It also recognised that access to public and local transport services ‘plays a key role’ in tackling the problem.
Whilst urban areas tend to be better served by public transport, rural areas are often left behind; seen as too sparsely populated, or too widely spread out for public transport to work. Our recent report, The future of rural bus services in the UK, challenged this perception. It set out how creating comprehensive and consistent networks in rural areas can be achieved if we pool resources and involve communities in planning, and included examples of areas doing just that.
The Government has a duty to provide the investment and infrastructure needed to ensure public transport plays a key role in helping end loneliness and isolation, not just for older people, but for everyone.