Revisiting the travel and transport needs of an ageing population

A blog about a recent journal article I have published with Hebba Haddad revisiting our hierarchy of travel and mobility needs for older people:

Musselwhite, C.B.A. and Haddad, H. (2018). Older people’s travel and mobility needs. A reflection of a hierarchical model 10 years onQuality in Ageing and Older Adults, 19(2), 87-105.

Back in 2008 I won a SPARC (Strategic Promotion of Ageing Research Capacity) grant. It wasn’t my first project as a Principal Investigator but it was really my proper Post-doc experience. I wrote the bid, got to project manage the project and manage a member of staff. SPARC was a wonderful initiative whereby anyone new to ageing studies could bid to run a project, run by the brilliant and enigmatic duo of Professors Peter Lansley and Richard Farragher, ably assisted by Verity Smith, Nicky Hewson and Lucy Chappell. So as well as many post-docs, there were also more senior members of staff who wanted to try their lifetime work out on an ageing population. SPARC brought us together as a cohort, so we toured the nation and presented at conferences, and workshops, they put on special events at the House of Commons and at the British Science Festival and gave us a chance to meet the media, as well as supporting us with some excellent training. This was so successful for me it became the basis of my career and sparked (see what I did there) my interest of in ageing and gerontology.  If anyone wants to set up a post-doc experience they should use SPARC as a template; I wish more post-doc experiences for my colleagues now could be as rich and rewarding as this was for me.

The project I worked on for SPARC looked at ageing and mobility. At the Centre for Transport & Society at the University of the West of England, along with my researcher, Hebba Haddad, we carried out interviews and focus groups with drivers and ex-drivers, to look at transport and travel needs among older people and developed a hierarchical model of transport needs.

needs hiearchy

The model has three levels based on when in the conversation the need arose. At the bottom level, the most commonly cited need was practical or utilitarian need, that travel got people from A to B to do the things they wanted to do, as cheaply, as quickly and reliably, as possible, with minimal effort needed. A middle level emerged in the conversations a little later on, that mobility is more than just A to B, that it also related to psychosocial or social/affective aspects of life, such as independence, freedom, status, roles etc. Finally, a less common need emerged much later on in the conversation and that was the need for travel for its own sake, to see beautiful surroundings, to feel movement, to test cognitive skills of driving or travelling, a sort of touristic aspect of travel need. We noted that solutions to mobility when people give-up driving often centred around the bottom level of need, missing out the psychosocial and aesthetic need and that was often why people struggled so much with mental and physical health when they gave-up driving.

Now, 10 years on from when Hebba and I developed that model, we wanted to re-visit the model. All my students and colleagues know how much I love that model; they’ve all seen the mug and the re-usable coffee cup with the model on it.model  So, it’s probably very self-indulgent of us to have written an article about our own model – but there was a serious reason behind it all. It wasn’t just to show off that our model of travel needs has been cited 119 times and been used as a basis for understanding older people’s travel needs in  Australia, Canada, Denmark, Israel, Malta and Sweden and  translated into Spanish (Yanguas, 2014), Greek (Dikas, 2014) and Welsh (Musselwhite, 2016).  No, honest! Moreover, much has been discussed and written about the model and times have changed; was it still fit for purpose?

needs hiearchy in spanishneeds hiearchy in welsh

We used a reflective model of analysis. We looked to see if the needs existed in 5 other research projects we had been involved with, that had over 150 participants. We took feedback from academics, policy makers and practitioners working in the field from 25 conferences the model has been presented at. We took the feedback on the original peer review for the journal article (published in 2010) and looked at 19 articles where the model had been discussed in depth (from the 119 articles it has been cited in). We also took feedback from older people themselves on the model and whether it fitted their lives well.

The model sparks some interesting epistemological and ontological debates. Like is transport “need” an appropriate way of studying transport? Do we, as humans, always know what we need? How stable are needs? Stable enough to study them? Are needs “out there” or are they generated by actions and behaviours (did any of us know we needed an smart phone until we used one!?). However, overall, we were generally happy the model should stay the same. Similar categories emerge with other data and these categories are pretty useful for policy and practice to understand the multifaceted nature of transport and travel in later life.  The model can be applied potentially to other age groups, and some research would be useful to identify if this were the case. Policy and practitioners would like the model to be enumerated to help them when justifying the cost-benefit analysis of alternative travel modes to the car in later life. The model is similar to models in other domains and has been applied to taking journeys on the bus, the built environment and to ICT practices to support independent living.

The only significant change is in the final aesthetic category, where further we split the model into three different types of aesthetic needs, which are interrelated but different from one another:

(1) Kinaesthetic mobility. The need to feel movement itself.

(2) Immersive mobility.  Feedback from academics suggested that actually this level could be found among the utilitarian level, since it is about travel to places to see them, akin to getting from A to B. However, we also included mobility for its own sake and mobility as an imaginative or dreamed of state. One thing is for sure that this category is very important. It is really journeys made here that people miss when they have to give-up driving. Journeys to see the sea or the forest, going out for a drive or going the long way round on the way home from a more “purposeful” visit to the hospital or shops.

See these quotes from this paper I wrote on discretionary travel:

“Oh it’s life isn’t it. It’s what it’s all worth fighting for. There’s that quote isn’t there from Winston Churchill on providing money for the arts over giving it all to the war effort, you know what’s the point in fighting for a world without art and beauty, well that’s how I feel about just getting out and about. Just getting to see the trees, drive up the valley, it’s beautiful and it changes so often.  It’s never the same twice. I’ve spent my life working and missing these things, now I want to see it” (male, driver)

“Makes me feel better about everything, just the drive through the woods does ” (male, driver)

“You can just wake up and decide yeah today’s a nice day, let’s go out for a drive, see the sea. Community transport is timetabled see. Takes away the… spontaneity. Not sure I was every that spontaneous, but you know, I could be if I wanted to be! ” (male, community transport user)

“I can just go on a whim with my car. You know it’s a nice day. Or I’ll suddenly get an urge to see the Downs or the sea, perhaps I would have been reminded by something I saw on tv or a memory coming back to me. Wonderful to be able to do that. To just go where and when you want” (male, driver).

Asking people for lifts here is difficult, as this type of travel is often seen as discretionary. Yet, we find it anything but, and hence we really advocate the mobility beyond the car for older people remembers that as we age we still like to just go out and about for the sake of it or to see a nice view, we don’t just want to visit hospital or shops all the time!

(3) Imaginative mobility. Watching and observing others mobility and reminiscing about travel and mobility from the past. This was especially the case for people who had physical mobility difficulties that meant they couldn’t get out and about as much as they once did. A way of connecting to high levels of mobility without having to physically be mobile.

So the revisited model could look like:

needs hiearchy revisited

So, rather than being a self-indulgent journey, I feel the article re-visiting the transport needs has been important. We can say the basis of the model should remain the same as it is still very applicable to older people’s mobility. A slight change in the aesthetic needs helps describe that level of need better. Finally, is has set an agenda for where next with the model including:

– Enumerating and standardising the model to make it easier for transport planners and providers to see the cost-benefit of providing for different transport needs.

– Trying to see if the model fits older people’s mobility in non-Western cultures.

– Further research is suggested addressing how far the model might be applicable for all age groups. This would further strengthen the model for older adults; what is distinctive about mobility and transport needs for older people that differ from younger people? What causes such differences? How might such differences manifest themselves in the future?

How far will the model be changed in another 10 years’ time? There will be increasing numbers of older people and more older people as a percentage of the population. How far will technology be influencing mobility needs for older people and how will that affect the hierarchy? Projecting forwards, debates on sharing economies and automated technology (e.g.  the mobility as a service movement and driverless cars) could dramatically alter the hierarchy, potentially changing the structure. We look forward to reporting back again in another ten years!


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