Mobility of another kind has been top of mind for me over the past few weeks. My sister and I recently spent a weekend in Arizona helping move my dad out of his house into an assisted living community because he has Parkinson’s Disease and can no longer live alone. As she and I carried boxes and hauled consignments and household donations around in our rental car, I couldn’t help but be struck by the built environment and what it means for how people there get around.
Green Valley, Arizona — population 22,519 — isn’t known for much. Sure it has plenty of sunshine and its fair share of saguaro cactus to go around, but it’s certainly not known beyond the neighboring towns within the suburban sprawl south of Tucson. Why would it be?
Yet Green Valley does have something in abundance that many towns don’t: retirees. Lots of them, in fact. In this small community carved out of the desert in the 1960s, the median age is a whopping 72 years old. Over 73% of residents are 65+. They have chosen to move to Arizona for many reasons. Some escape northern winters for a few months of the year while others have found a different pace for the remainder of their lives.
In addition to its aging population, Green Valley is notable for another feature, although this time not for what it has but what it does not: density of housing. Green Valley ranks at a mere 698 people per square mile. To put this in perspective, even the sprawling mess known as Phoenix clocks in at a comparatively respectable 2970 people per square mile. (Manhattan is 103 times as dense as Green Valley at a whopping 72,222 people per square mile.)
So what? What do a bunch of old folks in an unincorporated. age-restricted community have to do with the future of mobility? What’s with the obsession over land use? How is this even remotely interesting for someone thinking about new technology? Perhaps while not holding it up as an ideal, we still might be able to learn a thing or two from Green Valley, Arizona.
- Neighborhood electric vehicles are already here, we just call them golf carts: It’s cliché but true. These suckers are everywhere in Green Valley. Golf carts are a pervasive mode of transportation on the community’s streets rather than on the links. Drivers also enjoy the added benefit of access to the shoulder lane along with bicycles, and many stores offer a separate parking area for shoppers who arrive by cart.
- They were ride sharing before it was a thing: Neighbors and friends routinely call each other (on the landline phone) to ask for and offer up rides to the pharmacy, church, or the VFW.
- Shuttle services for the aging are ripe for disruption: The local transit authority offers paratransit rides for $6 round trip. But their service area does not extend outside metro Tucson, so retirees who in some ways enjoy the benefits of living in an unincorporated community carry the financial burden in others. Green Valley residents like my father who are wheelchair-bound and can no longer drive are stuck using a private shuttle which costs a whopping $60 for each round trip.
- ADA parking isn’t so useful when everyone has a hangtag: I’m not proud of this fact, but for one reason or another I had to visit Walmart every day during my trip. That meant spending a lot of time in the parking lot where I could not help but notice that a higher than typical proportion of the stalls were allocated to ADA parking. And they were all full.
- Children in families with aging parents have elevated expectations and needs for connectivity: Trying to help my father manage his day-to-day from nearly 2000 miles away is hard. As someone who uses the latest apps and technology for everything in my own life from home heating to banking to prescription ordering and personal safety, I expect the same tools for him — but with collaboration features and technology that he is familiar with and comfortable using.
- Low density retirement communities are a liability to us all: My father had a dream of aging in place in his desert home, but hyper-low density neighborhoods that require a car to get everywhere from store to doctor’s appointment make this all but impossible.