This Policy Brief examines senior licensing patterns and mode choices in Texas and considers the long term implications of these patterns. Our analysis is based on licensing data collected from the states by the Federal Highway Administration and the 2017 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS), undertaken by the U.S. Department of Transportation. We find that Texans 55 years of age and older are more likely to be licensed drivers than their national counterparts. Senior Texans also drive substantially more and rely far less on other modes than those 65+ across the nation—although all US seniors are fairly car-dependent. We also find significant differences by gender; older women both nationally and in Texas were twice as likely as comparable men to be the passenger in a car and not the driver, which has long term mobility implications.
Overall these patterns challenge planners and policymakers; most older Texans will continue to drive even if they don’t want to or should not. Those who cannot drive will face significant mobility losses, leading to serious psychological and physical problems. We must begin by recognizing the importance of the car to older Texans and all senior Americans while trying to find meaningful mobility options.
Texas is a young and growing state; seniors constitute less than 13% of the state’s population although they comprise 16% of the nation’s total population. Seniors are also a smaller percent of the state’s licensed driver pool even though most senior Texans are drivers. Yet Texas seniors still constitute a major component of the drivers on the road. Table 1 makes clear that every five year cohort above the age of 55 was a smaller share of the state’s total number of licensed drivers in 2018 than that cohort is of the national driver pool, although the differences are not large. Yet Texans 55 years old and over still constituted one of three drivers on Texas highways; those 65+ represented more than one out of six drivers on the road. These data suggest that in less than ten years, as younger cohorts pass their 65th birthday, roughly 25% of all Texas drivers will be over 65.
Table II compares licensing rates by age cohort in Texas and the nation in 2018, showing that a larger share of every cohort of Texans 55+ is licensed than their national counterparts, and the gap is somewhat larger than seen in Table I. Over 94% of those 55+ were licensed drivers in Texas compared to roughly 86% of those 55+ nationally. There was a roughly 11 percentage point difference in licensing rates for those 85+ in Texas and in the nation as a whole. The bottom line is that almost 88% of Texans 65+ were licensed drivers in 2018 and there is every indication that their ability to drive substantially impacts the travel choices they currently make—and those they will make in the future.
The US DOT undertook a national survey in 2017 of the travel patterns of a very large and representative sample of US travelers of all ages, the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS). The State of Texas paid for a special “add-on” survey to the NHTS, oversampling residents of the state. These are the latest comprehensive travel data available to researchers and policy analysts; they give us an important window into the travel patterns of seniors across the US as well as those in Texas, suggesting how Texas seniors might differ from their national counterparts in the travel choices that they make.
Table III displays the modes of travel that seniors used for all their daily trips combined in 2017; the first column shows national data from which Texas data have been excluded. The second column shows Texas only data. Three patterns are immediately clear:
- Texas seniors are more likely to drive or ride in a personal vehicle for their tripmaking than their national counterparts;
- Texas seniors are less likely to walk or use public transit than their national counterparts; and,
- There are differences in the mode choices of women and men nationally and in Texas but not nearly as many nor as large as in the past.
First, seniors are very dependent on personal vehicles for their tripmaking, but those in Texas are more dependent on a personal vehicle, and less dependent on all other modes of travel, than their national counterparts. There is a roughly five percentage point difference between US seniors and those in Texas in the use of a personal vehicle; Texas men over 65, for example, take more than 90% of their trips in a private vehicle compared to a little under 86% of the trips of senior men nationally.
Second, Texas seniors, conversely, walked and used public transit for a smaller share of their total daily trips than did seniors nationally. Female Texas seniors walked for only 7.1% of all their daily trips, compared to 10.4% of the trips taken by female seniors nationally. Public transit use is low among all US seniors (and has been dropping for decades) but is still higher nationally than in Texas. Men over 65 in Texas take only 0.9% of all trips on public transit, less than half the rate of senior men nationally.
Third, women over 65 are equally dependent on a personal vehicle for their tripmaking as senior men BUT are much more likely to be riding in the passenger seat than driving the vehicle in which they’re riding (although almost all those women are licensed drivers in the US and even more so in Texas). Senior women in both Texas and the nation who travel in a personal vehicle are driving that vehicle a little less than two thirds of the time; comparable senior men, however, are driving the vehicle in which they’re riding roughly 88% of the time. These patterns have two long term consequences; one, senior women drivers don’t get the practice they need to remain competent drivers so they often don’t feel confident in driving when their male partner can no longer drive. This substantially decreases their mobility at a time of great personal stress. Two, the most common crash among senior drivers is making a left turn across traffic and being struck by an on-coming car; the person most likely to be hit and injured in that crash is the person in the passenger seat.
Many analysts are interested in the potential of new “shared” mobility services such as Lyft and Uber as well as demand responsive services provided by public transit operators and social service agencies to serve senior mobility needs now and in the future. Yet in 2017 these services, combined with taxis, together barely constituted 1% of all trips of seniors nationally and in Texas. CM2 research suggests that seniors are frightened by such options and unwilling to provide credit card information before they can even consider traveling via such modes. The other modes on which seniors depended were golf carts, motorcycles, bicycles, RVs and motorhomes, scooters, ATVs, ferries, and snowmobiles—which together also constituted barely 1% of all the trips of seniors nationally and in Texas.
The ever growing dependence of Texas seniors on personal vehicles is the result of a complicated set of inter-related factors that defy easy policy solutions: low density residential development, aging in place in large suburban areas, limited public transit and special transit options particularly in suburban areas, underpriced roads and auto use, and unfamiliarity with and even fear of app-based transportation or home delivery services that require credit card information. These patterns portend some difficult mobility and accessibility challenges for Texas and US seniors.
It is foolish to ignore the fact that today well over eight in ten Texans reach their 65th birthday as long time drivers used to the convenience, safety, and flexibility offered by a private car, although women seniors will be more used to being in the passenger than driver’s seat. Within a decade that number will soar to well over 90% of seniors. Those Texans who can, or think that they can, drive will continue to do so. Those unwilling or unable to drive will quickly face serious mobility challenges which will contribute to a range of physical, emotional, and medical problems.
Planners and policymakers have to respond by making communities more walkable, providing senior appropriate and affordable housing options in denser and transit rich neighborhoods, substantially improving and expanding public transit options, trialing innovative transportation services geared to senior needs, and training older drivers to drive more safely while helping them to retrofit their vehicles with adaptive devices that assist them in the driving task. The latter is especially important for older women, who often lack sufficient experience or confidence in driving. Research has consistently shown the value of a variety of in-vehicle driving courses, but also that such interventions are particularly helpful for older women.
We obtained or calculated the licensing data in Tables I and II from:
U.S. Federal Highway Administration (2020), Table DL 20, Distribution of Licensed Drivers – 2018- By Sex and Percentage in each Age Group and Relation to Population. Retrieved from: www.fhwa.dot.gov.policyinformation/statistics/2018/dl20.cfm
US Federal Highway Administration (2020), Table DL 22, Licensed Drivers by Age. Retrieved from: www.fhwa.dot.gov.policyinformation/statistics/2018/dl22.cfm
U.S. Census. (2020). American Community Survey. 2018 Age and Sex: US and 2018 Age and Sex: Texas. Retrieved from: https://data/census,gov/cedsci/table?=US population by Age and https://data/census,gov/cedsci/table?=Texas population by Age
We calculated mode choice data for the US and Texas in Table III from the 2017 NHTS data base for this Policy Brief. These data have not been previously published.