For decades Florida’s impressive residential growth spurts have been accompanied an equally impressive expansion of roadways and highways. That growth attracted retirees who wanted mild climates and cheap living. Now 18 percent of Floridians are over age 65, putting the Sunshine State at the top of the list when it comes to state’s with aging populations, according the Florida Department of Transportation. That number is expected to grow to over 27% by 2030. With that in mind, the Florida DOT recently completed a plan started in 2004 to make Florida roads and streets safer, and more accessible to seniors. Changes include making letters on road signs larger, stronger testing standards for all drivers, and creating a statewide database of free ride options for seniors. DOT Spokeswoman Gail Holley says “we have to address the mobility issue. We need to have programs in place so that people when they make the decision not to drive, can continue to get around in their communities”.
Holley says Fla. DOT is working to create more transit options and alternatives to help people, but that might be tough given the nearly $2.5 billion dollar deficit the state is expecting this year.
Even so, the hiring of complete streets and bike/pedestrian expert Billy Hattaway to run southwest Florida’s Transportation District 1 suggests that Fla. DOT may be thinking about alternatives to driving for Florida's aging population.
The area which includes cities like Fort Myers, Naples, and Sarasota, also is a haven for retirees. Hattaway is actually returning to the DOT after a nine year hiatus. He’ll end up refreshing 23 years of previous experience with the agency. Hattaway is known among planning communities for being one of the advocates of progressive ideas to slow traffic down in neighborhood areas and maintain a sense of place. He currently teaches a class on transportation in Rollins College’s new Masters of Planning and Civic Urbanism program and is emphasizing the need for improving the way transportation engineers and managers view streets.
Hattaway says his 83 year old mother faces a challenge living in Florida, “ She lives in Tallahassee and most everyone who lives there, because it’s built on suburban sprawl development patterns, where all the residential neighborhoods are in cul-de-sac subdivisions where you have to drive to get out of these neighborhoods to go to the grocery store or do anything like that, and she lives in that kind of neighborhood.”
Hattaway says now his mother is a prime transit mode for her elderly neighbors because they can’t drive any longer, “ We have thousands of people in Florida that are living in Florida where driving is the only option and yet they’re not going to be able to for much longer.”
State Roads, Main Streets, and the Density Crisis
Florida like many other states exploded in population after World War II. That’s when developers created lots of communities that kept residents separated from commercial and business areas by distances easily navigated by automobiles. Enter, Florida a state built largely for drivers. Incoming DOT District 1 director Billy Hattaway says communities like Orlando ended up branching out from a downtown core and filling up empty space along state roads and highways that were never intended to be commercial and residential areas. That means good things and bad things according to Hattaway, “ Many of these corridors have development that wasn’t meant to last long and I think that means lots of opportunities to develop those corridors over time. That could increase or improve transit along those corridors. The challenge is that many developments don’t have adequate density to support transit within the development. So how do you get people out to the corridors where they can then take transit? Our density is so low, and people are so far out, I’m not sure any agency has adequate resources to solve that problem.”