By John Hennelly
Life is a cycle. No not that kind of cycle, but the kind where you start out fragile and helpless, and then become strong and fearless, and then cycle back to fragile and helpless again.
My kids are on the upside of the cycle, close to heading out the door and starting their lives. They are strong and fearless, and remind me often that they are far from helpless. At the other end of the cycle are my parents.
Both my mother and mother-in-law are getting up there in years, but they have worked hard to keep their independence, even in the face of significant health challenges (new knees, new hips, vision and hearing degradation, etc….). There is one looming issue though that will eventually call the question on their independence: driving.
My mother hates driving (especially highways), and my mother-in-law is finding it increasingly difficult. I think they both would be happy to stop if it didn’t mean becoming isolated and dependent on others.
There is a solution, and it involves…bike lanes.
No, I don’t want to put Grandma on a ten speed, though many grandmas are on bikes and love it.
Last week I saw a man in a motorized chair headed downtown in the bike lane on Church St., and I thought: maybe they shouldn’t be called bike lanes. Maybe call them mobility lanes.
In the Netherlands (where I lived for a year) it is common to see seniors navigating through cities and towns on electric 3 or 4 wheel scooters. They use the bike lanes, which is fine because they are about the same width as a biker, and move at a good pace. The scooters come complete with baskets for shopping.
We can do the same here. Evanston can be a senior-friendly city where seniors can give up driving if they choose without sacrificing independence. Seniors should not have to choose between driving past the point of comfort or giving up their keys and being homebound, isolated, and reliant on others.
But here’s the key: if seniors are going to trade in their car for a scooter they, like bikers, will want an extensive network of protected lanes. These types of scooters can weigh up to 500 pounds and hit 10-15 mph. They have ranges of over 30 miles. They work best on smooth, flat surfaces with no sudden drop-offs. Bikes lanes are perfect. That is why they were all over the place in bike-friendly Netherlands. The lanes will need to be kept clear of ice, snow and debris year-round. But I am sure that if there is a network of well-maintained lanes, many seniors would opt to give up their car sooner, which means a higher quality of life for all of us.
Evanston is working at expanding its bike infrastructure, including a growing network of bike lanes. But we should stop thinking of them as bike lanes. We should build mobility lanes, that are suitable for a variety of users. Seniors, the disabled, skateboarders, push scooters: all should be welcome. Because our roads should work for everyone, regardless of where they are in life’s great cycle.