Older people face numerous barriers to getting out and about in later life, especially if they give up driving or do not want to use a car. We live in what we academics describe as a hypermobile society which results in high distances being travelled, with such distances being seen as quite normal, in order to stay connected to family and friends, access shops and services, visit health centres and hospitals and partake in leisure. Quite normal changes in physiology and cognition as we age can make mobility more difficult, especially when the environment is not designed well. I am always looking for new ways to classify the barriers that older people face when they try and use transport in later life. I would hope that some sort of useful classification system would be of benefit to people, including policy makers and practitioners, in developing solutions to the barriers faced.

Back in 2012 I was involved in a project on rural living for older people, the Grey and Pleasant Land project, which used a variety of different methodologies including psychogeography, walking interviews and large scale questionnaires to capture what it was like to live in rural Britain for different groups of older people in different contexts; in their communities and neighbourhoods, their involvement in education, local events and, of course my area, transport. When writing up the findings into a book –  Countryside Connections: Older people, community and place in rural Britain, we discussed using Bourdieu’s theory of capital to frame the findings. This helps identify different levels of resource in different areas above and beyond a financial capital model. It helps reveal structures of power and inequalities. In particular social capital has gained huge traction in many different fields and disciplines. Since then I’ve been thinking about how such a framework could be used to present barriers (and enablers and solutions) to transport issues for older people. I had some data from focus groups and interviews with older people in South Wales on their transport issues and enablers in later life and decided that would be a good starting point to sort it out.

I tested this out in two ways, firstly presenting the findings at the British Society of Gerontology conference Special Interest Group on Transport session in Liverpool earlier this year. It seemed to go down well with the small but learned audience we had. Then secondly, the Centre was honoured to have the visit of Theresa Scott from University of Queensland who was able to sit down and discuss the model with me. I was then delighted to add her as author as she helped develop the model and make the paper make sense.  So, the resulting model suggests four capitals are important in maintaining mobility in later life: infrastructure capital (technology, services, roads, pavements, finance and economics), social capital (friends, family, neighbourhood and community), cultural capital (norms, expectations, rules, laws) and individual capital (skills, abilities, resilience, adaptation and desire and willingness to change).

Model of Mobility Capital
Musselwhite and Scott (2019) Model of Mobility Capital

There is an order to these capitals. By far the most important is infrastructure capital. However, this alone is not enough and there needs to be a further three levels of capital that can help older people achieve mobility. Social capital is the next most important, having friends and family that support the mobility the older person wants, but having a local neighbourhood and community to support the individual is also noted as significant. This is supported by cultural capital, including societal norms and expectations of mobility, as one older person said in the focus groups, “Yeah walking is still not normal especially for doing things”. Parallel to this is the support individual capital gives. For example some older people talked about having a personality that meant they were open to change, making them more open to trying new forms of transport, “I saw it as a challenge, and it was a challenge I can tell you. But I challenged myself to using the bus. I hadn’t used them for years, so I was intrigued, and I’ve actually enjoyed it. Haven’t looked back.” (male, aged 80, bus user). The published paper gives more details on the model.

What we haven’t explored yet in the model is how these work in the form of capital. For example, how they get exchanged between people, especially between the holder of the capital and those in deficit of it and who might be responsible for this. What we do know at the moment from working with older people is that the bottom three levels of capital are important to support infrastructure capital and only one of any of the capitals, even in abundance is not enough to support mobility. At the moment, in Western society at least, it seems the current discourse sees extra emphasis on individual capital to keep older people mobile. For example, less top down support from the government and more focus on building resilience and their own skills. Our model suggests that this alone will not allow people to be mobile. Instead there needs to be an emphasis on the understanding and resourcing of the social and the cultural capitals impacting on the individual, which all underpin resourcing the infrastructure offering of mobility. We need to resource community support networks for older people for example, and we need to challenge the norm of using the car in society. A nice next stage for the model would be to examine the flow and movement between the different capitals which would help to reveal lines of responsibility for supporting older people’s mobility. Who’s going to join me in developing that?