In her book "Aging in Suburbia," Jane Gould made the point (also made by Jim Motavalli) that self-driving cars will be a boon for aging boomers, noting:

There is no reason to expect Boomers to remain wedded to cars with steering wheels, when an autonomous car promises to extend the longevity of their “vehicle years.” Even more importantly, the autonomous car will extend the longevity of their “non-vehicle years” and help them get out and about as pedestrians.

However self-driving autonomous cars are still a few years away, whereas so-called Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft exist today. Gould thinks they could make a big difference and actually help get people walking.

Regular walking has been shown to be hugely important for healthy aging; studies have shown that walking 25 minutes per day can add up to seven years to your life. Gould writes that “Walking trips are literally the foundation for a connected, citizen-responsive community. They are, literally, the 'feet on the ground.' And walking is also the most inexpensive form of travel — it requires no cost, except a comfortable pair of shoes.”

But many people live in the suburbs, where it might too far to walk both ways to and from a store, and then of course, you have to carry all the stuff that you bought home. This is where Uber or Lyft can play a role; one can just pull out a smartphone and get a ride home. Doing the one-way trip by foot and the return home by Uber actually encourages people to walk more.

calling uberIt's different than a taxi, actually. (Photo: Nicolas Maeterlinck/AFP/Getty Images)

My first thought on reading this was that this is no different from calling a cab, which lots of people do. But in fact, according to Gould, taxis tend to cluster in places with lots of possible customers, like airports and office buildings. It’s also well-known that taxis don’t like short runs, when they have so much time invested in waiting for customers. Uber and Lyft, which get their customers via the app and can be kicked out of the system if they refuse customers, have less reason to refuse short fares. Gould suggests that we should look at them as a new kind of integrated transportation system that includes walking:

The bigger picture is that Lyft and Uber are complements of many different transportation modes, and that includes pedestrian trips. It is simplistic to expect that people substitute one transportation mode for another. In real life, real people recombine, and remix… and that entirely reinvents transportation. The TNCs, Lyft and Uber, may bring ignite entirely new ideas “underfoot.”

In earlier posts I have expressed serious doubts about Uber and the so-called sharing economy, but perhaps it's time for a rethink of this. The TNCs are different from taxis, and they could well make a big difference in the lives of people who can’t or don’t want to drive anymore. One can even envision a subset of drivers who specialize in seniors in the suburbs, perhaps retired people themselves who know their clientele and can use the extra money. Goodness knows, it's a growing market.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.