Progressive Corp.’s interest in raising rates for drivers after their 65th birthday is attracting justified criticism from senior citizens and their advocates, including the AARP. Maine Sen. Susan Collins, chairwoman of the Senate special committee on aging, wrote her own strongly worded letter, asking the company to justify its request.

The critics are right: The company should not be able to squeeze more money from Maine seniors, including many who are on low, fixed incomes and need their cars to maintain their independence.

But the insurance company has raised a valid point: As people age, driving becomes more difficult and less safe. Unfortunately, development patterns in Maine make driving a necessity in most communities.

Seniors should be protected from an unfair hike in their expenses, but the discussion should not stop there. Maine badly needs new senior housing built in walkable communities served by public transportation so that seniors will not have to chose between safety and independent living.

Most new residential development over the last half-century has been designed to accommodate automobiles. Cars let people live farther from work, schools and other services. Single-family homes with ample parking on low-traffic roads were highly valued.

But if you can’t safely get behind a steering wheel or you would just prefer not driving at all, suburban development is a great impediment. Destinations are too far apart to walk to, and public transit is impractical.


That’s why there is such demand for housing in urban neighborhoods that had been abandoned decades ago. Portland is seeing a housing shortage based in part by “empty nesters,” older couples who are trading a big house in the suburbs for an in-town apartment. This influx has stimulated growth in restaurants, shops and other small businesses to serve people who would prefer not to drive every time they want to fill a prescription or pick up a quart of milk.

Some changes to public policy are required to make this kind of living available to people of more modest means.

The AARP has been advocating for livable communities, where senior housing is mixed into historic downtowns, giving people transportation options beside driving. That thinking was incorporated in the $15 million senior housing bond, which was passed overwhelmingly by Maine voters last year.

Unfortunately, that money is sitting in Augusta, because Gov. Paul LePage refuses to issue the bonds. That means that Maine seniors will not be able to move into a more appropriate kind of housing, which may force some of them to keep driving, even after it is no longer safe for them.

Progressive should not be able to arbitrarily boost the insurance premiums of customers just because they turn 65, but the company should get credit for raising an important issue. Car-centered development creates serious problems for Mainers as they age. Policy makers should do more than just fight to keep their insurance rates from rising.

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