There has been a lot of empathy on all sides regarding Sonoma County's elderly drivers and the pedestrians and cyclists who have been killed hurt or killed by them.

Chris Coursey discussed this issue in his blog item on Dec. 1 "A brave woman, 84, gives up the keys to her car." He talks about how Marylou Shira Hadditt, author of a Nov. 28 Close to Home ("I stopped, and it's still not easy") in rural Sebastopol has painfully learned to adapt to life without a car.

What if society today has given seniors a false choice? Why is life so much less rewarding when you can no longer drive? In the towns and cities that were built in the early part of the 19th century, seniors were not faced with isolation if they could not drive. Neighborhoods were designed to be the size of a five-minute walk. At the center of the neighborhood was a public park, church, library or some other public gathering space. Where the edges of the neighborhoods overlapped, transit, schools and shopping was available.

In small villages, a single neighborhood was the extent of the development, but trolley car or train lines connected the village to the larger world — all without anyone having to own a car. Seniors were not isolated in single-use suburban sprawl where a car was needed to fulfill almost all needs.

Think of the Cherry Street neighborhood in Santa Rosa, historic Healdsburg or Petaluma for an idea of what life was like for seniors at that time. They went shopping, to church and to San Francisco all without needing a car.

There are economic advantages as well. Homes in walkable urban neighborhoods have experienced less than half the average decline in price from the recent housing peak. People in neighborhoods that are designed for walking are healthier. The average white male living in a compact community weighs 10 pounds less than his counterpart in a low-density subdivision.

Thankfully, the tide is turning back toward the creation of mixed-use neighborhoods. Recent studies show that 75 percent of aging baby boomers want to live in a mixed-use, urban setting. They are showing a strong demand for active living near transit. So if you are an aging baby boomer, and you want to be able to still have an independent connected life as you age past the point of being able to drive, what are your options?

The most potent recommendation is to shop for a neighborhood, not for a house or apartment, when you are ready to take action. Look for neighborhoods that are within a five-minute walk of a planned SMART station. Look for places with an interconnected street grid of streets that are not overly wide rather than cul-de-sacs.

Look for houses and apartments that have porches and stoops rather than garages facing the street. It is much easier to get to know your neighbors and to provide for mutual safety and assistance if it is comfortable to be neighborly on a daily basis. Look for housing that is near shopping, particularly grocery stores. If you worship, can you move to within walking distance of your church? Is a library nearby? A gym?

Each use that you can add to the list of places within a five-minute walk of where you live will be insurance that your life will remain rich in connection and life long after the keys to your car have been hung up for good.

<i>Lois Fisher is an urban designer with Fisher Town Design. She lives in Windsor.</i>