The growing use of mobility scooters in Tauranga and the Western Bay of Plenty is forcing the council to adapt its infrastructure to make it safer and easier for riders to get around the city, says transportation manager Martin Parkes.
As one example, he noted that council staff had removed 420 steel "staples" blocking access to walkways along the Papamoa coastal strip in the past couple of years as part of its tsunami evacuation preparation.
"We'd been removing them from a lot of walkways as a result of complaints from scooter, wheelchair and large pram users over the past few years," Mr Parkes said.
"It progressed to another level in Papamoa, because it was also identified that if we had to evacuate a lot of people from the coast to inland, a lot of those people had mobility problems."
Council engineers were also having to adapt roading infrastructure to take account of growing scooter demand, including putting in wider crossing points and better accessways, he said.
It was difficult to determine exactly how many scooters there were in Tauranga, as the vehicles did not require a warrant of fitness, registration or a driver's licence, so no data was available. However, according to people working with scooter users on safety and education issues, anecdotal evidence suggested numbers had been growing along with the ageing demographic profile of the sub-region.
Scooter owner Maureen Lukey said numbers at her retirement village had risen from one a decade ago, to seven. (See story below).
Mr Parkes said council was aware that when people had to give up driving because of age-related issues, there was a danger they could become isolated from the wider community.
"A lot of them turn to mobility scooters as form of transport for getting around."
Tauranga scooter retailer Gary Darkes of Home Health & Mobility NZ, who had been in the industry for 20 years, said in the early days people didn't particularly want to be seen on them because they were clinical looking.
"They look a lot better now and are much more accepted," he said.
Scooters were bought privately rather than funded through health services, with a medium-sized machine costing from $3500 to $4500 and a large scooter around $5500. A medium scooter could easily transport its rider from Bay fair to Greer ton and back, said Mr Darkes.
"But there's a lot of work that goes in once you sell the scooter. They're not as easy to ride as people think. You can't just climb on and off you go."
Mr Darkes was an early proponent of scooter clubs where riders were encouraged to come together to learn from each other's experience and for safety tips. These clubs had evolved into workshops, begun about a decade ago by Travel Safe, in partnership with Age Concern. Travel Safe worked with council, but was funded by the NZ Transport Agency.
Travel Safe ran at least 10 mobility scooter/footpath user workshops across Tauranga and the Western Bay of Plenty and user attendance was growing," said Travel Safe Karen Smith.
"These vulnerable footpath users are our ears and eyes in the community to let us know where they have issues of accessibility.
"We look at the top priority in each suburb and take engineers out to look to see if improvements can be made."
Ms Smith said it was important that scooter users understood safety, and the need to keep to the pavements and be visible with flags and bright orange basket straps.
"Having a mobility scooter provides these users with independence and connectivity to their communities. Those attending the workshops become our ambassadors out on our footpaths in their everyday life."
Mobility scooter workshops are held in: -Te Puke, Papamoa, Greerton, Mount Maunganui, Otumoetai and Katikati
Maureen Lukey bought a mobility scooter about six years ago because of chronic pain in her right hip.
The 70-year-old had done a lot of lifting of patients during her career as a nurse, causing joint problems, and no longer drove because of the discomfort in getting in and out of her car.
She lived in one of the Tauranga City Council-run Shelly Street/Pillions Road retirement units. When she moved in a decade ago, there was only one scooter user, who was crippled, she said.
"I got one, and we now have seven in the village," said Ms Lukey, who had customised her scooter by adding a cover to keep the rain and sun off.
"I haven't had any accidents," she said. "I do feel vulnerable at times. I would recommend them, but you have to follow the basic safety rules."
Mobility scooter users were legally only allowed to drive on the pavement and could only use the road when making a crossing or when there is no sidewalk access.