Making Public Transit Work For Seniors

Dr. Kathy Black (Twitter: @kblackphd) is a Professor of Aging Studies and Social Work at the University of South Florida, Sarasota–Manatee. In this guest essay, Dr. Black discusses an often-overlooked mobility challenge affecting older Americans: the usability of public transit.

Too often, transit isn't even there at all in the places older adults live and need to go—but even when it is, that's no guarantee that there won't be significant barriers to using it for a safe, comfortable, and predictable trip. And some of those barriers are things that might not be obvious or intuitive to those designing transit systems or infrastructure.

At Strong Towns, one of our core insights is that every community has a mile-long list of small needs that could be solved by small, incremental investments. We just need to humble ourselves to identify these things and not see them as beneath our time or attention. It starts with listening to the lived experiences of people: see where they struggle, and then see what you can do. And just maybe, we can use this approach to make our towns and cities better places to grow old. –Strong Towns staff.

To what extent are communities adapting public transportation to meet the transit needs of aging America? According to the U.S. Census, persons age 65 and older now comprise one out of five or more residents in one-quarter of all counties nationwide (in Florida, there are already four suburban counties in which the figure is more than one out of three).

Transportation represents a fundamental means of access to meet daily needs, which is essential for aging well. Though driving is a predominant and often preferred mode of travel for many Americans, age-related changes that impact driving skills suggests that people outlive their ability to drive safely by 7-10 years. Consequently, people increasingly limit their driving by age, with 19% of persons age 65 and older reporting that they no longer drive compared to nearly half (47%) of persons age 85 and older.

Though public transportation represents a viable option to get around, research suggests that the majority of older Americans reside in communities with poor transit access. This is true in both big cities and smaller towns: 55% of older Americans in cities of three or more million people lacked good access to transit, as did 62% in locales with a population less than 250,000. Moreover, failure to access suitable transportation impacts health and well-being via missed medical appointments, shopping and social activities.

National and global networks of age-friendly communities are helping push cities to engage with and listen to their older residents to solve these problems. In 2015, Sarasota County became Florida’s first municipality to join the Global Network of Age-friendly Cities and Communities. The worldwide network was created by the World Health Organization in 2005 and is advanced nationally by AARP’s Livable Communities movement. Today, there are more than 700 age-friendly communities across the globe and more than 300 in the United States.

The age-friendly designation requires a commitment to a five year process that begins with assessing local community assets and the needs and aspirations of aging residents. As a condition of participation, age-friendly communities are expected to engage older adults’ perspectives and incorporate their input into action. The results can be eye-opening.

What Are The Specific Transit Needs of Older Adults?

Listening to the lived experience of older adults provides an authentic voice for community input on key matters such as transportation. Indeed, much was learned from assessing nearly 1,200 Sarasota County residents ages 50-98 regarding transportation. Surveys and focus group findings revealed a wide variety of issues pertaining to transportation including the importance of driving, recognition of changes to driving abilities, difficulties in transitioning from driving, as well as the lack of alternative modes of transportation in the community.

Many survey respondents expressed concerns about the prospect of ‘when,’ and not ‘if,’ they are unable to drive: “At some point, yeah. I know. The day I can’t drive is the day I don’t know what I will do.” Concerns about being unable to drive were expressed with a sense of urgency, particularly on behalf of spouses and others who are transportation dependent:  “My (spouse) doesn’t drive, will never drive. I’m having difficulties already driving in the evening and I’m slowly going blind so eventually, I will be blind, if I live long enough.”

Participants also shared a range of features that impacted usage of public transportation including affordability and accessibility: “We can do better in terms of our busing and transportation… as people get older and have to give up their cars and they have to use public transportation, we have to make it more accommodating for them physically.” Many participants expressed the lack of experience in riding a bus and safety concerns such as fear of falling or being rushed to enter and exit the bus: “…a lot of people are from areas where there never was a bus or they’re afraid to ride the bus… there is a mindset about the bus—bad people on the bus—so they don’t want to ride the bus.”

Participants also discussed limited alternative transportation options otherwise, citing the unaffordability of taxi service, unfamiliarity with ride-sharing opportunities such as Uber and Lyft (which are available in the community), and concerns about continued reliance on friends to drive: “After a while, I am going to have to rely on taxis and public transportation because I won’t impose on my friends…. I don’t like to rely on people either, I really don’t.”

Bus stops like this one in Orlando are useless to many seniors, despite the efforts of an enterprising citizen in this case to redress the lack of seating. (Image via Flickr)

The Florida Department of Transportation’s Safe Mobility for Life Coalition has compiled guidelines to create age-friendly public transit that build on, but go beyond, ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act] requirements regarding bus stop location, size, connectivity, clearance and cross slopes. All bus stops must have sufficient, non-obstructed space with firm, stable, and slip-resistant surfaces to accommodate boarding and alighting at the stop. The bus must have adequate space for passenger movement on and off the buses including sidewalk clearance. Bus Stop signs are required and must be located outside the accessible path per ADA. Route indicators and wheelchair logos signify wayfinding and accessibility accommodations. Characters on the signs should display contrasting light and dark between lettering and background for greater legibility for those with vision impairments. Unique features of the transit system should be incorporated into the design of each bus stop sign so that passengers with visual disabilities can distinguish a bus stop from other street furniture. Bus Benches are recommended when a shelter with seating is not provided and if bus headways are longer than 15 minutes.

Senior users in regular transit service often experience problems related to comfort, safety and convenience. Confronted with a limited number of seats, seniors cannot always be guaranteed a comfortable and safe trip when they use the regular transit services—which can be a strong deterrent to relying on those services. By providing accessible buses, with low floors and ramps, and with more space dedicated to users with mobility aids, transit agencies can offer seniors with a more comfortable and safe ride, encouraging them to use these public transit services with greater frequency.

Level boarding, as shown here, can make buses more accessible and speed up the boarding process. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Additional recommendations for age-friendly public transit include the convenience to easily accessible seats and secure wheeled mobility device stations at the front of the bus as well as reduced fares and priority seating areas designated for older and disabled users. People with mobility challenges may use bulky walkers and require the availability of grab bars and users of wheeled mobility devices may need different device security.

More older adults, as well as young mothers, children and people with disabilities, could access transit vehicles if transit systems implemented designs that are currently available, such as buses that "kneel" at curbside, lifts to ease boarding, and light rail cars with low floors and low-platform boarding. With appropriate development, innovations that take into account the needs of vision-, hearing- and mobility-challenged people can make bus riding more intuitive and enjoyable for the aging bus riders and the community as a whole.