Urban Wire Meeting the transportation needs of an aging population
Serena Lei
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Sandra Rosenbloom, director of Urban Institute’s Program on Innovation in Infrastructure, answers five questions about the transportation challenges of a rapidly aging population.

In her brief “Paratransit for Mobility: A Recipe for Neglect?,” Rosenbloom explains that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires public transit to offer door-to-door transportation upon request for eligible riders with disabilities. But this option—called paratransit—isn’t enough to handle the needs of millions of seniors who aren’t disabled but can’t drive.

1. In your brief, you say that society needs to address the “elderly mobility challenge” or we’re essentially perpetuating a “scam” against older Americans. What are the mobility challenges ahead…

The population is aging. In less than 10 years, 55 million Americans will be over age 65. More than three-quarters of these seniors are living in rural or suburban areas and have chosen lifestyles that depend on driving. But some can’t drive or shouldn’t drive, and have no other options for getting around. Public transportation isn’t the solution because most of those people live in places with little public transit. Even for those who have access to transit service, it can be hard to get to a bus or get to a seat on a moving bus, even its accessible. Older people usually give up public transit before they give up driving. So seniors who shouldn’t drive are either going to keep driving or they’ll stop leaving the house, which could lead to isolation and health problems.

2. …and what’s the “scam” that’s being sold?

The “scam” is that there is a viable alternative waiting for any older person who wants to give up driving.  The elderly are often the target of deliberate scams. But, too often, well-meaning people—including loving family members—“scam” older people when they urge them to quit driving by telling them there are safe and reliable options available. People think the little public transit van will come pick up Grandma at the door. But they are believing in something that doesn’t exist. The “little van” is not the answer for most older people who can’t drive. When older people figure out how little paratransit services help them, they’ll certainly feel scammed.

3. Why isn’t the paratransit option adequate?

Two reasons. One, because transit operators are only required to provide that service to people with disabilities, serious disabilities. And simply being unable to drive is not a disability, so most older people won’t qualify.

Also, transit operators only have to provide paratransit within three-quarters of a mile of either side of an existing bus route. And most seniors over 65 live in rural or suburban areas, which have fewer bus routes than urban areas. So if you don’t live within three-quarters of a bus route and you are not seriously disabled, in most communities, you’re not getting the service.

4. Can we expand paratransit services? 

It’s too expensive to rely on paratransit to solve this problem. The total cost of an average one-way trip was $34.59 in 2011. Transit operators spend a disproportionate share of their annual budgets on a very small number of riders. Sarasota, Florida, spends 32.4 percent of its operating budget on paratransit, which is used by less than 6 percent of its riders. In Philadelphia, eligible riders over age 65 take, on average, a single one-way trip every month through paratransit.

Paratransit costs so much that transit operators are barely meeting their legal requirements now and certainly won’t consider expanding regular bus service. The minute they put out a mile of bus service, they have to put out a mile of paratransit service.

5. So what can we do to meet the transportation needs of an aging population?

Keep older people driving safely longer. There are ways to do that. Older drivers can get retraining and they can switch to safer, smarter cars. We can change highway signs and highway designs. Within a few years, one out of five drivers on the road will be over 65, so it makes sense to make the road system responsive to the needs of older drivers.

We can also adopt different kinds of public transit services—something less expensive than paratransit, but more accommodating than traditional buses. Europe has modeled some public transit options that have been successful for older people. There are no easy answers, but the problems will only grow as the population ages, so we should seize opportunities to make changes now.

Photo from The Valdosta-Lowndes Metropolitan Planning Organization (CC BY 2.0)


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Research Areas Aging and retirement Disability equity policy
Tags Infrastructure Economic well-being Long-term services and support Family care and support