Programs for seniors

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San Diego's North County Transit District offers flex route service for seniors, among other services. Photo by Flickr user LA Wad.

Introduction

As the population of the United States ages, the consequences of giving up driving become clearer. As people age, many experience a variety of problems that can impair the ability to drive. For example, vision problems can affect depth perception and the ability to read signs while cognitive problems may reduce reaction time. Physical problems like arthritis may also affect the ability to control a vehicle. Finally, older adults are at great risk of injury and death when they are involved in a crash. For some, the physical frailty that accompanies old age can increase their risk of serious injury or death when they are involved in crashes as pedestrians. <ref>Sheriff, Natasja. The Vancouver Sun. “Driver’s seat safer than sidewalk for older adults.” 2012.</ref>

Most seniors want to age in place or, in other words, to remain in their homes as they grow older.<ref>Milken Institute. "Best Cities for Successful Aging." 2012.</ref> However, the development patterns of many parts of the country are not accommodating to a car-free lifestyle. For many seniors, they must make a tough decision between possibly becoming isolated if they cannot drive or finding other alternatives. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of possible solutions and transportation agencies are working to implement programs that make sense for seniors. These may be paratransit programs similar to cost-effective ADA service, programs that promote transit use, or that make it safer to be an older pedestrian.

Types of Programs

There are many types of programs that transit agencies undertake to serve their older passengers. In one survey, most transit agencies defined age 65 as the age at which people could benefit from programs geared toward seniors.<ref name="seniors">American Public Transportation Association. “Public Transportation Programs for Seniors.” 2007.</ref>

Discounted Fares - Offering discounted or free fares for seniors is by far the most common practice used by transit agencies to promote senior ridership. This is often done in recognition of the fact that many seniors are low-income and living on a fixed budget.

  • Example: Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority offers discounted local and regional fares for seniors.<ref>Valley Transit Authority. "Senior Fare."</ref>

Demand Responsive Service - Demand responsive services allow seniors to request transportation services at a future time and can bring passengers directly to their destination. This type of service can also encompass ‘flex routes,’ or fixed-route services that are allowed to deviate a short distance from its typical route to bring passengers closer to their destinations or can even be door-to-door service. The most common destinations for this type of service are medical facilities and grocery stores, followed by recreation centers and senior housing.<ref name="seniors" /> This type of service can be a part of or offered separately from ADA service. This type of service is fairly labor-intensive, though, and employee retention is an important part of making it cost-effective.

  • Example: Los Angeles Department of Transportation operates CityRide, a demand responsive service for people over age 65 and people with disabilities. The service has a high on-time rate and offers great flexibility for its many seniors and low-income passengers. CityRide is also a strong example of cost-effective contracting transit operations.<ref>Los Angeles Department of Transportation. “CityRide.” 2012.</ref>

Travel Training - Travel Training programs are intended to circumvent any anxiety or confusion that seniors might have about using the transit system. A staff member or volunteer conducts training by showing seniors step-by-step how to navigate the transit system, from planning trips to paying fares and actually taking the trips alongside them.

  • Example: San Diego’s North County Transit District offers a travel training program for people over age 60 who are participating in the county’s mental health system. This is different from a program that is geared strictly toward older adults, but it is a good model for a travel training program.<ref>211 San Diego. “Mass Transit in North County". 2012.</ref>

Challenges

These programs offer a necessary social service for seniors, but many transit agencies find that they are accompanied by problems. First and foremost, the funding for these programs is difficult to maintain, especially for those services that require dedicated staff for few trips, like demand responsive service. These services also may require additional training for staff. Many transit agencies coordinate with local social service and agencies on aging to provide the best service for older passengers, but this also requires additional staff time.

References

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Additional Reading

American Public Transportation Association. “Public Transportation Programs for Seniors.” 2007.

This practitioner-focused report from APTA contains the results of a survey of transit agencies and twelve case studies from a range of transit agencies of different sizes throughout the U.S. The twelve case studies offer insight into the broad range of programming in place for serving older passengers. This report is especially useful because it explicitly asked transit providers to describe ‘promising practices’ that had been or could be successful in serving the needs of seniors. Note, though, that many of the policies on fares have changed in the years since 2007, so it is useful to compare the fares and policies listed in the examples with agencies’ present policies.


Transit Cooperative Research Program. “TCRP Report 82: Improving Public Transit Options for Older Persons.” 2002.

Sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration, this comprehensive report describes population and demographic trends, travel patterns of older persons, and mobility preferences derived from a focus group of older persons. This report also discusses perceptions of the transit industry and of the challenges older passengers faced at the time the survey and focus groups were conducted. The focus groups were conducted with a range of income groups of older adults. This report includes several recommendations for broad improvements to public transit that would make it more appealing to older adults, as well as the challenges for the industry in meeting their needs.