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Access to Transportation
All people should have access to a variety of safe, affordable, dependable, and user-friendly travel options. For some people, regular, fixed-route public transportation services are ideal; for others, because of health, disability status, or geography, more personalized services—such as paratransit, dial-a-ride, reduced-fare taxis, or rides in private vehicles available through volunteer driver programs—are needed. While everyone benefits from having multiple transportation options, it is especially important for older adults, people with disabilities, and children, who cannot or choose not to drive but who wish to stay connected to community vendors, services, and social activities.
More than 8 million Americans age 65 and older do not drive, and the number of nondrivers—or potential transit users—will grow as the population ages. More than half of these nondrivers stay home on any given day. And many of those who do drive are likely to stop using their cars at some point; drivers age 70 and older are expected to outlive their driving years—men by seven years and women by ten.
Public transportation (buses, rail systems, paratransit, and other community-based transportation services) is an important resource for older people. More than 20 percent of people age 50 and older report using public transportation at least once a month. In the past decade public transportation in the US has witnessed a resurgence in ridership due to several factors, including local interest in creating and revitalizing transit station areas; increasing traffic congestion; increasing availability of service due to increased government investments; heightened environmental concerns; and rising gas prices.
Despite steady use some public transportation systems present barriers to older people. Nearly one-third of people age 50 and older with physical limitations perceive as a large problem the failure of public transportation to go where they want to go. For those with physical limitations, getting to public transportation is a challenge. And as with many public transportation users, people age 50 and older often cite the limited frequency of available trips, lengthy travel time, long walking distance to bus stops, high traffic volumes and speeds, and pedestrian safety issues (i.e. adequate sidewalks, street lighting, security concerns) as obstacles to transit use for local trips.
There are a number of ways public transportation agencies can tailor their services to better meet the needs of older adults:
- Increased service reliability—Transit systems can improve their service reliability by using global positioning systems technology, on-time driver performance rewards, and properly maintaining vehicles.
- Accessible vehicles and stops—Low-floor buses, secure bus stops with benches and shelters, and proper maintenance increase the usability, safety, and security of the system. Bus stops should comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
- Accessible service information— Transit agencies should make service information more accessible through the use of larger fonts on route maps, schedules and providing patient customer-service representatives and customer-oriented mobility management services.
- Driver and passenger training—Older adults with little or no prior experience using public transportation can benefit from instruction on how to use the system including reading route schedules and using fare cards among other skills. Driver training is one way to increase transit professionals’ understanding of and empathy for the challenges older adults face in using public transportation.
- Public transit funding—All federally funded public transportation providers reduce fares in nonpeak periods for older riders, to encourage their use of transit services. Transit options help older people maintain independence, stay connected to their community, and engage in social life.
Public transportation agencies in urban and rural areas receive funding from government at all levels, as well as from fare-box returns. Various programs funded by SAFETEA—LU, provide money for capital expenses for transit in urban areas, to pay for new rail or bus projects, improve and maintain existing rail and other fixed “guideway” systems (such as light-rail and some trolleys), and upgrade bus systems. In addition, SAFETEA—LU has a grant program, New Freedom Initiative, to fund projects and services for people with disabilities that exceed the minimum ADA requirements. Unfortunately, requests for this money far outweigh funding.
Two-thirds of transit funding comes from state and local governments, however, due to the 2008 recession many have had to cut expenses. Fare increases and service cuts have had a devastating impact on students, working adults, and retired riders. Many transit agencies have asked Congress for more flexibility to use a portion of their federal funds to cover operating costs during these tough economic times.
Intercity passenger rail—Passenger rail is another mobility option for midlife and older people who travel both within congested regional corridors and between cities separated by long distances. The 2001 National Household Travel Survey found that people age 65 and older make more than 1.5 million long-distance trips (50 miles or longer) by train each year. Amtrak estimates that almost half of its national ridership (12.8 million in FY 2009) is age 55 and older, and that on its long-distance routes, two-thirds of riders are age 55 and older. Congress has required Amtrak to make all stations ADA accessible by 2010. In addition passenger rail provides essential service to many rural communities, and many states perceive rail as an important contributor to to economic development. With increased frequencies and lower travel times, high-speed rail provides a competitive alternative to both auto and air for intercity travel between metropolitan areas within 500 miles of one another.
Under the American Disabilities Act (ADA), fixed-route public transportation—buses and trains, stations and stops—must be accessible to people with disabilities. The act also requires public transportation providers, even those with wheelchair-accessible vehicles, to offer paratransit services within three-quarters of a mile of all fixed routes to people who cannot use fixed-route transit.
ADA paratransit service consists of origin-to-destination transportation (such as curb-to-curb or door-to-door) on specialized vehicles that are procured by transit authorities and operated directly or through contractors. The paratransit option must be comparable to the transit system’s fixed-route service in terms of coverage area and days and hours of service. Only qualified individuals may use ADA paratransit services, and providers must determine who is sufficiently disabled to be eligible. However, transportation providers may find eligibility determinations difficult to render. Particularly at risk of being denied eligibility are individuals with “hidden” disabilities, such as cognitive impairment.
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) provides transit officials with ADA guidance and is responsible for enforcing ADA implementation in public transportation. The funding need for specialized paratransit for people with disabilities is increasing with their growing integration with mainstream employment and community activities. Demand for ADA paratransit is also rising rapidly because many human services agencies are no longer offering transportation for clients eligible for complementary paratransit trips. Both providers and riders have experienced difficulties in paratransit services including no-shows for scheduled trips and service that is expensive or undependable. The federal New Freedom Initiative, while it has served to kick-start local innovations that supplement ADA paratransit service, represents only a small additional source of funding (less than $100 million apportioned in FY 2010) for services that “go beyond the ADA.”
Twenty percent of people age 65 and older live in rural areas where little if any public transportation is available. The distances between rural residences and necessary services, such as health care and senior centers, exacerbate transportation problems for nondrivers, particularly the one in four chronically disabled rural residents who live in households with no vehicle. People age 60 and older make 31 percent of all rural transit trips; people with disabilities make 23 percent of these trips. Older adults living in rural areas are at great risk for becoming isolated from their communities due to inadequate transportation opportunities. Explore
The Department of Transportation’s Section 5310 program provides capital assistance grants for transportation for older adults and people with disabilities. This assistance helps state and local transportation agencies and nonprofit organizations (such as senior centers and groups that provide educational and social opportunities for people with disabilities) purchase vehicles to transport clients. SAFETEA—LU continues the Section 5310 program by designating additional through fiscal year (FY) 2010 to serve the special needs of people who are elderly or have disabilities. Explore
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