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Could You Adjust to Life Without a Car?

How public transit may work — or not work — for you

Woman boarding bus

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Cities are launching free transit education programs to raise awareness and comfort levels about public transportation.

En español | If you couldn't drive anymore, what would you do?

My first thought: I'd celebrate.

OK, that's not entirely true. I know I'm fortunate to have the option; plus I need a car for occasional trips outside my new home in Pittsburgh.

But I hate to drive. Timid behind the wheel, I would happily say sayonara to rush-hour traffic, parallel parking and my monthly auto insurance bill. I much prefer my car-free commute to work anyway, 15 minutes door to door, and I love my walkable neighborhood, where I'm steps from a grocery and pharmacy.

That's me, though. Some people like to drive. Even with public transportation options available — a key feature of an age-friendly or livable community — they prefer the privacy and convenience of cars. Take away their keys, and they'd probably panic. And rightfully so. Driving is how they get around, and it's what they know.

A few weeks ago, I met a woman who recently had surgery. Let's call her Barb. I was matched with Barb through a United Way initiative called Open Your Heart to a Senior, which pairs volunteers of all ages with older community members who need help with tasks such as grocery shopping and shoveling snow. On this particular Saturday, I met Barb for a visit in her home.

Although she seemed to be recovering well from the surgery, Barb was frustrated because she didn't know when (or if) she'd be able to drive again. She missed going to church, and her favorite shopping center was miles away. We pulled it up on Google Maps.

"What about the bus? Can you take it there?" I asked.

"I don't know," she said. "I've never thought about it."

It turned out that the nearest bus stop is only a few blocks from Barb's home. With a quick transfer, a trip to the shopping center looked doable. While I didn't pry into the whereabouts of her church, I'm guessing it is in reach, too. But Barb seemed skeptical. Her son could bring food and other essentials, she said, and he'd drive her as his schedule allowed.

Even some champions of our age-friendly movement in Pittsburgh are weary of using public transit options. At a recent planning meeting, two attendees pulled me aside after I shared my appreciation for the city's bus system.

"I will never take the bus," one said. "Never."

Indeed, not everyone is on board with public transportation. Maybe it's in our culture or in the comfort of routine, or perhaps it's related to a deeper stigma. In rethinking our communities to include all generations, we have to be realistic about what people want — and many want cars. That's why I'm encouraged by ride services such as ITNAmerica as well as newer players like Uber and Lyft joining the conversation.

And for potential converts like my friend Barb, some cities are launching free transit education programs to raise awareness and comfort levels about existing public options. It's something I hope our group will consider in Pittsburgh as we move forward.

Laura Hahn is a gerontologist committed to intergenerational solidarity and age-friendly communities.

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