Making Transportation Age-Friendly

Published In Transportation Options and Resources

The World Health Organization launched the Age-Friendly Communities Initiative in 2006, with the laudable goal of making communities throughout the world accessible and safer for seniors. The first step was to gather information from older residents, service providers, and other groups from a total of 33 cities worldwide. They identified eight key areas communities can focus on to become more age-friendly:

  • outdoor spaces and buildings
  • transportation
  • housing
  • social participation
  • respect and social inclusion
  • civic participation and employment
  • communication and information, and
  • community support and health services.

The topics served as starting points for many improvement projects worldwide, with ongoing efforts recorded at Age Friendly World.

The Need for Wheels

This article concentrates on a feature essential to age easily and well in a community: accessible and affordable transportation. In addition to keeping seniors mobile, it intertwines with other concerns — including staying safe from injury and crime, accessing health services, and participating in social activities.

Despite differences in population needs and geography, much can be learned from the highlighted issues and age-friendly tweaks to transportation made around the world. And while the U.S. has much room for improvement, the hopeful news is that several communities are already leading the way, making it easier and safer for seniors to get around and about. Some of the early successes are summarized here.

What Makes Transportation Age-Friendly?

For seniors, many of whom are no longer able to drive, dependable transportation is no less than a lifeline to the world. A number of concerns were highlighted while studying the issue through an age-friendly lens.

Keeping Seniors Involved

The Age-Friendly Initiative in Miami-Dade County, Florida, publishes a free, downloadable booklet, “Engaging Older Adults in Transportation Planning Guide.” It guides transportation planners and governing agencies in how to incorporate older adults and age-friendly considerations in their communities.

  • Availability. The age-friendliest locales include a range of types of transportation: public and private buses, trains, trams, trolleybuses, shuttlebuses and minibuses, voluntary community transport services, services specifically catering to frail and older people, taxis, on-demand care services, and personal drivers.
  • Affordability. Cost is crucial for most seniors, many of whom live on limited or fixed incomes. Suggestions for improvement: free or subsidized transportation or at least free rides to specific events, as well as following Geneva’s lead in providing free transportation for people accompanying seniors. Problems cited are difficulties with paperwork and waiting lists when applying for subsidies, as well as varying price structures that add to the confusion of taking public transportation.
  • Reliability and frequency. Common complaints: erratic schedules and lack of sufficient transportation scheduled, especially during evenings and weekends. Another widespread problem is timetables that are difficult to access or understand.
  • Safety and comfort. Theft, antisocial behavior, and overcrowding are big concerns for seniors riding public transportation in many locales. Some places have made accommodations by adding more vehicles during the busiest hours. Others tout the informal solution of encouraging older passengers to ride outside peak travel times. American transportation planners might also take a clue from Nairobi, where problems with overcrowding on public transportation all but disappeared after legislation was passed ensuring that the maximum seating capacity is not exceeded.

Pointing the Way to Safe Routes

The Age-Friendly Initiative in Miami-Dade County, Florida, established the Safe Routes to Age in Place Program. The program focuses on fostering safe, accessible, and convenient transportation options in Little Havana, a densely populated area with a high pedestrian crash rate and a high percentage of residents age 65 and older who do not drive.

  • Travel destinations. The biggest problem all around the world is missing connections. In many areas, public transportation does not cover certain parts of the city, offers spotty connections between types of transportation, and doesn’t serve destinations older people frequent such as senior centers, hospitals, shopping centers, banks, parks, and public gardens.

One older person living in Portland, Oregon, recently dubbed “The City That Works,” observed: “The thing with public transit is there are big holes. If you want to go downtown, you’re in great shape. If you want to go across town, you’re going to have to struggle.”

  • Vehicles. If and when self-driving vehicles are perfected, the conversation around age-friendly vehicles is sure to change. For now, the concerns are more predictable: designs that make it difficult to board and exit, floors and steps that are too high, seats that are too narrow, limited or poor adaptations for passengers in wheelchairs, buses that are poorly maintained or lack clearly displayed routes.
  • Specialized services. For many older people, public transportation is simply too unwieldy or confusing to navigate. But in most places, there’s a shocking shortage of specially-adapted means of transportation, such as taxis equipped with trunks large enough to accommodate wheelchairs, to fill the gap.
  • Priority seating and passenger courtesy. While public transportation in most places includes a section of priority seating for older people, most people report the rules are routinely ignored — particularly by younger seated passengers intent on communing with their cellphones rather than extending the courtesy of offering the seat to older or disabled riders.
  • Transport drivers. Many older passengers say they’re unnerved by drivers’ insensitivity to their needs: failing to wait until they’re seated before barreling back into traffic, stopping so far from the curb that it’s difficult to board, even making impolite comments about them.
  • Stops and stations. Among the failings of bus transportation: the design, location, and condition of transport stops, along with a lack of benches, shelter, and lighting. Also, railway and transport terminals lack age-friendly features such as ramps, escalators, elevators, public toilets, and clearly visible signage. And some problems stem from humans: vandals and thieves who frequent the stops.
  • Taxis. Cost and lack of disability access are often prime barriers to taxis, as well as drivers’ refusal to pick up older people — often perceiving them as slow and difficult passengers.
  • Community transport. Free transportation for elders — from a care center to a doctor’s appointment or from home to the grocery store, for example — provided by volunteers or the private sector was seen as a greatly desirable age-friendly feature.

Coming Down From the Hills

A survey conducted by the Age-Friendly Sausalito Task Force revealed that the top concern in the small hilly town near San Francisco was the steep, narrow residential streets, most without sidewalks, preventing many older residents from accessing local services, participating in local activities, or using the bus and ferry services in the area. To help remedy the situation, it launched Call-A-Ride-Sausalito Seniors (CARSS) — a volunteer driver program providing up to two free rides within the city daily for older adults and people with disabilities. Volunteer drivers use their own cars and are vetted through background checks and provided with training.

  • Information. Older people, especially those making the transition from driving to taking public transportation, say they need more information on the basics of using it. Large print and conveniently located timetables as well as timetables indicating whether a particular vehicle was accessible to people with disabilities, and information about the transportation options available were heralded as pluses.

Helping Riders Get Wiser

The Ridewise Program in Portland, Oregon, offers free individual and group training to adults 60 and older and to people with disabilities on how to use public transportation.

  • Driving conditions. Senior drivers still behind the wheel mentioned a number of features on their wish lists: well-marked streets, road signals and signs that are easy to see and understand, well-maintained roadways, traffic “calming devices” such as roundabouts and speed bumps.
  • Courtesy toward older drivers. Older drivers, some of whom struggle with vision and agility limitations, often say they are abused by drivers on the road who tailgate them and otherwise act aggressively, making them feel unsafe.
  • Parking. Priority parking bays that are actually enforced and drop-off and pickup bays designated for older people and people with disabilities, as well as free parking options for them, were heralded as age-friendly.

Grants for Age-Friendly Communities

The Age-Friendly Communities Initiative also helped spawn similar efforts in the U.S., including Grantmakers in Aging’s Community AGEnda Program, which allotted grants of $120,000 to help communities assess and address the needs of their older populations.

Initiated in 2014 by Grantmakers In Aging, Funders for Age-Friendly Communities mobilizes funders across the nation to create age-friendly communities that continue beyond the end of the grant periods.

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