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Seniors exercise their transport options

By Ross AtkinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 2000

San Diego resident Anne Nelson decided not to wait until she was a senior to check out public transportation.

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Four years ago, while still working as a school secretary, she bought a bus pass. Now, in retirement, she's such a big fan of public transportation that she endorses it to other older people as a volunteer Transit Buddy for the San Diego Metropolitan Transit Development System.

"I advocate that people use public transportation at least once in a while before they're told they can't drive anymore," she says. "That's a really traumatic time for people who haven't thought about it ahead of time."

While many seniors keep driving for many years, it's a good idea to have a backup plan. Not enough people look ahead, says Heather Menninger, a transportation consultant who works with communities to solve mobility problems. This comes through in a survey Ms. Meninger's company conducted for several southern California counties. "The data shows that seniors as a group don't plan for giving up their licenses," she says. "They don't seek out what resources are out there."

Rather than relying on retirees to jump on the bandwagon, Menninger says, "Transit people need to work aggressively at showing what they can do, to be more creative in reaching out to this population."

This not only is important on a humanitarian basis, but also as a cost-saving measure. When gaps exist in public transit, they must be filled, often with expensive, customized, one-rider-at-a-time services dictated by the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Getting the general public to use mass transit is hard enough, and getting seniors over the hump is often harder still.

"Friends tell me they had bad experiences with public transportation maybe 25 or 30 years ago, possibly in another city," says Ms. Nelson. "They think it's still like that, and haven't used public transportation since."

She is convinced that most people who try it will like it, pointing to bus trips as relaxing opportunities to get out without worrying about parking, feeding meters, traffic congestion, or angry drivers.

It helps that Nelson lives in a community that actively promotes ridership among seniors.

This year, for example, the Metropolitan Transit Development Board issued 90,000 free transit passes as part of its second annual "Seniors on the Go" promotion. The strategy seems to be working. Menninger says 17 percent of older citizens in San Diego County use public transport, far above the national average of roughly 4 percent.

However, some seniors are eager to continue driving, and AARP (formerly American Association of Retired Persons) works to keep competent older drivers behind the wheel. Those who successfully complete a 55 ALIVE/ Mature Driving course are eligible for insurance discounts.

At the same time, AARP is trying to lessen member reliance on the automobile. Soon, the association will publish a booklet called, "Staying Independent Without a Car" which will include a worksheet for creating a personal transportation strategy.

No one option offers a complete solution to a person's needs, says Connie Nero, AARP's transportation expert. "You need a mix [of transportation choices], depending on where you are going and what you are doing."