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Seniors exercise their transport options

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The menu of alternatives begins with public transportation. "It gets a bad rap, but it provides discounts, runs every day, and gets you to most places," Ms. Nero says. She also recommends exploring taxi vouchers and discounts available through senior centers, shuttle services provided by churches or human-service providers, and even barter arrangements (swapping a meal for a ride, for example).

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To sort through the options, people may, within 10 years, be able to hire mobility guides and counselors the way they hire financial planners now, says Katherine Freund of the Independent Transportation Network in Portland, Maine (See related story above).

To some degree, this is the role Nelson performs as one of San Diego's Transit Buddies.

When a senior calls the transit company or the local AARP office for help in using the system, Nelson phones the potential rider to arrange a meeting. "They may be apprehensive about dealing with the system, the schedule, transfers, and figuring out where everything goes," she says.

One of the reasons Nelson initially opted to try public transit was that three bus routes run within several blocks of her home.

"If you don't live close to public transportation, that's a whole different thing, but I say, 'move,' " she advocates. "If someone's got a big house two miles from the bus, I say move to something smaller a block away from the bus stop."

Those willing to part with their cars, Nero says, free up roughly $5,000 to $10,000 a year in fees, insurance, gas, repairs, and depreciation.

She urges people to use those savings to pay for specialized door-to-door trips when necessary. "If you use a taxi often enough, you may be able to get the same driver, who becomes like your personal driver."

Anne Nelson says she made a bargain with herself to splurge on taxis whenever she wants to be out later than the buses run.

San Diego uses "kneeler" buses, which can be lowered for easier entry and exit, a feature that appeals to some.

Still, public transit, with its emphasis on fixed routes, commuter service, and big equipment is not well positioned to serve many seniors. "Oftentimes they need specialized, door-to-door service," says Tony Potter, who conducted a transportation study for San Diego County's Department of Aging and Independence Services.

More and more, he says, what appears to work best are private-public partnerships in which municipalities, seniors agencies and organizations, and even businesses share the costs of customized transportation services.

For example, a vehicle picks up riders at a senior center and takes them to the post office, a discount department store, and the grocery store. The businesses that benefit share the costs with the city.

One strategy under consideration, Menninger says, is to ferry older riders to bus stops that have bathrooms, a telephone, and adequate seating.

The good news, many observers believe, is that technology such as pagers and global positioning systems can make transportation more efficient, especially when it comes to accurately estimating arrival times. No one likes to wait and wonder if a ride's on the way.

How important is good service to those who live in outlying areas?

Very, judging from the level of devotion shown by women riders in one Missouri county. To say "thanks," some contribute handcrafted quilts and tablecloths to fundraisers to help pay for the service.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society