Seniors exercise their transport options

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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."

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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."

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).

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

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