Stranded Seniors Need Public Transportation

My parents are among the 8 million senior citizens in this country who are stranded by a lack of public transportation. If we want to spend time together over the holidays, I, or one of my daughters, will drive hundreds of miles to pick them up and drop them back home again. At least my parents have this option, imperfect as it is--many seniors do not.

Our car-dependent society poses a real threat to the health and well-being of millions of senior citizens today. Nearly 80 percent of our seniors live in car-dependent suburban and rural communities, according to a 2003 Brookings Institution studyHalf our non-driving seniors stay home on any given day because they have no public transit options. Non-driving seniors make fewer trips to the doctor, fewer visits to friends and family, and fewer trips to stores and restaurants, according to a 2004 study. Seniors who stop driving show more symptoms of depression and are less active outside the home.

By 2030, according to government projections, our 65-and-older population will more than double from 2000 levels to 72 million. (And by 2030, I'll be part of this demographic, too.) This generation has had a profound influence on how this country moves: they spawned the two-car family, the suburban exodus, and the traffic gridlock that followed. As boomers age, their travel patterns will change, and they could once again reshape how America gets around.

My colleagues Deron Lovaas and Rachel Fried used data from Duke University to project where these seniors will be living in 2030.

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The projection that Florida will be a hotspot for seniors is no surprise. But look at some of the other states where seniors will comprise nearly one-quarter of the population by 2030; places like Montana, Maine, and West Virginia. These are predominantly rural states where people are almost entirely dependent on cars to get around. Even states with big metropolitan areas and established transit systems, like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, are operating public transit under considerable strain—and their current systems are not always accessible to seniors. Unless we're willing, as a society, to leave a large segment of our population housebound, we need to start finding ways to help seniors move around.

We already know how to do this—vanpools and rideshares are becoming increasingly popular in rural areas. The federal Administration on Aging funds state programs that give rides to seniors, helping them stay mobile and live independently. Designing more walkable communities, so people don't need to drive to get to the store, or the doctor, or a friend's house, is another critical step for ensuring that our rural and suburban seniors are not stranded. These options need to be funded and developed, with guidance and support from federal and state authorities, as well as from local communities.

Other states with large senior populations, like Florida, have significant metropolitan areas where transit infrastructure already exists. But even maintaining existing capacity is not a priority for these states. In Florida, for example, transit spending is less than 6 percent, per metropolitan resident, of highway spending. More than one out of every five residents in Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin will be senior citizens in 2030, and yet today, all these states are similarly stingy on transit spending. Ohio ranks 39th in prioritizing transit spending, Iowa 33rd, and Wisconsin 29th, according to an NRDC report. West Virginia’s population will be nearly one-quarter seniors by 2030, and yet highway spending per urban resident overwhelmingly outweighs transit spending by a ratio of nearly 99 to 1.

Even New York City, with the country's most extensive transit system, leaves about half a million seniors with poor transit access. Simple solutions, such as making sure sidewalks aren't broken, or providing a few benches for resting, can make a big difference in mobility for seniors.

Of course, it's not only seniors who will benefit from improved public transportation. Studies show that investments in transit generate twice as many jobs per billion as new highway construction. And transit investment has a ripple effect across the country--when New York City orders subway cars, for example, workers in Lincoln, Nebraska make them. Infrastructure spending in general is good for the economy, providing returns of $1.57 on the dollar, according to a 2010 study from economists at Princeton and Moody’s. Public transit improvements reduce traffic, make our streets safer, and give more Americans the option to save money on gas and get where they need to go.

Failing to develop transit options and walkable communities for seniors is terrible waste of human capital. Millions of productive members of society risk being left behind simply because they don’t drive. We are a country that constantly moves forward—and if we want to continue to do so, we need to give seniors transit options so they can move along with us.

About the Authors

Peter Lehner

Former Executive Director

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