How Seniors Get Stuck at Home With No Transit Options

According to AARP, 88 percent of seniors want to stay in their own homes as long as they can. But where are those homes? In auto-dependent suburbs. That’s where most Baby Boomers grew up, in the postwar era, and that’s where most of them have stayed – even as the largest (and longest-living) generation ever enters its golden years.

As baby boomers age, more of them are finding that auto dependent suburbia doesn't work for everybody. Photo: ## for America##

However, more than 20 percent of seniors (age 65 and up) do not drive at all. In the spread-out, transit-poor communities where many of them live, seniors who don’t drive miss out on countless opportunities. According to a report released today by Transportation for America called “Aging in Place: Stuck Without Options”:

Absent access to affordable travel options, seniors face isolation, a reduced quality of life and possible economic hardship. A 2004 study found that seniors age 65 and older who no longer drive make 15 percent fewer trips to the doctor, 59 percent fewer trips to shop or eat out, and 65 percent fewer trips to visit friends and family, than drivers of the same age.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology conducted the analysis for the T4A report, finding that a large proportion of seniors lack transit access currently, and that in 2015, just a few short years away, 15.5 million seniors will find themselves without transportation options.

“My generation grew up and reared our children in communities that, for the first time in human history, were built on the assumption that everyone would be able to drive an automobile,” said John Robert Smith, former mayor of Meridian, Mississippi and co-chair of Transportation for America.

When seniors can’t get out, the local economy suffers too. John Robert Smith says when he was mayor, Meridian set a goal of recruiting retirees.

“Retirees bring their retirement funds into your communities, deposit them in your banks; they support your school systems but they don’t make demands on your school systems, they don’t put children in the school system; they are law-abiding, good citizens so they don’t have that impact on your police department, they’re just an all around benefit and plus for your community,” Smith said.

Even seniors who can still drive might find that they feel nervous driving after dark, or that their reflexes are slowing down. Still others start looking for other transportation options because their fixed incomes can’t absorb high gas prices.

CNT’s definition of access to transit is not without its problems. It defines poor access differently for different sized metro areas, which makes sense if you’re comparing areas to each other, but for all intents and purposes, a senior with access to 11 transit lines in densely-developed New York City is a lot better off than a person without decent access to even one transit line in Houma, Louisiana – yet both are considered equally transit-poor by the study. (Of course, only 41 percent of New York seniors will lack good transit access in four years, as opposed to 87 percent in Houma.)

Meanwhile, the information on the metro areas was pulled from a larger data pool which considered “transit access” to mean that a person was within half a mile of a rail station or a quarter mile from a bus stop. Those distances weren’t revised for this study, although this study dealt with a population for whom a half-mile may be a significantly long walk. Reducing the distance allowed for a definition of “access” would only increase the numbers of seniors stranded by the current system.

Transportation for America calls for federal-level fixes to the problem, which the group hopes to see included in the next transportation reauthorization bill:

  • Increased dedicated funding for buses, trains, vanpools, specialized transit and ridesharing
  • Continued funding of transit through the Highway Trust Fund
  • Inclusion of seniors and other community stakeholders as states and metros develop plans for meeting the mobility needs of seniors
  • Continued authority for states to “flex” a portion of their highway funds for transit projects and programs
  • A “complete streets” approach to make streets and intersections around transit stops safe for people of all ages and abilities

Those recommendations might help geographically isolated seniors reach services, but is it really the responsibility of the taxpayer to subsidize the decisions people have made to live in places that explicitly reject transit accessibility? Should those inefficient, low-density, sprawling areas be retrofitted with transit now that their populations are aging?

Cristina Martin Firvida, who works on these issues for AARP, said helping seniors marooned in those areas helps everybody. And besides, the suburbs were built through federal policies encouraging outward development after the second world war, she said – it’s not just that one person built a house on top of a mountain and then demanded that taxpayer-subsidized transit come to them. “The suburbs is where our economy and our entire society has moved to since the fifties,” Firvida said. “It’s where everyone lives.”

However, Cathie Berger of Atlanta’s Area Agency on Aging acknowledged that that type of development isn’t helping, and that at the very least, metro areas can try to change the way they plan land use. (And this is coming from Atlanta, the worst-ranked large metro area the report found, with 90 percent of seniors lacking adequate transit access by 2015.)

“We are trying to shift away from the continued development of the largest subdivisions that really don’t provide the options people need,” Berger said.

She also went beyond the report’s recommendations, which maintain a tight focus on transportation solutions, to explore other land use options that can make for more senior-friendly neighborhoods. “We are trying to retrofit the built environment to make our communities more age-friendly and enable our seniors to age in place,” Berger said. “This includes making our communities more walkable and improving access to services. We are also, for instance, working with our county and city planning departments to revise zoning codes to make it easier to develop denser projects that offer diverse housing.”

“It’s really important we get communities that work for people, having grocery stores and the amenities people need in their own community,” added Peter Haas, the chief research scientist for the Center for Neighborhood Technology. “And if that’s only market-driven, it’s not going to happen in a low-density suburban location. So the incentives need to be there, or there has to be a redistribution of development patterns.”

  • I have to admit – part of me, the bitter, ungenerous part of me – wants to tell these people, who are the generation who *created* this horrible sprawling mess we’re in – to just suck it up. You wanted to live out in the middle of frickin’ nowhere, while the cities fell apart because you took your money along with your car out to the suburb? Well, you can just reap what you sowed.

    The other part of me – the one that admit that this is the situation we’re in and we have to deal with it – thinks we need to do something to retrofit the suburbs as this is the garbage we’ve inherited, like it or not.

    At the *same* time, this has to be done in a way that reverses the trend towards sprawl and concentrates density to something more livable. Maybe running street cars along traffic corridors and building up housing and commercial districts around stations, while converting outlying areas to parks and food production. Whatever we do, the solution is not to simply blindly cater to these areas by simply providing taxpayer dollars to run taxi services all over creation. This has to be done in a more intelligent – and more far-sighted – way.

  • icarus12

    I think there is an opportunity here for many cities to woo back the elderly with the deliverable promise of more existing transit and services within reach.  But that wooing is going to need some clever advertising, so that seniors think about such moves in a positive way, rather than seeing it as having to give up a lifestyle they have grown accustomed to.

    I have tried to convince my aging parents to move into the city, but so far no luck in dislodging them from the suburbs.  My father at 83 has recently cut back significantly on driving, but he seems disinclined to use transit, even though I sometimes use bus and ferry to visit him when our family car isn’t available. Whatever I say to him, he will probably be more influenced by what he sees his friends doing.  The more older folks move into welcoming cities, the more their peers will emulate them.  We may be on the cusp of another demographic shift.

  • Transit Planner

    As a transit planner for a local transit agency in such a suburban community, I have to say serving this demographic with demand response service is killing my agencies operating budget. We’re barely able to fund the service we have and more Sr. are signing up for the service everyday. My agency recently conducted a passenger survey and the number one thing Sr. state is that they have a hard time getting around and are very lonely. It also doesn’t help that the communities my agency services aren’t known for having sidewalks, and when they do, the often lack connectivity.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I don’t think that taxing young people and cities to pay for people’s bad decisions is the solution.

    If the seniors were willing to cooperate, come kind of “dynamic carpooling” service could be set up in which the younger seniors take the older seniors with them for the cost of a transit fare.

    Or the seniors could move to places with services in walking distance.  I plan to stay in such a place.

    They’ve got options.  Demanding more from the poorer generations coming after should not be one of them.

  • As always, when government withdraws and business refuses to step in because profitability is too low, not-for-profits innovate to meet social needs. I met the founder of the Independent Transport Network at an Institute for the Future event in San Fran last week: impressive ride-share-economy encouraging seniors to trade-in cars:

  • Tsuyoshi

    My mother is in this situation. She has very bad eyesight these days and is unable to drive anymore. But  since she can’t make much money with her poor eyesight anymore, she has been responding to her situation by trying to find a cheaper house further out with worse transit access. I suggested finding a smaller house or a condo with better transit access, and she kind of said “yeah, maybe I should do that”, but she really has her heart set on a big house. So she has no problem with moving, but living in a denser neighborhood is not something she really considers. Luckily my father can still drive her around, but I am not sure what will happen when he can’t drive either. They both grew up in the city but they don’t want to go back.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “So she has no problem with moving, but living in a denser neighborhood is not something she really considers. They both grew up in the city but they don’t want to go back.”
    Then that’s their choice and their responsibility.  We have the same situation with my in-laws.  They life on a hill a 15 minute ride from town in a really rural area.  My wife convinced them to move to a senior building in Schenectady for a year, but they didn’t like the size of the apartment or the people hanging around the area, so they moved back.

    My grandmother, who never drove and was a widow, moved out of Yonkers at the end of her life, to a place “up the line” where a taxi to the doctor cost more than the doctor.  But the old neighborhood was burning down around her, and everyone had died off or moved away.

    “I am not sure what will happen when he can’t drive either.”

    You’ll have to deal with it, and we’ll have to deal with it.  

    And as for those parents who weren’t there for their kids, growing in percentage with each generation, maybe their kids WON’T feel an obligation to deal with it.  

    Should our children be forced to sacrifice to pay for it, in (even) higher taxes or (even more) diminished services for a transit service that costs more than a limousine ride?  Or should those seniors be expected to choose to live elsewhere, or start cooperating with others in the way I suggested?

  • Bob Davis

    Whether it’s truth or just perception, many people in the U.S. have a “suburbs=safe, central cities=unsafe”.  There were examples of older people with “the neighborhood burning down around them” or the “senior building in Schenectady” with cramped quarters and shady characters (probably of a different ethnic group) hanging around.  The term “welcoming city” struck a chord, but it seems that many cities seem to be more for the young and energetic, with lots of night life, not for people like me, who “still like to paint the town, but have to wait a while before putting on a second coat.”  And until cities can
     do something about the muggers, dope dealers, “winos and weirdos who infest” many areas, winning new resident is going to be a hard sell.

  • I don’t know about the cities by where you live but in New York, Boston and San Francisco, the three cities I’m most familiar with, there are plenty of lovely areas. The problem is you’re going to have to put up with a lot less space – that large house in the suburbs can’t pay for much more than a comparatively tiny apartment, probably. I live in a gentrifying area – mostly middle class black and West Indians – but with a generous mix of different nationalities (Pakistani, Mexican, Jewish, Russian) plus all the young white couples moving in with their kids and their baby carriages. I think most cities have nice areas even suburbanites would feel comfortable in.

    I just googled “best cities to live U.S.” and these are a few of the hits:

    The notion that cities are crime ridden cesspools is just untrue, especially now. What I think is a bigger problem is moving away from friends and family and, let’s face it, the auto-centric way of life you’re familiar with. But the trend towards the ghettoization of the suburbs is just going to accelerate, especially as gas prices continue to skyrocket as we pass peak oil. This is a case where it’s really in your best interest to push past the inertia that’s holding you back.

  • Anonymous

    “Or the seniors could move to places with services in walking distance.  I plan to stay in such a place.” Well good for you, Larry but did you ever stop to consider that what “walking distance” is for an 85 year old man may be a lot less than what it is for someone who is younger and in better health.  This is why seniors prefer to go places and park in the handicapped zones. It’s because they are–wait for it–handicapped!  Also, seniors feel vulnerable waiting for buses in inner cities, where there is more street crime.  For other seniors, the very idea of moving from their homes where they have lived all their lives and away from their neighborhood where they know the checker in the 15 items or less line at Safeway is terribly traumatic.
    Commenters here seem more intent on simply telling seniors to get with the program than with crafting a solution that will work.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The problem is, there is a shortage of such urban lovely areas.  And thus they are very expensive.  Whether the supply can rise to meet the demand is the question.

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  • “Commenters
    here seem more intent on simply telling seniors to get with the program
    than with crafting a solution that will work.”

    If that solution involves them continuing to drive well past the age when they can no longer do it safely, then that solution does not work. “Squished by a geezer in a land yacht” is one of the more common causes of child mortality in the US. And that has to stop.

  • That’s true. But my impression of Bob’s and others’ problem with moving to the city is that it’s overrun with “winos and weirdos”. That’s patently not the case… And becoming less and less so as the poor are forced out of the cities and into the suburbs. Any elderly person there then will not only be isolated by their inability to drive but stranded in a suburban ghetto.

  • Why is it up to us to save people from their own bad choices? Choices, I should point out, that have put society as a whole in an untenable position with the end of cheap oil? Especially when you consider that most states are struggling just to keep basic services running. Some states are so in debt that they’re spending half of their budget simply paying the interest and in New York itself, our MTA budget is constantly being slashed and burned to plug holes in the state budget.

    These people have a choice, and they’re choosng to stay in an auto dependent suburb, even though they’re not capable of driving safely. How is this my problem? If they want to fix the underlying issues – anti-pedestrian and anti-biking sprawl – that’s one thing. But if they just want us to provide free taxi service so they can continue benefiting at the expense of the rest of society for their poor choices, I can’t get behind that. At all.

  • Anonymous

    It is really up to the adult children of seniors to bring care to them if they cannot or will not relocate.  My sisters and I did that for our parents until they died of heart disease and cancer in their mid 80s.  Elder care experts will tell you that elders should live as independently as possible, so it’s best if not for profit organizations and local governments can bring the services to them in their homes. Suzanne–do you think that elders are less deserving of social service dollars than others? 
    If that is not doable because there are no family or the family cannot or will not care for their aged parent, then assisted living is probably the best choice.  My partner’s mom lives in a facility on the fringe of a midwestern city (we are in San Francisco) so we practice “distance elder care” by communicating with her via email and sending occasional gifts of food.  In such cases, it’s probably more important that the facility be in a location convenient to the elder’s family and friends.  The facility where my partner’s mom lives is not downtown, but it is convenient to my partner’s brother, who also helps care for her.

  • J:Lai

    A lot of this can be alleviated if suburbs re-zone to allow denser residential areas, and more mixed use residential-commercial areas.  They would then look more like actual towns with walkable shopping districts.  I believe the demand for this type of arrangment exists, and not just from seniors, to support privately funded development.
    Seniors moving back to the city is another option, as most of the “advantages” of suburban living accrue to those with school-age children.  However, such a move would have to fight natural inertia of people wanting to stay where they are comfortable, as well as the fact that suburban homes whave been and will probably continue to depreciate in value relative to urban real estate.

    I agree with Suzanne and others that allowing seniors to continue to live a suburban, car-centric lifestyle subsidized by taxpayers via taxi service, is neither equitable nor desirable.

  • We need to be spending our money retrofiting our nation to something we can sustain in a world without cheap energy. I have no objections to spending money to *solve* problems. But I do have problems spending money to *extend* problems, particularly when those problems have been largely brought upon the people themselves. Simply placing the burdens resulting from poor choices onto already struggling public agencies, without doing something to fix the underlying causees, is unfair to all those people who also need those tax dollars for things that are part of the solution.

    People have been pushed into the worst neighborhoods, abandoned to food deserts, dumped in subpar schools with an infrastructure that’s been disintigrating because those self same seniors left the cities to go out to inherently unsustainable suburbs. If they want to stay there, and their families are willing to play chauffeur, fine. But there are *better* ways to spend our scarce tax dollars than shuttling people around suburbs that are economic and environmental drains.

  • Anonymous

    J:Lai and Suzanne:  you don’t get to tell other people what to do.  Those seniors who would prefer to move to a more urban environment can and should have the opportunity to do so; but those who are more comfortable living out their lives where they have a supportive network of friends, acquaintances and people with whom they do business should be able to stay in their homes as long as they can. Show some compassion people, you might feel differently when you are 85.  .

  • Pchazz –

    Neither of us are telling anyone to do anything. Far from it. We’re saying, do what makes you happy. But don’t expect us to pay for what you’re doing if it’s harming society at large.

  • J:Lai

    There’s a difference between telling someone what to do, and telling someone that I don’t want to pay for his lifestyle choices. 

    The reality is that most people no longer have a support network of family and friends living nearby, especially people living in the newer suburbs.  Living in these car-dependent areas after one can no longer drive is in many ways a selfish act, as it forces someone else to provide transportation services.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think they are selfish J:Lai as much as they are set in their ways. They do things the way they have always done them.  For some, it’s a matter of pride to keep doing it that way, just to show that they can.  We tried to get my elderly parent to move into the vacant downstairs unit of their 3-story home so they wouldn’t have to bother with the stairs, but my dad utterly refused, even though with his bad heart climbing stairs was incredibly tiring.
    Speaking I someone who does not have children, I could say that having children is a selfish act, because it forces the community to provide schools, parks, child care and activities for them. But I would be wrong.  The elderly and small children are the most vulnerable and needy members of our community and require more in the way of resources.
    But to offer a ray of hope, I actually think that as the Greatest Generation passes away, the problem will take care of itself.  They were the ones who built the superhighways and created the car-centric lifestyle that is becoming a problem for them.  The Boomer Generation is not as car-oriented, and will more readily adapt to a different lifestyle than their parents.

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  • I appreciate that you are a caring person who has compassion. Sometimes in my bitterness and anger I lose my compassion. And I don’t think that having children is selfish… nor are the needs of the elderly. Just because a person has more needs than another doesn’t make them selfish. That’s just society, and why we need society – we need each other to survive, and we also need to help one another. And, fundamentally, all the world’s children are *our* children, and the world’s elders *our* elders.
    Regardless of what each of us thinks needs to be done I think we can all agree that the most vulnerable need to be looked out for by those who are stronger. It’s good that we can hash these issues out at places like Streetsblog.

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