Seniors are piling onto public transportation

Author:  Philip Langdon

“Use of public use of public transportation among older Americans increased by 40 percent since 2001,” says a new report from the AARP Public Policy Institute.

The report, “How the Travel Patterns of Older Adults Are Changing,” predicts that older travelers will change the landscape of transportation in coming years, and concludes that transportation planners and policymakers must adapt to this shift. The number of Americans 65 and older is projected to rise by 60 percent in the next 15 years.

Among the findings, in Jana Lynott and Carlos Figueiredo’s analysis of the 2009  National Household Travel Survey, are these:

  • Older adults comprise an increasing share of the nation’s travel.
  • Although individuals are traveling less, particularly in private vehicles, public transportation use is up.
  • The number of older non-drivers has grown by more than 1.1 million.

“Transit use by people age 65+, as a share of all the trips they take, increased by a remarkable 40 percent between 2001 and 2009,” the report observes, adding, “This is particularly significant in light of previous declines in public transportation use among persons in this age group.” In past decades, people had made less, not more, use of transit as they got older.

Some of the growth in transit use by seniors may be the result of government policy, including a 46 percent increase in federal funding for public transit in the 2005 transportation act known as SAFETEA-LU.

“Several states and cities, eager to revitalize urban centers, provided large funding matches to build light rail and other fixed guideway systems,” the report notes. “Technology applications such as real-time bus arrival information and other operational improvements offered riders higher-quality services. At the same time, highway congestion continued to grow, as did public awareness and concern about global warming and dependency on foreign oil reserves.”

“To accommodate the mobility needs of an aging population, the focus of transportation planning and policy must shift from increasing road capacity to providing more multi-modal solutions,” the report argues.

Because 80 percent of the population age 65 and older drive a personal vehicle, adjustments will have to be made to streets and roads to ensure their safety, according to AARP. “Improvements and investments in the travel environment — from roundabouts, left turn lanes and signals to lighting, retro-reflective signs, better road markings, and crosswalks — can make driving and walking safer for everyone,” said Susan Reinhard, AARP’s senior vice president for public policy.

“To make roads safer for drivers, transit users, bicyclists, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities,” said AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond, “AARP encourages policymakers to adopt ‘complete streets’ policies and direct resources for low-cost, life-saving roadway improvements to accommodate the mobility needs of an aging population.”

Walking should not be discounted. It is the second most popular means of travel among people 65 and over. “Older adults now take 8.8 percent of their trips on foot,” AARP reports. “Walking accounts for a greater share of their trips than either public transportation (2.2 percent) or taxi (0.2 percent).”

Americans are traveling less

The rise of the older population is only one part of the transportation picture. Potentially even more significant is the beginning of an overall reduction in travel by Americans.

“Per capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT) for persons 65+ declined by 7 percent, compared to 11 percent for people of all ages,” according to the report. That is attributed partly to rising gasoline prices.

“However,” says the report, “gas prices and a struggling economy may not fully explain the decline. Following several decades of increase, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has documented steady declines in travel for several years. Between 1969 and 1995, surveys showed steady increases in travel, in terms of both average daily person trips and miles. Per capita trip making declined for the first time in 2001, while 2009 marked the first year when the average number of person miles also declined. Driving began to plateau in 2004, and dropped in 2007 for the first time since 1980.”

As for the current emphasis on cutting government spending, the report argues: “Disinvestment in public transportation following demonstrable success would reverse these positive trends [i.e., the growing shift toward riding transit].”

Posted by Philip Langdon on 26 May 2011