Public Transportation Options for Older Residents

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Public transportation can be considered as part of an older person’s long-term care routine. Most public transportation routes are designed for getting to and from work at times workers are most likely to use the services, not where or when older people may want to go. And public options may not be well set up for people with limited mobility.

Even in New York City, in the extensive subway system, not all stations are equipped with elevators, so a person who has difficulty with stairs may be able to get down to the tracks to get on a subway train but find that there is no elevator service at the destination station.

Buses are now more likely to have lifts or ramps for wheelchairs or walkers and specially designated seats for passengers who are older or have a disability. Still, this adaptation is not universal. And buses have designated routes and stops, which may or may not be convenient.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires transportation agencies that provide fixed-route services (bus or train) to also provide paratransit services to people with disabilities who live within three-quarters of a mile from the fixed routes. These restrictions mean that not all older people will qualify for public paratransit services. Other differences include:

  • Destination: Some services only link to specific services, such as going to the doctor or shopping; others are more flexible and go where the passenger wants to go within the service range.

  • Assistance: The limitations that make it difficult for older people to drive may also limit their ability to use public transportation or paratransit. Some services provide mechanical assistance (buses that have wheelchair lifts or ramps and special seating; paratransit drivers who assist passengers getting on and off).

  • Information: Even if the service is available, if you have difficulty finding out the routes and how to make arrangements to use it, the benefits can be lost.

  • Socialization: While bus and van drivers should focus on the road, the way they greet passengers and help them on and off makes a difference. On a familiar route, passengers should feel free to chat, share their experiences, comment on the journey, and generally make the trip enjoyable. Some may prefer not to join in, and that should be respected as well.

The Beverly Foundation, no longer in operation, created a list of five characteristics of senior-friendly transportation:

  • Availability: Service available when needed during days, evenings, and weekends

  • Acceptability: Clean, safe, and courteous

  • Accessibility: Van comes to the door, bus stop is close by, vehicle is easy to enter

  • Adaptability: Adjustments for special needs such as wheelchairs or walkers

  • Affordability: Fees are low enough for people on restricted budgets, options for discounts

You can use these standards to evaluate the options available to your parent. Check with the local government office that runs the public transportation system to obtain a map of the system, which may or may not have up-to-date information on accessibility features. You can annotate the map with information on, for example, which subway stops have elevators and which bus routes go to shopping areas.

Area Agencies on Aging and Aging and Disability Resource Centers may offer fare assistance programs for eligible riders who can purchase vouchers at a discounted rate. The vouchers can be used to pay for services from participating transportation providers, including public transportation, taxi companies, or others.

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