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For most of us, mobility is a necessity we take for granted. Among life's essential routines and responsibilities, we jump into cars to travel a few blocks or several miles at will. Yet, for millions of elderly Americans, individuals with disabilities and people who do not own private vehicles, there are few transportation options, not only in urban areas, but rural areas as well. The result is often a life of forced isolation. Such isolation often leads to depression, which in turn leads to deteriorated physical health. As the elderly population swells this problem will become increasingly more serious and costly - economically and socially - unless we make solutions like a coordinated public transportation system a national and state priority.
As people age, they tend to drive less, often limiting their time behind the wheel to local streets and daylight hours. In fact, more than one in five older persons does not drive. That figure is projected to increase. According to "Aging Americans: Stranded Without Options," a new study sponsored by the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) in collaboration with the AARP, more than half of all elderly nondrivers stay home regularly. Without an alternative to driving, older Americans make fewer trips for life's necessities, including trips to their health-care professionals, shopping, social, family and religious activities, recreation, etc.
For older Alaskans, public transportation can be a lifeline. In places where public transportation exists nationwide, many older individuals use transit every day, completing an estimated 310 million trips each year. Elders of color, people with disabilities, and other transportation-disadvantaged individuals, many of whom are concentrated in metropolitan areas, account for a significant share of these trips, with African-American and Latino elders using public transportation most often. However, public transit also plays an important role in rural America as well.
Transit options for the transportation-disadvantaged remain sparse in too many places. The "Aging Americans" study notes that two in three adults cannot choose to take public transportation because service is not available in their area, or does not operate at the times they need it, or is too far from their homes. Rural and small-town older Americans are the most adversely affected, as we know to be the case here in Alaska. There simply is not enough availability for anyone who wants to stay in their home and maintain their independence.
Providing practical public transportation choices for the rapidly aging population calls for a comprehensive, long-term approach for two reasons. First, lengthy lead times are required to plan, improve and expand our nation's transit infrastructure. Second, the problem will quickly become far more serious. The number of Americans who are age 65 or older is projected to increase from 35 million today to more than 62 million by 2025.
Many concerned Americans, including members of the AARP, American Public Transportation Association and STPP, are calling for substantial funding increases to provide better transit options and more flexible programs to serve older persons. Currently, Congress is considering ways to reauthorize and expand the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA 21) to ensure that public transportation programs are fully funded, more widely available, and successfully integrated with community and social services. AARP wants to assure that the pending legislation will increase funds specifically targeted to transportation for older persons and individuals with disabilities under the 5310 program. We are particularly concerned that the legislation allows the 5310 program funding to be used to support the operation of human service agency vehicles.
America's changing demographics present real mobility challenges. However, solutions do exist on many fronts that can preserve independence for older Americans, individuals with disabilities, people living in rural and remote communities and low-income individuals now and in the future. Through increased federal investment and community support, transportation programs across the country can help fulfill the promise of a rewarding life into older age.
Billie Lewis is a former executive director of the Anchorage Senior Center and an AARP Alaska volunteer.