Transit and seniors

Michael Lewyn's picture

I occasionally have speculated that our aging society would lead to increased transit ridership, as seniors lost the ability to drive. But I recently discovered that seniors are actually less likely to use public transit than the general public. One study by the American Public Transit Association showed that 6.7% of transit riders are over 65 (as opposed to 12.4% of all Americans).(1) The oldest Americans are even more underrepresented on America's buses and trains: only 1.5% of transit riders are over 80, about half their share of the population (2). The only other age group that is underrepresented on public transit is Americans under 18.

Why might older Americans be more car-dependent than younger Americans? It could be argued that older Americans are "locked into" car-dependent sprawl, having bought houses many years ago. But 55-64 year olds are probably just as "locked in" to their houses, but according to APTA's on-board survey of transit riders are actually slightly more likely to use transit than the general population (though less so than 20- and 30- somethings).(3) So this explanation is unlikely to be the best one.

A more likely reason is that older Americans are less likely to work, giving them less incentive to travel generally. But why aren't retirees who do travel abandoning driving for transit in large numbers?

Now that I have a not-very-mobile 89-year-old father, I can suggest one possible explanation: if your body is sufficiently troubled that you can't drive, it is often sufficiently troubled that you can't walk very far (or very safely, given the high level of harm from falls), which in turn keeps you from walking to a bus.

(1) (page 37).

(2) Id. at 38.

(3) Id. at 37. However, the evidence as to this age group is more ambiguous; a national household survey showed that 41-60 year olds were slightly underrepresented on transit, though less so than seniors. Id. at 38.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Know your "socio"

Michael. Higher "senior citizen" mobility is one of the REASONS for the USA's higher VMT (compared to, say, European nations). So is higher "low income earner" mobility.

The most important factor of all is the proportion of the population that are married, have children, and are both working. It is simply less possible to locate one's home as efficiently relative to 2 jobs, and schools, and retailing and other amenities required by a family; and affordably obtain the essential amounts of living space; as it is for Europe's trendy metrosexual "singles" to locate near their job and their niteclub.

By the way, you try interviewing a few elderly people about giving up their cars. (Do the same for housewives of any age).

How much have you seen of Europe's highly-restricted-mobility elderly who cannot afford to run a car (because of punitive taxation on cars and petrol) and in many cases cannot pass the very high standard for drivers licensing once their eyesight and reaction times have deteriorated? I suggest that the elderly in the USA would accuse you of cruelty if you advocated the same fate for them.

Cruelty to the Elderly

"in many cases cannot pass the very high standard for drivers licensing once their eyesight and reaction times have deteriorated? I suggest that the elderly in the USA would accuse you of cruelty if you advocated the same fate for them."

I had an elderly landlady many years ago who could barely see but who (like many Americans) could not imagine living without driving. She kept driving until, one day, she plowed into another car that she did not see right in front of her. Lucky it wasn't a group of pedestrians she plowed into.

Oh, excuse me, I guess it is cruel of me to think about protecting the lives of those pedestrians. They should be driving instead of walking, anyway, since we all know that more mobility is always better.

Charles Siegel

Germany is an extreme, "outlier" case

I should have made it clearer that the German standards involve extremely advanced testing of drivers in very high speed driving and vehicle control in emergency situations - the sort of thing that is the stuff of "advanced driving courses" in most countries. The cost of this testing and licensing in Germany is several thousand Euro.

Of course I agree with you that "minimum" standards should exist for the protection of the public. In fact I would agree that in the USA and many other countries the standards are too low. I actually admire the German penchant for the freedom to drive very high speeds, accompanied by a necessarily very high level of restriction on who is therefore allowed to drive at all.

I just disagree that MASS transit is the appropriate "mobility" substitute for ALL the people excluded from driving, in this day and age. Subsidised para-transport would be a far better match for the modern urban economy in all but the existing best-patronised routes. The fact that in Germany, low income people tend to be under-represented in mass transit ridership as well as car use, confirms my intuition that real estate markets always "ration by price", those locations that capture the benefit of subsidised transit services. Presumably lower income earners in Germany are bicycle riders - or just don't get around much at all. The likelihood of them being located in "walkable" communities other than in rural exurbs, is even lower than their chances of being able to afford efficient locations relative to transit. (I met an elderly German only a few years ago who STILL used an ox-drawn cart to get around his village).

But we need to understand that it is not valid or honest of transit advocates to keep pointing to Germany as an example of policy factors and alleged "preferences" that in fact are little to do with the outcomes, given the existence of what I am referring to above, both the demographics and the artificial, punitively high cost of driving.

"Vehicle Ownership and Income Growth, Worldwide: 1960-2030" by Joyce Dargay, Dermot Gately and Martin Sommer (2007) points out that Germany and the UK are outliers among the European nations due to punitive impositions on drivers and car owners (far in excess of anything necessary to correct for externalities and the cost of roads). There is a very interesting "S-shaped" relationship between incomes and automobile ownership that holds very constant for almost all nations in history. France and Italy, for example, appear to be on track to achieve vehicle ownership "saturation" at a level close to the USA. The same goes for Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Developing countries are tracking along the same "S" curve; they are just still closer to the bottom of it.

Evidence: consumer surplus and economic value

The fact that such a high proportion of people in Germany still actually drive even with punitive costs something like treble the necessary level to correct for unpriced externalities, is evidence of very large "consumer surplus" for "automobility"; this is prima facie evidence for a very high economic value of automobility.

No such "consumer surplus" or prima facie evidence for a very high economic value for transit, exists.

Seniors citizens and transit

Reasons will vary. Many senior citizens prefer smaller communities that are more intimate. Mass transit doesn't exist in those smaller communities (population less that 10,000). So they are dependent on others to give them rides. Some seniors are intimdated by some of the more boisterous riders such as school kids. Some have visual problems or hearing problems or get lost if they are away from familiar surroundings. Some live alone and don't feel like going somewhere without someone they know who will accompany them. Some are just plain tight on their money and don't feel like spending it on transportation if they can help it.

The reasons? Ask seniors

Rather than relying on assumptions and speculation, it's easy enough to do the qualitative research and actually find out what older people really think. There are a lot of really basic things going on with direct relevance to seniors, in addition to the feeling of independence that car travel gives them. For example: many of our bus stops offer poor weather protection; there is no way to carry very much in terms of shopping, due to limited on-board storage and the need to carry everything from the bus stop to your home; bus seats are too small, resulting in people squashed up uncomforably against one another; buses are enclosed environments, with no escape from other people's ill health.
Also, while I am speaking from Australia, it has been put to me that in many parts of the USA, public transport is a social issue in the sense that residents of upper-middle-class white areas have told me that they wouldn't be caught dead on a bus, as 'public transport is for poor people'.

The rising unintended consequences of Public subsidies

All good points, Dacquiri.

Actually, public transport increasingly is not for poor people. The way urban economies and real estate markets evolve, the locations where poorer people "cluster" are continually deflected further away from locations where amenity value is captured.

This is especially marked for rail based public transport; this is why commuter rail riders often do not have a low average income. Activism is just starting to arise related to the fact that rail based public transit increasingly swallows a disproportionate share of subsidies (it is inevitable that rail based transit becomes steadily less efficient in the real world) and bus services are often cut back to keep the rail service funded. This disproportionately affects lower income people who do get to live on bus routes far more than rail routes; a "disaparate impact" case is wending its way through the Courts in LA right now.

Even bus services tend to be most patronised where multiple routes converge near CBD's; and the people thus benefiting from the very frequent services at those locations are usually not low income people.

Many public transport riders these days are actually upper-middle-income people travelling to their CBD jobs, and feeling "holier than thou" because they are using "sustainable" public transport. It is ironic that a large share of public subsidies are being swallowed up in what is a boutique service provision to relatively well off people at relatively "price rationed" locations.

Social attitudes towards public transport

Yes, it probably depends on the culture of the particular place. My recollection of living in Washington DC, for example, where the Metro underground system and express buses provide convenient transport between the city and outlying suburbs in Maryland and Virginia, is that there was no stigma attached to using public transport. This is different from Austin, Texas, however, where I was exposed to strongly-held attitudes about what certain socio-economic classes 'do' and don't do. These attitudes will be difficult to overcome, although a lot more could be done to address some practical barriers, including re-designing seating to provide more private 'space' (eg, through the use of larger seats and slightly staggered or off-set seat arrangements), more space for carrying bulky items, etc.


Cap'n Transit touched on this issue in a post from 2009, evokatively entitled "Many segments of the population are too old for this s**t" -- .

He makes a point that is somewhat similar to yours about transit becoming difficult for people as their mobility declines -- but with more of an emphasis on issues of comfort and convenience than on the actual ability to walk to a bus stop. He also discusses options such as the more luxurious express buses that are more expensive than regular transit and "designed to capture some of the market that was leaving the transit system."

At a personal level, I have inlaws in their eighties who retired twenty years ago from suburban Long Island to Jerusalem, Israel. They gave up their car(s) as part of an overall downsizing, trading in their large suburban house for a small city apartment as well. Although they live in a rather sprawling peripheral neighborhood of Jerusalem that offers few amenities within walking distance, they do have good bus service to the center of town, and seem quite content with their tradeoff. However, it was part of a big adventure of retiring to a different country with different standards. Had they stayed in American suburbia, they very likely would still be driving. At least my FIL would be. I suspect that older females are more likely to give up driving than are older males.


More reasons - the privacy issue

This commentary from the Australian blog, The Urbanist, may be useful. The relevant chunk reads:
"I think it’s very important that policy-makers, particularly those involved with public transport, understand and acknowledge the desire of contemporary travellers for privacy and personal control. Of course there’re many other improvements that need to be made to Melbourne’s public transport system, but this perspective suggests that, for example, safety, security and comfort are key values for existing and prospective public transport users.
We’re accustomed to think of security issues in terms of danger and crime, but I suspect there are many more low level “privacy invasions” that have a key role in turning Melburnians off public transport. The perception of danger rather than the actuality is one possibility. The prospect of annoyance, irritation or frustration from the actions of fellow passengers might also loom large in the minds of many travellers, perhaps especially those who are potential users.
Public transport can’t ever be made as private as a car. But it might be attractive to more people if greater attention were given to the ability of patrons to choose the level of “privacy” they want to enjoy while travelling on trains, trams and buses. They could only do that if there were a dramatic increase in the level of civility – of “respect” for others and the system – on the part of all travellers."

One reader noted that, "‘Public transport should certainly be designed to make ‘functional privacy’ easier’" and another referred to a conference speaker’s argument which ‘essentially boiled down to the concept that the traditional Australian urban form (a fully detached house, on a block with a garden and a fence surrounding) has created a psychological barrier against the idea of sharing space with strangers. He then continued to argue that the Australian’s love of the car was an extension of the same kind of thinking. Everyone in their own little box, with plenty of empty space surrounding them until they reach where ever they’re going.’

I am not aware of how much actual research there is on this, but these observations tally with comments I have heard. The 'privacy' issue may also be at least part of what's going on with the 'social stigma' issue in the sense that public transport involves not only the relinquishing of personal space, but an acceptace of sharing close-quarter space with people with whom you would not necessarily choose to associate in other venues, and that makes some people very uncomfortable.

Transit, privacy, and civil society.

The comments in a blog that copies the Urbanist should be read as well, contextualizing the basic problems in Davies' argumentation. That is: learn the basic skill of how to deal.



aging and busing

Michael, as an "aging" transit (and bicycle) user, I am not typical but I do have a thought about my age peers. Aging is a many faceted process. Aging occurs in many ways, just as it may appear delayed in many ways. Your father (bless his heart) is facing his personal mobility problems just as we all do - hopefully we all age!! But the use of transit may increase or decline depending on the individual condition of the senior. Being able to walk is one factor; others are sight, hearing, cardio vascular condition (the good medical advice is to encourage walking) ... well, you get my meaning. An unspoken problem that may not make it into your statistical set is fear - and so the senior stays home and does not appear in rider stats. Fear of, well ... no need to list them all; each will daily appear on the 10 pm television "news" and modulate the decisions of many viewers. I'm no demographer but it also occurs to me that we are taking better care of seniors, at least in one respect - more care delivered to the home. Being house-bound (isolated?) may increase one's fears of getting out.

Bill Sell

building block set

NEW! Build the world you want to see

Irresistible block set for adults when placed on a coffee table or desk, and great fun for kids.
Red necktie with map of Boston

For dads and grads: tie one on to celebrate your city!

Choose from over 20 styles imprinted with detailed city or transit maps.

NEW! Get the "Green Bible"

Understand the complexities of planning at the local level while preparing for the AICP* exam. Find out why this edition is included in the APA's recommended reading list.
Book cover of Unsprawl

Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places

Explore visionary, controversial and ultimately successful strategies for building people-centered places.
Starting at $12.95