As the number of Arizonans age 65 and older continues to grow, their ability to find available public transportation services are rapidly becoming more difficult, research shows.
During a news conference Tuesday in Phoenix, experts on aging and transportation discussed the Transportation for America report’s findings and the consequences of failing to address the needs of older Arizonans.
By 2015, nearly 250,000 seniors in the Phoenix metropolitan area will continue “aging in place” by living in communities where public transportation service is poor or non-existent, according to the report, “Aging in Place, Stuck without Options.”
“Older Arizonans are turning suburbs gray,” said Steve Jennings, AARP’s associate state director of advocacy. “The availability of public transportation options is dwindling. Older people enjoy their independence and don’t want to have to move.”
The reliance on automobiles began expanding in the 1950s, when urban sprawl began in the United States — a time when families moved out of the inner city and into expansive suburban neighborhoods, driving to work, to shop and to entertainment venues, the experts said.
But as people age, their ability to navigate by car diminishes or disappears, and they find it difficult to walk to bus stops or even out of their front door for local Dial-a-Ride services – if such services are still available.
Phoenix ranks sixth in the nation, out of 11 of the most populated U.S. metropolitan areas with 3 million or more people, with poor transit access for seniors ages 65 to 79, according to the report. By 2015, the Valley’s population of seniors ages 65 to 79 with poor transit options will include about 248,000 people, or 56 percent of that local demographic.
The Transportation for America report concluded that seniors have “poor access to transit” in cities with 3 million or more people, which includes Phoenix, if they, on average, have access to fewer than 1.9 bus, rail or ferry options.
Serena Unrein, a public interest advocate for Arizona Public Interest Research Group, said declining sales taxes and state budget cuts have affected local transportation options for Valley residents, particularly seniors in the Sun Cities.
Sun Cities Area Transit’s Dial-a-Ride, a longtime provider of transportation service to Sun City and Sun City West residents for doctor appointments and visits to the grocery store, fell victim to the sluggish economy earlier this year.
SCAT’s closure continues to leave a void for many elderly residents in the West Valley as many relied on the transportation service on a daily and weekly basis. Many of these seniors, who once relished their semi-independence, must now rely on family and friends to get around.
“Staying connected to family and friends grows challenging as we age,” said Kim Van Pelt, associate director of Arizona Health Futures for St. Luke’s Health Initiatives. “Public transit needs to play an important role in the effort.”
Without access to affordable travel options, seniors ages 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 family and friends than drivers of the same age, the report concluded.
“Absent access to affordable travel options, seniors face isolation, a reduced quality of life and possible economic hardships,” the report said.
Unrein said the lack of transportation options for seniors requires a national response from Congress, particularly given the fiscal constraints of local government. Failure to act quickly will lock in a future that leaves millions of seniors isolated and without options, she said.
AARP and Arizona PIRG are expected to lobby Arizona congressional leaders for increased dedicated funding for more forms of public transportation for the elderly, including buses, vanpools and ridesharing.
There will also be a push to provide funding and incentives for transit operators, nonprofits and municipalities to engage in coordinating existing services, public-private partnerships and outreach programs as part of advocacy efforts for seniors.
Zach Colick can be reached at 623-876-2522 or firstname.lastname@example.org.