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Moving an America that is Both Big & Gray

Americans (and most everyone else in the world) are getting bigger. Yes, obesity is BIG news. Many of us have grown so large that the New York Times reports that public transportation operators are assessing just how big our rear ends are and what size seats to order for new rail cars and transit vehicles. New Jersey Transit, New York City Transit, suburban serving Metro-North commuter rail, even Amtrak are now adjusting seat and dining area size to accommodate a rounder rider.

Obesity is a personal and public challenge – contributing to chronic conditions that diminish quality of life and contribute to national health care costs. It is a big issue on its own…clearly requiring some sort of response from those that manage transportation services and public spaces. But we are not just larger, we are also grayer.

Remember the baby boomers, they’re not babies anymore, now turning 66 nearly one every ~7 seconds. The fastest growing part of the American population is over age 50 – and within that cohort, adults over 85 years old and older are increasing the fastest.

What is the agenda status of how we rethink, resize, and reengineer public transportation and all public spaces to accommodate an aging society? The response has largely been to provide alternative transportation for the disabled assuming that these services also meet the needs of an older traveler. They do not.

Older is not necessarily disabled. Physical access or parallel services provided typically by paratransit (e.g., door to door van service) meet some of the needs of those who have great difficulty or for those where it is physically impossible to use transportation facilities. Slowed by declining vision, strength and endurance, or for some, cognitive processing many older adults find navigating and using public transportation not quite impossible, but difficult enough to cancel trips that may be desirable but not a necessity.

The physical barriers to public transportation for older adults are not as obvious as seat size – consider the following:

  • walkways that provide access to neighborhoods but not the benches or shelter necessary to ease the access to public transportation for those walking from home, doctors’ offices or simply the coffee shop after visiting a friend;
  • public spaces that do not provide adequate lighting or security to reassure the older solo and sometimes frailer traveler;
  • facilities that have signage that is either hard to see or difficult to comprehend;
  • station designs and platform operations where the flow of people, activity and vehicles present so much cognitive clutter that it is both difficult and stressful to navigate;
  • electronic fare collection systems that are neither easy to understand or to use; and,
  • staff that is either in short supply or untrained to understand the needs of older riders
  • Improving these physical barriers do not just benefit the old, they make public transportation and all public facilities easier, more comfortable, and accessible to everyone of every age. These observations may be focused on public transportation, but airports, town and city retail districts, shopping malls, and countless other public spaces have significant work to do as well.

    While many of us may have become larger, all of us (with any luck) will someday be older. Rethinking America’s transportation infrastructure for an aging society deserves both high agenda status and investment. 


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