It is widely believed that as people age, they stop driving and, as a result, switch to using public or adapted transport services. However, this is not what is observed. In Europe, almost 50% of trips by people aged 55 and over are made by car, either as a driver or passenger. This percentage reaches 70% in Australia and 80% in the United States.(1)
Many older adults say that they have no other options for getting around… Yet there are a variety of alternative modes of transportation: public transit, flexible or adapted transportation, taxis, bicycles, walking.
So, what is preventing them from adopting alternative modes of transport?
What research tells us
A recent moderate-quality systematic review of 54 articles examined why public transport services (buses and trains), flexible or adapted transportation (which includes taxi-bus, community transport, and services for people with disabilities or reduced mobility), taxis, walking and cycling are often not seen by older adults as valid solutions to meet their mobility needs.(1)
1. Infrastructures and the built environment
Lanes, sidewalks and steps that are too narrow, broken or uneven, the lack of accessible toilets along the routes, as well as icy or snowy roads, sidewalks and trails are problems frequently raised by older adults. In addition, pedestrian lights often do not give them enough time to cross the road, and the distance between their destination and their residence can appear to be an insurmountable obstacle.
2. Health status
Sensory, cognitive and physical impairments due to aging are associated with a higher risk of falling. Lack of balance, difficulty getting on and off a bus, vision problems preventing them from perceiving fixed or moving objects, or the inability to quickly assess a potentially dangerous situation are all factors that can lead to fear of using alternative transport modes.
The lack of lighting in streets, paths and around public transit stops is an issue noted in the literature. In addition, certain behaviours of public transport drivers can sometimes affect the comfort and safety of older users. This is particularly the case when drivers do not stop close enough to sidewalks to get users on and off (thus requiring them to perform stunts to get on or off a bus) or who do not wait for them to be seated before leaving (demanding that users transform into tightrope walkers before finding an available seat).
4. Availability of services
Lack of flexibility in public transport routes and timetables, waiting times, the scarcity of taxis in some rural or remote areas, as well as the lack of or reduction in services outside of peak hours are barriers to use of alternative modes of transportation by older adults.
If they are not offered reduced fares, older adults cannot always afford to get around by public or flexible transport or by taxi.
The lack of weatherproof bus shelters, space, seats, handrails or toilets affects the comfort of older adults who use public transport.
7. Negative perceptions
Negative perceptions can have an influence on the choice of transport modes. For example, studies in rural Ireland have shown that community transport is recognized as a “female” mode of transport. Such prejudices thus seem to put off some older men. Other studies reveal negative perceptions of flexible transport services. These are often seen as a specialized service for disabled or disadvantaged people, and are therefore overlooked by many older adults.
8. Access to information
Finally, lack of access to clear and timely information can also be a barrier. Ticket options, schedules, maps and directions are not always clearly indicated, and many older adults have difficulty finding stops.
Of note, this systematic review was carried out before the global COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic will surely have an effect on perceptions of alternative modes of transportation and the risks of coronavirus transmission. While some alternative transportation may have gained in popularity since the pandemic (such as walking and cycling), it is possible that others (particularly public transportation) may have raised concerns among the general public.
Define your alternative transport needs
If alternatives to the car are not seen as viable options by older adults themselves, attempts to reduce their use of the car will most likely be unsuccessful. What solutions should be considered to meet their need for mobility?
1- Involve older adults in identifying alternative transportation needs, obstacles and solutions.
2- Inform and educate public transport staff about the needs of older users and how to meet them, but also older adults, directly in the places they frequent, such as churches, community or shopping centres, as well as health care establishments.
3- Examine how technologies can help you meet your mobility needs. Public transit organizations have increasingly developed their own mobile apps that allow you to obtain detailed information in real time. Other ride-sharing apps can also give you more flexibility when travelling.