Surviving public transportation as a senior

Under CC license from danisabella. http://www.flickr.com/photos/danisabella/3333828643/

Take a quick look around while on Muni, BART, or AC Transit, and you’ll notice that a lot of the people who depend on public transit are seniors. But not all seniors are that comfortable navigating the system. So at ages 70, 80, and 90, as Molly Samuel reports, some seniors are going back to school.

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MOLLY SAMUEL: Fran Chan rides the #38 bus just about every day. She lives on Geary Street in San Francisco. 

The 38 is a busy line, and in Chan’s neighborhood, there are lots of seniors who use it. But we get a seat right up front.

FRAN CHAN: (laughing) It never fails. I used to feel hurt.

SAMUEL: Because they thought you needed it?

CHAN: Or that I looked that old. Old age is funny, it creeps up on you. All of a sudden, you look in a mirror, and my god, you’re old.

Chan is 89. She gave up driving about three years ago. She was worried about getting in an accident. And though there are some places she doesn’t get to anymore, she says she doesn’t have many complaints about Muni.

Chan is independent. She can step outside her apartment and take the bus wherever she needs to go.

CHAN: Monday I go down to clear for discussion group and a drama group where you do drama reading. And then Tuesday I go to a music appreciation group.

For now, at least, she has no plans to move.

CHAN: Old people have to decide, whether you’re going to stay alone or move into group housing and you vacillate. But I finally decided, I can’t go live with other older people.

Chan’s not alone in her choice to live alone. According to the AARP the vast majority of seniors would prefer to stay in their own homes rather than move into a retirement community. And in cities, that usually means taking public transit.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which oversees the regional Clipper transit card, counted nearly one and a half million rides by seniors just in August. And not everyone uses a Clipper card.

Fran Chan feels pretty comfortable using San Francisco’s buses, but not all seniors are so savvy. For them, there’s Senior Survival School.

MATT WEST: Hello, my name’s Matt, I’m with Muni, the friendly neighborhood bus company.

Senior Survival School is a free program run by a San Francisco advocacy organization called Planning for Elders. They hold workshops on the challenges of navigating city living in senior centers around San Francisco. Today, they’ve brought in Matt West, who’s in charge of making sure Muni works for older people.

WEST: All our buses are accessible. They have the kneeler and the lift. Kneeler. Our state cars do have the little platforms that you can access from various locations.

About a dozen seniors have gathered at the San Francisco Senior Center in the tenderloin, some of them on canes or walkers. They’re taking notes, having snacks, and asking questions.

MAN: Will Paratransit take you to a 49ers game?

AVALINO: Paratransit will take you to a 49ers game.

WOMAN #1: I have had situations where the three front seats on both sides are full of very distinctly elderly people and beyond the three seats, people will not give up.

WEST: This is the bind we’re in, because we’re trying to legislate people being polite, which is a pain in the butt.

WOMAN #2: I was wondering, has Muni has started to work on the future, because I was on a bus last week and I’ve been on others, where seniors are getting up for other seniors who are in worse condition, like they have a cane or a walker. So I’ve seen buses where at least three-fourths of the people on the bus were seniors and some of them had to stand.  Have you started to work on that?

WEST: The way that we would most likely address that is when we purchase the new buses.

Since the number of seniors riding Muni is only going up city planners are looking at some long-term ideas as well as short-term fixes. Like creating smaller community routes that serve particular neighborhoods. But tight budgets mean there are trade-offs.

SARAH JARMON: A lot of the issues we see coming up are recently the cuts in services. Last year there was a 10% cut in the lines.

Sarah Jarmon is the director of Senior Survival School. She says the elimination of stops is one of the biggest problems seniors face. But it’s also not the only one. For one thing, It can be scary to get on a bus. Jarmon says many seniors are afraid of falling.

JARMON: People get pushed around a lot on the bus. They’re not seated before they take off.

Jarmon’s colleague James Chionsini says another problem is that buses don’t always stop.

JAMES CHIONSINI: Happens all the time. I’ve seen them pass people up. And a crowded bus is going to be a missed bus for someone in a wheelchair.

Seniors in the East Bay face many of the same challenges as their San Francisco peers. Cuts in service, for instance, are an ongoing issue. But there are also some more fundamental challenges. For one thing, the East Bay’s bigger. San Francisco’s Muni has about 5,000 stops and AC Transit in the East Bay has about 6,000. But Muni only has to serve about 47 square miles while AC Transit covers over 360 square miles. In short: almost the same number of stops, but AC Transit is much more spread out.

Jackie Rocket grew up riding public transportation in Oakland.

JACKIE ROCKET: When I was a kid we used to get on a small bus on 35th Ave. I took it down to what is now Macarthur, used to be Hopkins. I would get on the trolley, or a streetcar and go to work.

Now she lives in Fremont, and she drives just about everywhere.

ROCKET: But practically speaking, if the time comes that I can no longer safely use my car, then I’ll have to give up driving.

To prepare for that day, she’s attending Transit Training, a course similar to Senior Survival School sponsored by the city of Fremont. Unlike the seniors in the San Francisco class, who are for the most part familiar with Muni, Most students in this class don’t ride the bus that often. In this more suburban, car-friendly city, they still drive. So a big part of what they’re learning is just the basics of how to navigate BART and AC Transit.

Rocket, along with the other seniors participating in the class, has very specific reasons for being here.

ROCKET: Well seniors need to know these things. When you sit down, when it says you’re retired. You sit down at home, your muscles atrophy, your heart goes and then you die. So by going and doing as much as you possibly can, it helps you keep getting younger.

But her route isn’t as easy as Fran Chan’s in San Francisco. While she’s game to ride AC Transit, the closest stop to her house isn’t close enough.

ROCKET: Where I would have to go would be one, two, three. Three blocks. Long blocks, not short ones. Before I got to a bus stop. And that would be impossible for me.

Transportation for America, a national advocacy group based in Washington D.C., projects that by 2015, 65,000 seniors won’t have adequate access to public transit in Oakland. In San Francisco, it’s 34,000. And that’s just two cities.

As James Chionsini from Planning for Elders points out, economics and politics aside, one thing’s for sure.

CHIONSINI: The old folks are coming right now. So get ready, know what I mean? Because they’ll run you down if you’re not prepared.

For Crosscurrents, I’m Molly Samuel.

How do you get around the Bay Area? What about your parents – or your grandparents? Tell us your story at 415-264-7106.