Arlington County (Va.) Commuter Services was interested in exploring transportation issues around the growing senior-citizen population (65 years and older), which makes up 9.3 percent of Arlington County’s population of 216,700.
According to AARP, “nearly all older Americans say they want to live independently in their homes and communities for as long as possible.” Having access to transportation options and understanding how to use them is crucial for seniors to stay connected to family and friends, pursue day-to-day activities and maintain their quality of life.
On April 26 and 27, 2017, six focus groups were conducted in Rosslyn, Virginia at Mobility Lab facilities among Senior Citizen residents of Arlington County. A total of 65 senior citizens participated in the research.
- The Arlington County Seniors who took part in these focus groups are very active and strategic multi-modal transportation users.
- Driving oneself is still the primary mode of transportation for most of these Seniors. While there are definite downsides to driving, most like the convenience and independence.
- For most of these Seniors, there is an openness to using public transportation. Many are regular users of public transportation. Those who are not regular users are supportive of public transportation in the region.
- Metrorail is the most commonly used public transportation mode among these Seniors. While they have experienced and are well aware of MetroRail’s issues, they are mostly supportive of and optimistic about Metrorail in the future.
- While there are Seniors who will likely never use a public bus, some are regular users. Users, and even some non-users, praise the bus service in Arlington County as “underrated” and an “unsung service.”
- While many Seniors are aware of the Senior Fare and have a general idea of what the discount is, a significant number are not aware of Senior Fares. When informed about the discounted fare, responses were positive and many called for a campaign to spread awareness. Furthermore, many did not know (including some current transit users) that you could use a SmartTrip Card on the bus system and expressed that they are more likely to use the bus now that they have this information.
- Walking is a viable and preferred option for some Seniors. Some have even selected where they live because of the ability to walk to desired destinations. Walking serves the dual purpose of being both a means of exercise and transportation.
- Arlington County Seniors, by their nature or sheer necessity, are strategic travelers, considering a number of factors when deciding between transportation modes. These factors include time of day, parking options/availability, destination, mood, time constraints, and planned activities.
- With all these factors being considered by these Senior travelers when choosing a mode, it is important to understand that the mode decision is made prior to leaving the home. Seniors need to feel comfortable and confident with a mode before they will ever consider using it. They want to know exactly where the routes go, where to stand while they wait, and how to pay for it before they ever leave the house. This concern even influences driving habits, as some seniors mentioned that they like to do a trial run and scout out a destination the day before they plan to go there.
- Surprisingly, personal safety when using public transportation was not raised as a concern by these Seniors. They are mostly worried about system safety and reliability. Many shared fears of being stuck in the Metro or planning to use public transportation only to be left stranded. However, a number of these Seniors did express fears regarding personal safety when discussing Uber/Lyft drivers.
- For the most part, Arlington County Seniors are fairly tech savvy. They are generally comfortable with technology ranging from utilizing the internet to search for information to actively using a variety of apps on their smartphones. These Seniors by no means consider themselves old. In fact, many of their behaviors are not dissimilar to those of millennials, as they have very active and full social calendars, are willing to consider new ways of doing things (including modes of transportation) and, to a reasonable extent, are willing to embrace the latest technology.
- Whether it be from the internet, their smartphone, the Commuter Store or just from their experiences living in the area, Arlington County Seniors do not lack awareness of the transportation options available to them. And, they are familiar with the resources available to obtain any needed transportation information.
- The concept of providing ambassadors at transportation hubs to help show Seniors how to use the system was met with mixed reviews. While many thought this could be a helpful service, they also thought this program would be unlikely to attract new users to public transportation. The bigger barrier to usage is perceived to be getting non-riders into the system. There were also concerns raised over the cost of such a program. Offering “try transit” days (riders could travel at no cost) was also seen as a nice idea but still limited in its ability to attract new users.
- A travel training program was a very popular idea. Under that scenario, volunteers would teach area residents/Seniors what services are available to them and how to use them. This was seen as a highly effective way to reach non-users. Seniors also offered a number of suggestions as to how to get this type of program in front of the appropriate audience, including locations to offer the program (senior centers, community centers, libraries, civic/citizens associations, local businesses, farmers markets, etc.), platforms for wider distribution (online videos, local cable stations, etc.) and ways to promote the program (mailers, AARP, local magazines/newspapers, listservs, and at grocery stores).
- Driverless cars are a concept that virtually all the Seniors were aware of. However, openness to actually riding in a driverless car covers the spectrum from those eager to try today to others who would never consider it. The biggest concerns are safety and the newness of the technology, but most acknowledge that this will be part of the future.
- Many of the Arlington County Seniors who attended the focus groups preferred to avoid discussing the idea that there may come a time when they cannot or should not drive. Many see this time as being 10 years or more away. When pushed, some say they will move to senior communities that offer walkable amenities and transportation services. Others plan to increase their use of public transportation or other modes, such as Uber, taxis, volunteer drivers, or even driverless cars.
Related article: Transit should cater to similar needs of seniors and Millennials