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Northern Virginia

Expanding Curb Service For Seniors

Using Survey, Transit Panel Seeks to Draw Older Riders

By Lila de Tantillo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page C04

Northern Virginia's seniors don't always operate on the same schedule as the 9-to-5 commuter. They might head to a doctor's appointment midmorning and then to a community center about lunchtime.

Many have opted to stop driving altogether. But they have few other choices, as public transit is geared more toward rush-hour travel and longer trips than those usually taken by senior citizens, experts have said.

Betty Stevenson, 78, outside the Prince William nursing home where she works, often takes an OmniLink bus. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

Now, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, a regional agency that coordinates transportation services, intends to find out how to do more for seniors.

"It's still an issue when people give up the car keys: 'How do they get around?' " said Steve Yaffe, planning manager for FASTRAN, a Fairfax transportation agency that provides door-to-door service for seniors and people with disabilities. "We have to be cognizant of the different levels of disability or ability when we design services. Some are capable of walking to the bus and getting on; others are frail and need assistance."

Next month, 1,630 seniors -- residents of Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties and the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax and Falls Church -- will be surveyed about their transportation needs. In May, at least 60 will be invited to meet in focus groups to discuss existing public transportation services and to consider new ideas, and planners will conduct 20 interviews with seniors who are unable to attend such a meeting. A report is expected at the end of the year.

"We'd like to understand how we could attract them to our system," said Jana Lynott, a senior transportation planner for the commission and the manager of the survey project. She noted that by 2030, the ratio of people 65 and older in Northern Virginia is expected to increase dramatically, from one in 20 residents to one in seven.

Meantime, the percentage of seniors nationwide using public transportation has decreased for several decades. "We want to make sure we don't fall into the trap of the rest of the country," Lynott said.

The study, which will cost $118,000, will be funded mostly by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. An additional $4,000 will come from the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission.

Betty Stevenson, 78, of Woodbridge learned the advantage of public transportation nearly a decade ago. Three times a week, she takes an OmniLink bus, which will go as far as three-fourths of a mile out of its way for a passenger. The 16 buses on five routes have an entryway that lowers to about curb height. They also have extendable ramps for those who use walkers or wheelchairs.

"These buses are a lifesaver," said Stevenson, who first began taking OmniLink to a nursing home to visit her mother. Stevenson also uses the service when she needs to go to a doctor's appointment or Potomac Mills Mall.

"Before, I was taking cabs because I didn't know anything about the buses," Stevenson said.

Although the bus was designed especially for those challenged by the steeper steps of other public transportation vehicles, officials with the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, which provides the service, said the low floors have benefited the Prince William ridership. "It made good sense, because it's faster to board and easier to maintain in general," said Eric Marx, director of planning and operations for the agency. "And for people who have some sort of mobility limitation, it's a major plus."

Esther Trask, president of the Loudoun County chapter of the AARP, said that what seniors need most from public transit is flexibility. Older people might not be able to wait outdoors for a vehicle for extended periods of time, or even understand complicated bus schedules, she said.

"The seniors are constantly complaining about the transportation issue and how they can't get around," Trask said. "That's why a lot of older people drive as long as they possibly can, even when they shouldn't be. They're plain stuck."

Jane Hardin, transportation specialist for seniors for the nonprofit Community Transportation Association of America, said public transit is a senior's lifeline. "Transportation is what will connect seniors to medical appointments, to libraries, to life in the community," she said. "Without transportation, people will be stranded in their own homes."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company