Local

LA public transit woos seniors as baby boomers go gray

Grace Moremen, 85, checks the subway map at a Metro Red Line station in downtown L.A.
Grace Moremen, 85, checks the subway map at a Metro Red Line station in downtown L.A.
Meghan McCarty/KPCC

Listen to story

03:48
Download this story 1.0MB

As the massive baby boomer population grows older, many industries are shifting their practices to serve more seniors, public transportation among them.

For Los Angeles County's transit agency, the expected increase in non-drivers is good news since ridership has slipped in recent years.

According to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, only about 6 percent of its riders are currently over 65, although seniors make up more than 12 percent of the county's population.

But by 2030, one in five people in the county will be older than 65, according to a study from the University of Southern California, double the rate in 2000 and among the highest in the state and country.

Metro is already taking steps to make transit more usable and appealing to older passengers. The agency has been expanding accessibility in stations, buses and trains with features like extra elevators, color-coded priority seating, more space for wheelchairs and walkers, tactile paths on platforms and bigger fonts on signage.

"I think accessing the information and getting oriented is probably the biggest challenge we have" with seniors, said Lilly Ortiz, director of Metro's "On the Move" program that organizes and trains groups of seniors to use public transit.

Ortiz has recruited the authors of a new Los Angeles tour book to share their tips for senior travel with the groups.

Grace Moremen, 85, and Jacqueline Chase, 75, wrote "Loving L.A. the Low Carbon Way," which gives detailed instructions for 24 sightseeing adventures using public transit.

"It just opened up the city to me to be able to do it by public transportation," said Moremen, who spent her adult life driving in L.A. and only took to buses and trains in retirement.

Chase said she was surprised to find the system clean, efficient and easy to navigate. "It's really on a human scale," she said.

The book contains tips that might be particularly helpful to seniors: a hotline number to speak to a Metro operator for trip-planning assistance, locations of nice restrooms and suggested lunch spots.

The authors concede that it does take more time to use transit and requires a certain level of mobility that's not optimal for all seniors.

Having to walk between stations or destinations and frequently stand in waiting areas may prevent some older people from taking buses and trains.

"I don't think we want to romanticize transit for older folks," said Lisa Schweitzer, a University of Southern California professor of urban planning who is usually a proponent of transit use.

"I think people overestimate how comfortable it is for older people," she said. She pointed to crowded buses and trains, lack of benches in many waiting areas and passengers who sometimes fail to give up priority seating for seniors.

There are other likely barriers to accessing transit. According to research by the Brookings Institution, most aging baby boomers live in suburban parts of Los Angeles County and studies show they're likely to stay there as they age.

"If they behave similar to their parents, they’ll stay in their house until they can’t," said Schweitzer. "And that last move will be to a care facility. It won’t necessarily be to an urban apartment."

People also tend to hold onto their cars as long as they can, and opt for carpooling before transit, according to Schweitzer.

However, she sees great opportunity in new technologies like ridesharing apps and autonomous vehicles. Their convenience could convince more seniors to give up driving.

"I see that as a complement to transit. You’re much better able to rely on public transit if you know you can call somebody if you run into trouble," she said.

Metro's tips for seniors taking transit

Taking public transit isn't for every senior, but for those physically able to get around, here are some tips from Metro:

• Those 62 years or older can qualify for one of several discount TAP cards or passes. If you plan to ride transit frequently, a monthly card will probably give you the most value.

• Those who won't ride transit as frequently can pay cash. Take advantage of 35-cent off-peak senior fares. Off-peak hours include weekdays 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 5 a.m, weekends and federal holidays.

• Be careful getting on and off buses and trains. Hold on to the handrails and use the priority seating for seniors and the disabled. More safety tips are available on the Metro website.

• The  Metro's Move Riders Club gives seniors information and guidance on using buses and trains. There are about three dozen active clubs throughout the region. For information, coordinator Lilly Ortiz can be reached at 213-922-2299 or onthemove@metro.net.