May 25, 2009
See numerous senior transit positions — including two CEOs, one assistant general manager, and a senior vice president — in today's Classifieds.
|SPECIAL ISSUE: THE CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE
Reaching Out: Travel Training Provides Older Americans with Independence
BY SUSAN BERLIN, Senior Editor
As the U.S. population ages, more and more people are becoming either unable or unwilling to drive, but they don’t want to give up their independence. Many of them have no experience using public transit—and that’s where travel training programs are proving essential or effective.
Big and Small, Transit Systems Offer Programs
In California, the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) has operated the Senior Marketing Program since 2004 to help older riders feel comfortable with making the shift to public transit. Participants learn how to use various OCTA resources—the online trip planner and Customer Service Center—and take a brief trip that includes demonstrations on such bus features as the farebox, wheelchair ramp, and stop request.
“New riders may have a lot of questions,” said Judy Leon, OCTA marketing outreach specialist, “such as how to plan their trip; is the bus safe and how is it maintained; and, in general, what’s going on, including any service changes and up-to-date information including other access programs.”
OCTA gives promotional passes to all participants in the program, allowing the system to track transit trends. “We have ongoing relationships with senior centers, who are the ones who usually request for us to give the classes,” Leon added.
Dallas Area Rapid Transit began providing outreach to seniors more than 20 years ago, according to Sue Bauman, vice president-media and communications. “It began when we were identifying markets other than the usual business-commute market,” she said. “What came to mind were people who either cannot drive cars, don’t own cars, or—as they aged—became warier about their driving.”
Rather than conducting surveys or tracking senior ridership patterns, she said, the seniors “all have anecdotal experiences they share with us. They’re always eager to have us come out; they’re enthusiastic, they stay in tune with what’s going on, and they don’t want to be isolated because of either inability or fear of driving, especially after dark. It’s very positive that they have this option.”
DART also has expanded its senior outreach into the larger community by sponsoring an annual celebration during May, Older Americans Month. “The event brings together more than 50 exhibitors and live entertainment,” Bauman said. “It’s our way of thanking the organizations for their support through the year, but also a way to get seniors together with the agencies that support them in various ways.”
Smaller public transit agencies also understand the importance of travel training. For example, although the Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CAT) in North Little Rock has fewer employees and, therefore, less opportunity to present training regularly, the agency does make visits to senior residential complexes and fitness centers that cater to people over 50, and participates in community senior fairs.
“We will provide travel training, but it isn’t a regular part of our outreach,” explained Executive Director Betty Wineland. “We supply information…and when we visit a facility or just speak with someone who calls in, we offer the training.”
Easter Seals Project ACTION offers a lesson plan to create and implement travel training programs. At a May 5 session during the APTA Bus & Paratransit Conference, a presenter from Project ACTION joined representatives of King County Metro Transit in Seattle and Pierce Transit in Lakewood, WA, in discussing the role these programs play with public transit agencies and the use of travel training to move persons with disabilities away from paratransit and onto fixed ride vehicles.
“Is travel training the answer? It’s part of the answer,” said Karen Wolf-Branigin, training and technical assistance director for Project ACTION. She cited a survey showing that 106 transit agencies have contacted her organization for help with travel training, primarily to reduce paratransit costs and support customer independence.
“We need more than concern for the bottom line; we need to understand what we can do for you,” said Spencer Cotton, Americans with Disabilities Act certification administrator for King County Metro Transit.
Cotton noted that transit agencies should “assess community accessibility” and reach out to social service organizations when preparing transit training programs. He noted that other populations—such as special education students or young people transitioning from school to work—may benefit from learning more about how to access public transit.