CCRTA Aims To Transform Transportation For Seniors

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By: Diana T. Barth
Published: 10/29/10

The b-bus is soon to be improved and re-branded. Cape Cod DART is the new name planned for the upgraded, more efficient system that is coming. Operated by the Cape Cod Regional Transportation Authority with the assistance of new software, the implementation of those systemic improvements is just months away. New fixed bus routes serving Bourne and Sandwich are also under discussion.

But the changes to the CCRTA’s way of moving people on Cape Cod are not the only changes in the works.

Last Friday, a group called the Power in Aging Collaborative, made up of members of the not-for-profit, governmental and business communities who are interested in addressing issues associated with successful aging on Cape Cod, sponsored a “collaboration” on senior transportation that members dubbed “Mapping the Journey.”

The group the collaborative brought together began examining ways to create a future in which Cape Cod elders have the transportation options they need, not just to get to a doctor’s appointment, but to do things such as attend the symphony, or go to the beach.

Those who met last week included politicians, council on aging directors, regional transit authority members, and representatives from Cape Cod Healthcare, a bus company, and the state’s office of Elder Affairs. Among them were those who work with the blind, with Alzheimer’s sufferers, with the immigrant population, and with the disabled.

For some five hours, the group sat around a table arranged in the shape of a horseshoe in the back room of the Community Action Committee of the Cape and the Islands in Hyannis, sharing what they know, first, about the problems Cape Cod seniors experience in trying to get where they want to go and, second, about what their various organizations and agencies are doing at the present time to get them to their desired destinations.

They then started to build a collaborative effort designed to bring about their vision of a transportation system that works for the Cape’s seniors.

Warren K. Smith of the Senior Mobility Initiative of Cape Cod set out the issue. He said that better mobility means improved mental health and a better quality of life for seniors. Who knew, attendees said, that better mobility equals better health, but the statistics seem to suggest that outcome.

However, people outlive their driving ability by about eight years, on average. That means they need to rely on others to provide transport.

Massachusetts has the oldest population of all of the Atlantic states except for Florida. There are some 88,000 seniors in Barnstable County, accounting for about a quarter of the population. The median age on Cape Cod is about 50, Mr. Smith said.

Only about 7 percent of Cape seniors rely on public transportation; leaving more than 90 percent either still driving or relying on other people or private companies.

Giving seniors a better array of transportation choices is the goal; Mr. Smith called mobility the “linchpin” for successful aging.

The first of the baby boomers—those who were born right after World War II and are responsible for a huge bump in the nation’s population—turned 64 this year. Between now and 2040, when the peak in the aging population should be over, the challenge will be to get this now very active group of seniors wherever they want to go.

Those destinations may well include a tennis club more often than they do a clinic.

The CCRTA, which has been under the leadership of Thomas S. Cahir for the past year, has been working hard on that transportation piece of the aging puzzle.

A mobility assistance program has provided some 17 or so new vans to Cape councils on aging, Mr. Cahir said, and fares for the dial-a-ride service are now both lower and easier to calculate.

New fixed routes are being added, and the Upper Cape in particular has been targeted as needing them, he said. Further, the new Cape Cod DART system should make the dial-a-ride service more efficient. Now, he said, people are telling him that the b-bus gets them where they want to go, and back home again, but that a short trip can take half a day, as people have to go early to ensure getting to an appointment on time and then wait long after that appointment is over to take the bus home. The new software, and a new call center, should help use the buses more efficiently and eliminate much of those types of delays, he said. Some 10 taxis will be integrated into the Cape’s transportation system.

The system has added five buses, he told the group, and will be adding four more.

Drivers of DART buses, Mr. Cahir said, will be able to see computer-generated routes and have coordinated GPS systems to give them directions to where they need to pick up and drop off passengers.

Aside from buses in various zones, and the ability to schedule runs between towns, the system will also allow for enough buses to provide flexibility, moving a bus to where extra trips have been requested.

The CCRTA now has some 40 bus shelters, eight of which have already been put into place.

One healthcare provider said the lack of fixed routes to Bourne and Sandwich and a dearth of enough dial-a-ride buses running on the Upper Cape should solve what has been a problem for more than 20 years: finding reliable, low-cost public transportation to the rehabilitation hospital in Sandwich and to medical facilities in Bourne.

Among the best things about the public transportation that does exist on the Cape, an elderly services provider said, is the fact that COA and other buses provide door-to-door transport for those who need it—the disabled and the blind, for example—rather than letting people off at the curb, as is done in some places.

Indeed, the group that met Friday found a large number of things that are good about Cape Cod’s current way of transporting seniors, including the work of the councils of aging, the collaboration between those councils and the regional transportation authority, that system’s low cost, the Cape’s many willing volunteers, and the fact that the CCRTA is instituting needed and welcome changes.

Since November of 2007, when the last large-scale collaboration was held, the communication between organizations has become better, people said.

With the help of facilitator Nancy Jackson, MSW, of the New England Network for Child, Youth & Family Services, a nonprofit organization, the group began looking at issues that remain to be solved.

Among those identified was a way to integrate all of the transportation providers, perhaps, at some point in the future, with something like a Smart Card that would work for buses and train.

Group members mentioned the need for more off-hour bus service, on nights and weekends, serving not just commuters and workers, but those who want to visit friends or go to the theater or a movie. Also suggested was a marketing campaign to lift whatever stigma using public transportation may have, making transfer “less scary” with the use of better marked routes, bus stops, and posted schedules, not to mention shelters.

Mr. Cahir said getting permission to erect shelters on private, let alone municipal or state property, was sometimes problematic, but that his agency was working on that issue.

The need for more political support for public transportation was discussed, as were ways to reach those seniors who are not COA members or computer literate and, thus, are not aware of what is already available to them.

Those who work with the Cape’s immigrant population noted that some of those populations would think it an insult to send their parents on public transport, making one member note that a campaign slogan of “Support the Independence of Your Parents” might be helpful.

More options, and flexibility, perhaps with the use of volunteers, would also be helpful.

The CCRTA, one meeting attendee noted, should not be the sole solution to the problem.

Asked to come up with a to-do list of what they would like to see implemented within the next three years, at the top of the list was centralized transportation coordination, a person or group that could pull together regional transportation options beyond the COAs and the CCRTA, a “transportation broker,” if you will, who has lists of providers and volunteers, in other words all transport options available through a variety of different organizations and agencies, public and private.

The group did not want to create a new entity or duplicate services, but allow for more choices by the ridership.

Next on the list was a transportation line, a 511 plus system, somewhere a senior (or anyone else) could call a live person for help in planning a route to get from A to B on Cape Cod. Such a system would not replace the CCRTA’s line, but would give that agency a place to transfer people whose needs go beyond what that system can provide, perhaps linking to the human services referral system, if needed.

Third on the list is creating a positive public perception of public transportation on Cape Cod, starting with town, county and state officials and going outward to include a multimedia approach to marketing transportation options.
The public may begin seeing, for example, buttons that say “I rode the bus to get here” or “I DARTed here.”

In the next six months, the Power In Aging Collaborative members and others will be looking at models from other places, consulting with transportation experts, looking at funding sources, and starting work on a media campaign.

The stated mission in the wake of last week’s meeting: stop talking and start doing.

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