Riders of a certain age

As the holidays and harsh winter weather approach, this is often the time of year when families get drawn into a difficult decision — is it time mom or dad stopped driving? This can be one of the more vexing ordeals a son or daughter with an aging parent can face.

It's not a matter to be taken lightly. Seniors age 80 and older have the highest rate of fatal crashes per mile driven of any group, including teens, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The death of a Johns Hopkins University bicyclist nearly two years ago — killed by an octogenarian driver turning into a marked bike lane on University Parkway — underscored the potential risks involved.

One of the challenges facing families in the Baltimore region is that when the keys to the car are taken away, what safe and convenient transportation alternatives are available for the elderly? Certainly, there are some — from volunteer organizations that provide rides to seniors to public transit systems that offer discounts to older customers — but they are often found wanting.

Making matters worse, Maryland's population is getting older, on average, and the demand for transportation alternatives is only going to increase. In 2000 about 15 percent of the state's population was 60 or older, but by 2030 that number is expected to rise to 25 percent, an increase of 1.4 million people.

Federal law requires public transportation systems to offer a senior discount, and the Maryland Transit Administration's bus, light rail, subway and MARC commuter rail lines all exceed the requirement. But that can pose a problem, too.

The MTA discount is so great — the base bus fare is 55 cents as opposed to $1.60 — that it inevitably puts a strain on the agency's fare box recovery rate. Lawmakers in Annapolis want fares to cover 35 percent of the agency's operating costs. But last year, officials calculated that it would take an immediate 65-cent fare increase to meet that obligation.

Since seniors represent a growing percentage of transit riders, there would be pressure to lower the discount considerably — or else choose some equally unpleasant option, such as severely curtailing routes and hours. In either event, the goal of finding alternative transportation for senior citizens might not be met.

What Maryland needs are more transit options — not necessarily door-to-door service but reliable, affordable transportation. Not all seniors are dangerous drivers, of course — indeed, they tend to drive more prudently than the young — but aging inevitably causes a person's reaction time, cognitive skills, vision and alertness to gradually deteriorate. That's just the nature of aging.

The MTA is not the only source of transportation. Local efforts like Baltimore County's CountyRide program provide options for people age 60 and over and the disabled. They have been supported, in large part, by local hospitals and health care providers. Howard County's Neighbor Ride program, with its volunteer drivers, is also well-regarded and provides affordable transportation for such everyday needs as shopping, movies or restaurant meals.

But they are based on augmenting basic public transit services, not replacing them. The Baltimore region, in particular, has been underserved by transit; its subway and light rail systems pale in comparison to the public transportation investments that have been made elsewhere. For seniors to figure out how to navigate the various modes requires a code-breaker's dedication to the task (and that's just light rail ticket machines).

When lawmakers return to Annapolis in January, they ought to give some serious thought to boosting support for senior transit options, particularly if they continue to push for higher fares. Some form of MTA fare increase is inevitable, especially if legislators seek to raise the gas tax or otherwise augment tax revenue for much-needed highway, airport, port and public transportation projects.

But putting aside more money for transportation should also translate into expanding transportation options for seniors, not reducing them. Discounts for seniors are helpful, but not if they mean shutting down bus routes.

It's much easier to convince someone to retire from driving if he or she will still be able to get around. That makes investing more in transit not just good for providing jobs to the unemployed, expanding the economy, and improving the environment but in making our communities safer, better places to live for our parents and grandparents, too.

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