John Prince and his wife moved from Northern California to Vancouver, just north of downtown, about six months ago. The 75-year-old researched the area beforehand and wasn’t sure he’d be able to get around without a car. A retired real estate agent who primarily sold ranches, he’d spent his whole life driving on freeways and rural roads.
Veronica Marti, lead travel trainer with C-Tran, showed Prince how to use public transit to get to his medical appointments at Oregon Health & Science University in downtown Portland, and now, she says, he’s an expert.
“It’s so inexpensive to ride, I wouldn’t think of doing anything else,” Prince said.
A regional all-day pass is $2.50 for seniors or people with disabilities.
Prince said he tries to go somewhere every day, typically plotting his route on Google Maps. Some routes are trickier than others, and he doesn’t like crossing busy Mill Plain Boulevard to reach the bus stop by his house.
“For me, the bus system is just how I get around,” Prince said.
The Clark County Commission on Aging spent the last year learning how to improve local transportation for seniors like Prince. Lack of connectivity was a reoccurring theme among the experts who spoke before the commission. Nationally, 79 percent of people age 65 and older live in car-dependent suburban or rural areas, such as Clark County.
“How we connect those communities and get people to have other options to move around other than driving, I think, is going to be really imperative as our older population is growing so large,” Jacqui Kamp, a county planner who oversees the Commission on Aging, said in an interview with The Columbian.
A growing number of residents, currently about one in five, are 60 or older. The Commission on Aging is tasked with readying the county for the silver tsunami.
After listening to experts and gathering feedback from the community, the commission on Tuesday submitted findings and recommendations to the Clark County Council, hoping its report will lead to age-friendly transportation decisions.
“People need to be able to walk around their neighborhood. They need to be able to walk to a transit stop. That’s the goal,” Commissioner Marjorie Ledell said in an interview with The Columbian. “What will get people out of cars is the ability for an alternative to get where they want to go when they want to go.”
Most people want to age in their homes and need to maintain independence to do so. More than one-third of the county’s 65-and-older population has a disability and is more likely to rely on transportation services, the report said.
“Many residents live in areas with few alternatives to driving and will likely experience a decreased quality of life once they can no longer drive,” the report said. The harder it is to get around, the more isolated seniors become.
Obstacles to walking
Behind car travel, walking is the second most important means of travel for older adults. Walking accounts for one in four trips among older adults who do not drive.
But the county is built primarily for cars and lacks a safe walking environment. Prince sometimes uses a cane to get around. His neighborhood, Hough, is neatly organized on a grid, and it’s close to downtown, but the sidewalks can be uneven, he said. The county has a sidewalk program with a $200,000 annual budget, which the Commission on Aging would like to see bolstered.
Not all neighborhoods are easily connected to public transit, either.
“The distance between residential and commercial areas, combined with the absence of well-connected sidewalk networks, discourages the use of most modes of transportation other than the automobile and prohibits the opportunity for efficient public transportation,” the report states.
People are more likely to use public transit if they live within a quarter-mile of a bus stop. For Prince, the bus stop is just two blocks away.
“Everything’s about getting people where they need to go, when they need to go in a timely manner. That’s the challenge before us,” Ledell said.
The report noted that other communities, such as Tigard, Ore., are retrofitting existing neighborhoods and incorporating other mobility options into new developments. Tigard is identifying existing and missing sidewalks, finding ways to boost pedestrian connectivity and redeveloping Tigard Triangle, an area of big-box stores and parking lots, into an active, mixed-use district.
The Commission on Aging’s recommendations include retrofitting existing neighborhoods to improve walkability, improving access to transit, making sure land use and planning reflect a more connected community, and figuring out creative ways to fund improvements. The group also would like to see immediate transportation needs met, which include expanding C-Tran’s travel training program that helped Prince become comfortable using transit.
Linda O’Leary, who chairs the commission, said the recommendations benefit people of any age.
“The mother pushing the carriage and the 3-year-old walking next to her is going to benefit just as much, if not more, than an older person,” she said.
Last year the commission penned a letter asking the county to adopt a Complete Streets policy, citing the need for streets to be safe and convenient for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians, regardless of age or ability. Kamp said having a Complete Streets policy opens up some state funding options.
Ledell said she finds it kind of funny that the Commission on Aging is one of the more forward-looking organizations in Clark County.
“People think technology is in the future, but it isn’t. It’s here. It’s right now,” she said. “The smartphone will be the smart car will be the smart home will be the smart city.”
GoGoGrandparent allows seniors to request a ride from the ride-sharing apps Lyft and Uber without using a smartphone. Ledell said she would also like to see Clark County develop a program similar to GoDenver, a mobile phone app that helps people find the cheapest, greenest and fastest travel routes.
“More and more people of age are using technology,” O’Leary added.
O’Leary and Ledell said they think technologies such as automated vehicles are good for all ages but may be needed sooner by older people, who may have slower reaction times as they age.
“Automated vehicles don’t text, they don’t drink, they don’t get road rage and they don’t get senile,” Ledell said. “If I could choose, I’d put technology in the driver’s seat. I’d get in an automated vehicle right now.”
The Commission on Aging will hold a summit on transportation with C-Tran and the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council next month. Afterward, the commission will begin a new speaker series on this year’s focus: healthy communities, a topic that also looks at connectivity.