Encyclopedia of Gerontology and Population Aging

Living Edition
| Editors: Danan Gu, Matthew E. Dupre

Access to Public Transportation for Older Adults

  • Wendell C. WallaceEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-69892-2_207-1



There is no one universally accepted definition for the term “public transportation” in the academic literature. For example, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (2017) defines public transportation as a system of transportation which includes a variety of transit options such as buses, light rail, and subways that are available to the general public, may require a fare, and run at scheduled times. On the other hand, Resolution 70/1 of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly (2015) defines public transportation as a shared passenger transport service that is available to the general public. To add to this definitional conundrum, public transportation is also referred to as public transport, mass transit, and public transit.

The UN submits that public transportation includes cars, buses, trolleys, trams, trains, subways, and ferries that are shared by strangers without prior arrangement. However, it excludes taxis, car pools, and hired buses, which are not shared by strangers without prior arrangement. It also excludes informal, unregulated modes of transport (paratransit) such as motorcycle taxis and three-wheelers (United Nations 2015). In the current entry, public transportation is conceptualized as a system of a funded group travel system for use by the general public on a scheduled basis using an established route with predetermined disembarkation points and a posted fee. Instructively, conventional wisdom suggests that publicly available transportation is inextricably linked to the basic human inclination for travel.

Due to exponential advances in public health, medicine, and medical treatment, people are now living beyond their life expectancy with greater frequency in almost every nation. In many countries, most of these individuals, now termed elderly, older adults, seniors, senior citizens, and/or older people, have been stopped from driving due to health and safety concerns, loss of desire for driving, and/or refusal to drive. As the number of older persons who are living beyond their life expectancy increases, and their ability and capacity to drive decreases, the number of persons who are reliant on having access to and use of publicly available transportation is increasing. This is premised on the notion that an ever-increasing aging population equates to a higher number of individuals who are reliant on state-sponsored transportation for their movement. In fact, the National Center on Senior Transportation (2008) points out that mobility options are essential for older adults to move freely about their communities even after they are no longer able to drive.


Hay and Trinder (1991) and Hamburg et al. (1995) point out that in many cultural and legal traditions, and under some circumstances, the ability to move freely and to access to certain activities, amenities, and destinations may be considered to be a fundamental human right. With this in mind, contemporary governments ascribe to the view that they should provide publicly available transportation for their citizens. This aspiration for access to public transportation is premised on the notion that socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, such as lower-income working parents, older people, university students, and individuals who simply cannot afford to purchase a vehicle have the lowest auto ownership rate, yet they possess extremely high mobility needs that are best served by public transportation, especially in auto-oriented locations, which require greater travel to access destinations and social amenities.

Quite different from traditional societies, people in the contemporary era aspire to live in mobile societies where they have easy access to goods and services, where they can move easily from place to place, and where they can travel quickly and efficiently. Without a doubt, travel facilitates the ability to reach essential opportunities such as workplaces, schools, shops, recreation, medical care, and friends, which affect the quality of life. According to Ohnmacht et al. (2009) and Lucas (2012), the lack of mobility is linked to social disadvantage and exclusion, and this is enhanced when public transportation is unavailable and/or unreliable. This lack of mobility is especially poignant as it related to the constantly increasing global population of aging and senior citizens. For some categories of individuals, but more specifically, older adults, access to transportation is of paramount importance as well as a growing concern among the senior population. This growing concern among older adults for public transportation was afforded legislative recognition as well as confirmation in the USA during the 2005 White House Conference on Aging. At the conclusion of the conference, transportation was selected as one of the top three priorities in terms of issues of daily life for older adults (National Center on Senior Transportation 2008).

The importance of access to public transportation for older people has been recognized by governments worldwide as they understand and/or appreciate that as people age, their desire to move from place to place does not diminish, but that their capacity to do so on their own may diminish due to a lack of personal transportation. With this in mind, access to transportation that is publicly available is viewed as an integral component of the state’s welfare apparatus as most states seek to ensure that access to transportation is readily available to their aging populations by the provision of state-sponsored transportation, discounted travel, bus passes (a regulated system of free transport for seniors in some jurisdictions), and various subsidized means of moving from place to place.

There has been much research conducted on public transportation and poverty (Titheridge et al. 2014), public transportation and women (Bhatt et al. 2015), safety and security on public transportation (Joewono and Kubota 2006), modeling access to public transport in urban areas (Saghapour et al. 2016), measuring access to public transportation (Bhat et al. 2005), and public transport supply (Daniels and Mulley 2013). However, research on access to public transportation for older people is in limited supply. Therefore, the current effort is aimed at closing this lacuna while seeking to add to the limited supply of literature on the subject area.

Typology of Public Transportation

Globally, there are many different forms of public transportation, and in various parts of the world, some forms of public transportation are considered legal, while in other parts of the world they are considered illegal due to a lack of safety and regulations governing their usage. Forms of state-sponsored transportation consist of a variety of modes and include, but are not limited to, (i) Buses, (ii) Trolleys and light rail, (iii) Subways, (iv) Commuter trains, (v) Streetcars, (vi) Cable cars, (vii) Paratransit services for senior citizens and people with disabilities, (viii) Ferries and water taxis, and (ix) Monorails and tramways (Joewono and Kubota 2006). Other forms of public transportation include city buses, open top tourist buses, trolleybuses, bullet trains, rapid transit (e.g., metro/subway/underground), and aerial tramway (sky tram, cable car, ropeway, or aerial tram).

Forms of public transportation differ across Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. For example, on the African continent, bush taxis, converted trucks, and minibusses (known by different names such as matatus in Kenya, dalla-dallas in Tanzania, tro-tros in Ghana, and poda-podas in Sierra Leone) are all forms of public transportation in addition to conventional buses, coaches, and trains. In Asia, motorcycle taxis, tuk-tuks, jeepneys, songthaews, bemos, trikes, and rickshaws are all forms of public transportation. In the context of public transportation, shorter travel is dominated by commuter trains, buses, streetcars, and subways; however, for longer travel between cities, public transportation is dominated by airlines, coaches, and intercity rail. Globally, it has been recognized that using a public transportation service is a public good that has well-designed “stops” for passengers to embark and disembark in a safe manner as well as well-established and demarcated “routes” that are both officially and/or formally recognized (United Nations 2015).

Access to Public Transportation for Senior Citizens

The importance of accessing public transportation for older people cannot be underestimated or undervalued. Among older adults in many parts of the world, this is a critical component of active transport, and the lack thereof is a commonly cited barrier to health care, for example. For instance, Wallace et al. (2005) point out that people who rely on public transit are most likely to miss appointments. Since, a lot of older adults consistently rely on public transportation for their movement, a lack of access would undoubtedly have a negative impact on them as they are more likely to be recipients of non-emergency medical services. In light of the pronouncement by Wallace et al. (2005), access to public transportation for older adults is of immense value.

Currently, millions of older people depend on others (children, grandchildren, caregivers, and the state) for their transportation. However, numerous issues abound due to this dependency, and this makes accessing transportation for them an extremely critical issue. Instructively, as individuals attain older people status, feelings of isolation can arise, and this provides the impetus for ensuring that they have access to public transportation. Importantly, this provides them with a sense of independence, contact with the outside world, access to a range of goods and services, and engagement with feelings of belonging to their communities. It is therefore imperative that older adults have access to public transit if they are to age in place (staying in their homes). However, the ability of older people to age in place depends on the availability of and access to supportive services such as public transportation. Importantly, access to state-sponsored transportation that is both reliable and efficient provides an essential link for senior citizens to take part in social activities such as shopping, health care, visiting families and friends, and socializing within their communities.

It is submitted that just as the provision of state-funded public transportation for older people is essential, so too are the critical components of such a system. For example, the Beverly Foundation (2008) has developed the five A’s of Senior-Friendly Transportation. These are as follows:
  1. 1.

    Availability: Transportation exists and is available when needed (e.g., transportation is at hand, evenings and/or weekends).

  2. 2.

    Accessibility: Transportation can be reached and used (e.g., bus stairs can be negotiated; bus seats are high enough; van comes to the door; the bus stop is reachable).

  3. 3.

    Acceptability: Deals with standards relating to conditions such as cleanliness (e.g., the bus is not dirty); safety (e.g., bus stops are located in safe areas); and user-friendliness (e.g., transit operators are courteous and helpful).

  4. 4.

    Affordability: Deals with costs (e.g., fees are affordable; fees are comparable to or less than driving a car; vouchers or coupons help defray out-of-pocket expenses).

  5. 5.

    Adaptability: Transportation can be modified or adjusted to meet special needs (e.g., the wheelchair can be accommodated; trip chaining – several stops in one trip – is possible).


For older adults, access to public transportation is important and includes door-to-door, fixed route, and ridesharing opportunities. As a form of public transportation, ridesharing programs provide transportation for older persons via coordinative efforts with someone who has available space within their vehicle. Ridesharing is preplanned and involves conveying seniors to a specific destination such as the doctor’s office, workplace, bank, or entertainment center. Door-to-door public transportation, or demand response, is a system where reservations are made to take older individuals from one place to another. This form of public transportation affords the aging population an enhanced form of comfort and flexibility for a small fee. Fixed route or scheduled services transport older individuals between fixed stops on a route. Reservations are not required to use this service, and a small fee is often charged for each ride. Despite the public transportation options available to older people, Kerschner (2004) points out that there are challenges associated with access to public transportation for the aging population and that these challenges concerning access can make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to use this service efficiently when available.

Future Directions of Research

The current research effort on access to public transportation for older adults is constrained by space as well as by scope, and this provides the impetus for research in the future on this crucial aspect of gerontology. For example, future research on access to public transportation for older adults should utilize a longitudinal approach based on actual populations in the Global North and Global South. Further, this research should aim to empirically measure access to and use of public transportation by this group of individuals. Another direction that future research on access to public transportation for older adults may encompass is related to Goal 11 of the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Goal 11 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” Specifically, item 11.7 of Goal 11 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals speaks to the provision of universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, for older persons as well as other disadvantaged groups by 2030. In light of Goal 11 of the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, future research on aging and access to public transportation for older adults should be conducted to analyze the extent to which Goal 11 is being attained. Finally, a comparative approach should be utilized to afford the readership insights into the functioning of public transportation systems for older people in various parts of the globe.


For older adults across all regions of the world, decreased access to private transportation is a reality that they face. With this in mind, access to public transportation is a key aspect of the regimen of their lives as it can be convenient, eases the reliance on the private modes of transportation, serves to reduce the dependence on caregivers and family members for transportation, and serves a social good as older people have the opportunity to travel on their own for social and other purposes. Further, for older adults, public transport is considered as being a more social means of transportation (Lei and Church 2010). In sum, access to and usage of public transportation by senior citizens promote sustainable lifestyles and a higher quality of life. Additionally, there are numerous benefits to older adults, their families, communities, and businesses from ensuring access to public transportation for this vulnerable group of individuals. In light of the challenges faced by older people in the context of their mobility, access to public transportation that is timely, reliable, cost-effective, and user-friendly is essential and should never be compromised.



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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice, Department of Behavioural SciencesThe University of the West IndiesSt. AugustineTrinidad and Tobago

Section editors and affiliations

  • Magdalena Klimczuk-Kochańska
    • 1
  • Andrzej Klimczuk
    • 2
  1. 1.Faculty of ManagementUniversity of WarsawWarsawPoland
  2. 2.Independent ResearcherBialystokPoland