How Do You Create Senior-Focused Transit in a Suburb?

This year, the City of Edina will debut a 1-day-a-week bus service aimed primarily at seniors. The Edina Transportation Commission is currently reaching out to senior residences and business groups in Edina to create a task force to help define the service. This task force will be responsible for setting the route(s) and stops the bus will make, as well as the day of the week and hours of service. We are working with DARTS to provide the service, since they currently operate 4 other senior-focused transit systems in the Twin Cities.

The aging of the baby boomer generation is resulting in a strong shift in the population of seniors in metropolitan areas. For example, Edina, the first ring suburb of Minneapolis, has the highest median age in the Twin Cities.

In the distant past, seniors would live as part of a family unit and would be taken care of as they aged. With rising incomes post WW II, and cars providing greater mobility, young families moved out to the suburbs and lived independently. As these suburban parents age into seniors, they often downsize into a nearby condo or assisted living, to keep connections with local friends & family. Recent studies have shown that it’s emotionally & physically healthier for adults to age in-place in their communities.

While suburbs started out as ideal places for young, active, car-focused families to get around in, this changes as residents get older. As seniors age, many cannot or choose not to drive a car, and regardless of ability, many do drive less frequently—older people tend to go out and socialize less, preferring to stay at home more.

In an urban environment such as downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul, seniors can often do all or most of their errands, socializing, & appointments on foot, in a wheelchair, and via transit. In a suburban environment, the lessening of travel by car means seniors are often isolated, as the lack of density means that transit is further away and/or less frequent, if it exists at all. The wide, fast, multilane roads in suburbs also mean that it’s harder for people with mobility challenges to cross streets safely.

And all that greenspace surrounding everything that looks so attractive when whizzing by in a car at 45-60 mph—or even jogging or biking past when young & fit—becomes tiresome to walk past when you’ve got arthritis, back pain, or other mobility-limiting conditions. The last thing you want is a decorative, curving sidewalk, as we all know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

Suburban seniors living in multi-household residences have a built-in density that makes transit easier and more cost-effective to implement, lowering costs for all residents. Any forward-looking city should try to meet the transportation needs of residents in all the stages of their lives. It’s relatively easy for dense cities to do this, but how can suburbs do it?

There are other services that seniors can take advantage of, such as Metro Mobility, but (a) not all seniors qualify, (b) it mostly takes riders to other buses, and (c) suburbs often don’t have the density to have frequent bus service where seniors need to go.

Since at least as far back as 2008, the transportation chapter of Edina’s comprehensive plan has noted the need for some sort of bus service to shuttle resident seniors to their destinations. City council-member Mary Brindle, for one, has been a big advocate of this “circulator” concept. With support from the council, the Edina Transportation Commission’s (ETC’s) 2017 work plan included an item to research a senior circulator bus, with the goal to launch it in 2018. So a subcommittee of the ETC was started, consisting of Larry Olson as chair, Erik Ruthruff, student member Jenny Ma, and myself, with helpful input from Mark Nolan, transportation planner for the City of Edina.

DARTS, a local non-profit dedicated to helping seniors with transportation & home maintenance, was brought in for presentations to the ETC, followed by meetings with the ETC circulator subcommittee. DARTS has a wealth of knowledge on senior transportation, having implemented bus loops in three Minnesota cities, with a fourth one debuting next month.

With the groundwork done, the ETC circulator subcommittee is now looking to launch a Circulator Task Force, comprising members from the ETC, DARTS, local senior residences, & businesses that seniors frequent. This task force will meet monthly to define the stops, route order, pricing, day of the week, and hours of service. It will also recruit corporate sponsors for the service. DARTS will handle the dispatching & operational side of things.

One of the first problems to be solved is the stops the circulator bus will make, and the order of those stops. While Edina is not particularly large at 16 square miles, there is lots of single family homes that a fixed-route bus couldn’t efficiently accommodate. There are a number of seniors-only residences that helps to concentrate the population, making the route much more efficient. Commercial areas are also aggregated in clumps, helping with efficiency, but compromises always have to be made.

Should there be one route or two? Is a loop or a linear route most efficient & user-friendly? While it might seem to make sense to use existing bus stops and benches, this is a door-to-door service, so stops will be at entrances & parking lots, rather than on the street.

The second big issue is scheduling. What day of week is best, and what hours are most desirable, considering limitations on availability? DARTS already uses its buses & drivers for other cities, so we have to work around that. There is the option of DARTS operating as dispatcher only, using some other facility’s bus, but where could we source a small wheelchair-accessible bus nearby?

A third issue is sponsors. We don’t want businesses at every stop to be on the task force, as that would make it too large & cumbersome. But task force members would be encouraged to recruit sponsors from several stops.

The task force will meet monthly until the service debuts in early summer, and then on an as-needed basis, since DARTS handles week-to-week operations.

Like any municipal service, it takes time and effort to get it right. Using an experienced partner like DARTS, and the help of the business & non-profit community, we hope to have a smoothly operating service within a few months that will provide our suburb’s seniors with an effective transportation solution.

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4 Responses to How Do You Create Senior-Focused Transit in a Suburb?

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke February 15, 2018 at 12:09 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this Lou. This is a really interesting idea for me, to figure out how to combine street safety and sustainability issues with the needs of seniors.

    • Lou Miranda February 15, 2018 at 3:05 pm #

      Thanks, Bill. It seems we’re all figuring this out as we go along. It’s good to hear others’ experiences and ideas, since every city has its own unique challenges.

  2. Eric Anondson
    Eric Anondson February 15, 2018 at 7:27 pm #

    Another consideration is planning for the future. If it grows in popularity, maybe instead of a zig zagging single route it becomes a pair or trio of routes.
    Taking inspiration from what Scott Weiner in the California legislature is proposing around upzoning along transit. If it grows in popularity, maybe zoning needs to be updated to be friendlier to future senior living apartments along this circulator.

    • Lou Miranda February 16, 2018 at 1:08 pm #

      All good points, Eric. The city has allocated enough money for up to 2 routes (or perhaps the same route on 2 different days). Someday, 3 routes would be heavenly.

      And, yes, it seems the council is pushing for greater density in Southdale & the other nodes, which is where most of the senior multi-resident housing is. So, while the circulator bus is aimed at seniors, we might see other residents taking advantage of it, since all our densest housing is in these areas.

      And then transit—which as you know is more of a regional planning task than a suburban city’s task—needs to get integrated into these nodes as they add density.

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