Upcoming Presentation: The Predictable Disruption of an Aging Population

Next Thursday, I’m going to be presenting at MassDOT’s Moving Together conference on the impact of the aging population on transit operations. Moving Together is right up my alley, focusing on pedestrian, bicycle and transit transportation. I’m really looking forward to presenting this year, because I’ve attended it for years, been on the planning committee twice, and yet never been a presenter (though did moderate a session last year).


The Problem: Population Bulge and Exploding Demand

In case you didn’t know, there are two big generational cohorts in the country: Baby Boomers and kids of Baby Boomers (Millennials). These “population bulges” look like this:

Massachusetts population pyramid projections. Source: UMass Donahue Institute, Long-term Population Projections for Massachusetts Regions and Municipalities


“Why does this matter to transit providers?”, you may ask. Well, it’s because there are two primary kinds of rubber-tire service provided by a transit agency:

  1. Fixed Route – This is the traditional bus service that most people know about. These are the big buses that travel a set route on a regular schedule.
  2. Demand Response (AKA paratransit, AKA van service) – This is service required by the federal government for people who can’t use regular fixed route buses due to a disability. It takes people door-to-door from their home to destination, and so is sort of like a taxi service. Some transit agencies (including PVTA) also provide this service for seniors.

As the Boomers get older, we are seeing an increase in demand for paratransit service. This isn’t surprising; we’ve been building suburban and exurban housing for fifty years that only works if you have access to a car. This has been called “Peter Pan Housing,” because it assumes you will never grow old.


PVTA fully accessible (paratransit) van. Source: Metro Magazine


Once people living in these auto-dependent homes can no longer drive due to macular degeneration, dementia, or mobility problems, van service may the only connection they have to doctors, shopping, and friends and family. And we are already seeing an aging population driving an explosion in demand. The Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA) saw a 21% increase in demand in 2016, putting enormous strain on the system. 

Sorry for the acronym-laden chart; The important part is that PVTA van service for seniors (red line) has skyrocketed over the past year. Source: NTD

The central challenge is paying for the service. According to National Transit Database data, PVTA van service is 5 times more expensive than fixed route service on a per-trip basis (and other transit agencies are up to 10 times more expensive). This means that a surge in ridership is a profound financial strain; with 70 million Baby Boomers entering old age over the next 15 years, it could even be an existential challenge.

Some Solutions

My presentation covers strategies to cope with this surge in ridership. A few of them are:

  1. Coordination with other transportation providers – There is already a bunch of transportation service out on the road; just make sure that someone else can’t provide the trip before your transit agency sends the van out.
  2. Discounted/free fixed route trips – Since van service is so much more expensive than fixed route transit, a transit agency could provide the trip on fixed route for free still save a lot of money. 
  3. Housing Incentives – I don’t know if any transit agency is doing this, but as I mentioned above, housing patterns are a driver of this explosion in demand. An agency could easily spend upwards of $20,000 per year on a single passenger living in a hard-to-serve home in a suburban or rural area. What if the agency took that $20,000 and provided an incentive payment for that customer to relocate to an easier-to-serve location, or an assisted living facility with its own transportation? It could be a win-win for the customer (who would have better access to services) and the transit agency (which can devote savings to other transportation services).

Those are just three of a host of solutions I will be presenting. Also, I’ll be featuring a clip from the Golden Girls to drive home my point! I will be presenting from 2:30 – 4:00 in the Berkeley/Clarendon room at the conference – please swing by and check it out if you’re at the conference. And afterward is the happy hour hosted by Young Professionals in Transportation – Boston Chapter at MJ O’Connor’s. Hope to see you next week!


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