Business

Getting around KC is difficult for those who no longer drive

Updated: 2011-05-04T19:55:48Z

By DIANE STAFFORD

The Kansas City Star

Louise Baggett cocks her ear to hear the doorbell. She’s waiting for Paula Kartus, a volunteer driver with the nonprofit JET Express, for a ride to the hairdresser.

Baggett used to make the 15-minute trip on her own. But macular degeneration — an eye condition that’s “like a gray scarf pulled over my head” — took away her ability to drive.

And so the aging former folk dancer now slides a walker carefully across her kitchen floor as Kartus shepherds her to the car.

“The wonderful thing about this service is that I don’t have to impose on friends,” Baggett says of the ride, for which she pays $5. “And I’ve met some delightful people who volunteer.”

Although Baggett got her ride, the patchwork of volunteer and publicly subsidized ride services that exists for the elderly in the Kansas City area is sadly deficient. They’re all limited by geography, by riders’ incomes or by availability of volunteer drivers.

If the area’s elderly transportation system is challenged now, think of the demands on it in 20 years when the over-65 population has doubled.

Today’s fractured web of family, friends and tax- or grant-supported van services won’t cut it for the growing numbers of frail, disabled or poor elderly who can’t hire cabs or can’t make their way to curbs for van or bus pickups.

We’ll finally have to face up to the very nature of Kansas City — its sprawl, its state line, its scores of towns and cities. And most of all, its reliance on a family vehicle.

We have more highway miles per capita than most other American cities, and we have lots of people living in manicured suburbs they sometimes need to leave in order to see the doctor, buy groceries or go to church.

“We’ve created the perfect storm of a car-dependent community,” said one transportation planner.

Experts say that old people who surrender their car keys need a robust transportation system that is:

•Door to door, like Baggett enjoyed, and on demand. It should stretch across city and county lines.

•Subsidized by a regional transportation tax.

•Affordable for the poor elderly.

•Not dependent on the good will and sturdiness of volunteers, many of whom are retirement age themselves.

Baggett’s 15-minute drive to the hairdresser, for example, crossed a state line and traversed two cities. But the Jewish Elder Transit service, like others, puts a perimeter around the area it serves.

The ideal system isn’t a better bus system. It’s not a light-rail network. It would, for example, take someone who lives in Lee’s Summit to her doctor’s office in Overland Park or to her church in south Kansas City.

Kay Bybee, 88, and her husband, J.B., 93, give a glimpse into what the area’s transportation needs are and will be.

The Bybees are contented residents of Grand Court, a senior living complex at 119th Street and Lamar Avenue in Overland Park, except for one thing:

“We sold our car, so we have to call at least three days ahead of our doctors’ appointments if we want to use Catch-A-Ride,” she said of a Johnson County transportation program that relies on volunteer drivers.

It usually works out for them.

“The volunteers are so kind and helpful, but I do know that they have to search for volunteers,” Bybee said. “And it’s hard to make sure someone can help my husband, who uses a walker.”

Brent Never, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, led a recent survey of older residents in six Kansas City area neighborhoods. Transportation loomed as a huge hurdle.

“One lady in Johnson County said she can see her CVS pharmacy outside her window, but she’s on a suburban cul-de-sac and can’t get there by walking,” he said. “She would have to drive to get there. But can you imagine being elderly, having issues with sight or mobility, and trying to get out onto Metcalf?”

Scarce funding

David Renz, director of the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership, said it is obvious that things must change, “but in the short term it’s impossible to adequately fund a system.”

Voters have rarely made elderly transportation a priority for public funds. Getting voter approval for a regional tax would be nearly insurmountable in a region that straddles a state line and includes nine counties and 120 municipalities.

An ideal system would need tax support. A 2009 report by Renz’s center noted that what senior riders were paying, on average, covered only 12 percent of medical-related transportation costs and not more than 5 percent of the costs to provide senior transportation for other purposes.

Reports note that about one-sixth of the area’s older residents have federal poverty-level incomes. Thus they may be unlikely to afford private cab fares.

Nearly alone among area philanthropic donors, the Mr. Goodcents Foundation has devoted itself to funding transportation studies and services for seniors.

Jim Courtney, executive director of the foundation, is among planners probing deeply into the area’s transportation problem.

“When you stop driving in this community, it creates a barrier to enjoy all the things in this community,” Courtney said. “We’re living longer, but can we live well?”

In 2007, a Kansas City Framework for Senior Mobility project began with support from the Mr. Goodcents Foundation and the Jewish Heritage Foundation. As part of the project, the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership has “studied the heck out of” this particularly difficult challenge, Renz said.

But its eventual goal — to have that seamless door-to-door, regional transportation system for the elderly — is far distant. Charted on a map, such a system would look like an explosion in a spaghetti factory, a splattered tangle of routes.

“Just because a bus line goes through your neighborhood, that doesn’t mean you have access to anywhere in the metro area,” UMKC’s Never said. “And it doesn’t mean you can get to the bus stop or into the store.”

Geographic limitations

There are some public steps in the right direction, and some area communities are in better shape than others to help their senior residents get around.

Liberty, for example, is a relatively good city to “age in place,” planners say. Its senior transportation system isn’t a fixed-route bus line, and it doesn’t just limit trips to medical visits like some senior transportation services do because of limited funding or volunteers.

Some of the northern Johnson County suburbs — Mission, Merriam, Roeland Park and Fairway — have linked their publicly supported Easy Ride shuttles to ease seniors’ travel among those cities, Courtney noted.

But that’s good only if your doctor’s office is within those boundaries.

Similarly, Shawnee and Olathe have community shuttles — a good start, but it doesn’t help someone whose doctor’s office is in Kansas City.

Publicly supported systems generally have modest fees for riders, often just $1 to $4 a trip, particularly if the rider qualifies for low-income reasons. Volunteer services rely on suggested donations. One area program suggests $10 per trip.

But cost sometimes is less of a barrier than availability of service. Last winter’s snow and cold snaps were a case in point: The pool of drivers shrank when the volunteers didn’t want to tackle the roads or sidewalks.

In cooperation with the Mid-America Regional Council, the mobility project is slowly trying to craft a regional transportation plan.

“It’s more than a lack of buses,” Courtney emphasized when he itemized the area’s shortfalls.

“It’s having a bus stop at the edge of a parking lot with a quarter-mile hike to the store door. It’s no benches in or outside the store. It’s no way to handle packages if you use a walker. It’s not having enough mobile shopping buggies. All of those are barriers.”

Some cities are drilling down even further to address mobility needs.

In New York, for example, pedestrian crosswalk time was increased at more than 400 intersections after a study determined that older people with slower gaits weren’t making it across the street in time.

In some metropolitan areas, zoning rules have been changed to allow bus stops to be placed just outside store doors rather than hundreds of yards across parking lots at the street.

Local transportation planners, searching for senior transportation models around the country that deal with the same multicounty, multicity framework as the Kansas City area, fixed on a three-county area in northern Virginia.

Planners there asked for a centralized and publicly funded information service, “seamless” transportation across county lines, a marketing campaign and funded training to help seniors continue driving their own vehicles if they wished.

It remains a model for what could be.

In the Kansas City area, planners are hoping — perhaps within five years — that there will be a central authority over senior mobility. This year an area transportation advisory council was formed.

But planners acknowledge that for now there’s simply no money and no priority to marshal public funds, philanthropic support and fee-based services to make that “seamless” regional system happen.

And it must.

“Our parents were raised to be independent,” said John Carney, vice president at the Center for Practical Bioethics and leader in the area’s study of aging issues. “Many are loath to think about surrendering their homes, moving out of their neighborhoods or giving up their car keys. They need transportation. So far we don’t have the capacity to meet their needs.”

Tomorrow: A growing need for remodeling, technology and caregivers to help the elderly stay in their homes.


Looking for a ride?
A downloadable Senior Transportation Resource Guide, listing about 40 elderly transportation options in the Kansas City area — including bus, van, taxi and private vehicle service — has been produced by Jewish Family Services’ JET Express program.

Dawn Herbet, director of older-adult initiatives, has tried to keep track of all the eligibility requirements, geographic coverage, routes, costs and nature of the services. Programs range from publicly funded vans to volunteer-driven cars, from fixed-route, curb-to-curb service to user-requested door-through-door service.

A link to the Senior Transportation Resource Guide is at KansasCity.com.

Limited print copies are available by calling 913-327-8239.

To reach Diane Stafford, call 816-234-4359 or send email to stafford@kcstar.com.

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