As the transportation needs of the aging baby boomer population increase, researchers and service providers are at a crossroads as they seek to find effective solutions for the challenges impeding availability and accessibility -- particularly to those living in rural areas.
Texas A&M University economists James W. Mjelde and Rebekka M. Dudensing are working to explore the issue, speaking with other researchers and rural transportation providers from around the country to see which challenges are most pressing, as well as coming up with recommendations on how transportation for the elderly can be improved.
Dudensing and Mjelde said the project was conducted by a multidisciplinary team of researchers as a part of the 2016 National Conference on Rural Public and Intercity Bus Transportation and included input from numerous stakeholders in the field.
"[The participants] saw and continue to see a need for continuing to improve transportation for the elderly," Mjelde said. "Some people like to move away from the city to a smaller community [as they get older], but once they get there, they don't have the transportation option [they had before]."
Ronnie Gipson, program director for the Brazos Valley Council of Governments Area Agency on Aging, said the challenges are growing more pressing each day as more seniors come to a point where they need assistance.
"Every day [the number of seniors] grows," Gipson said. "The [seniors] who are living longer are even more frail, and those who were driving yesterday aren't driving today."
Among the resources available locally, Gipson said the Brazos Transit District is one of the most prominent.
Jo Penn, marketing and communications coordinator for Brazos Transit District, said providing transportation to older community members was its founding mission when it started in 1974.
After beginning with just nine vans, the transportation service now has 80 vehicles, Penn said.
Penn said the biggest challenge the Brazos Transit District faces is a lack of funding.
"Rural transit providers are still operating with the same budget that they were 18 years ago," Penn said in a written statement. "If you consider inflation over the past 18 years, you can get a very clear picture on how big of a problem this is not only for BTD as a provider, but also for the elderly who are in severe need of transportation services."
Gipson said while services like these have been crucial to many in need of transportation, they are not without their own challenges.
"[Transportation] is not always easily accessible, and it's not always affordable," Gipson said. "[For example], seniors can't always walk to bus stops or manage the temperature, depending on if it is cold or hot. ... We have a lot of seniors who are isolated and at home because of transportation issues."
Mjelde said while technological advances such as self-driving vehicles may seem at first like a potential solution, obstacles as simple as needing assistance to get into or out of the car may undercut their usefulness for older adults.
He said even ridesharing services such as Lyft or Uber -- while not cost-prohibitive -- can be unreliable for rural seniors because of their varying availability.
In areas such as Bryan-College Station where the services are available, however, Gipson said ridesharing services are a helpful new option for those who willing or technologically savvy enough to use them.
"It's limited because seniors, in many cases, don't utilize that type of system, aren't aware of it, or are reluctant to do it because they won't accept a ride from a stranger," he said.
Gipson said locally he would like to see a more central "hub and spoke" organization to bring together the different resources available to seniors needing transportation services across the Brazos Valley.
"Different agencies and organizations, including faith-based organizations, need to pull together to address this need and issue," Gipson said.
Mjelde said like many other government services, public transportation is challenged further by limited funding -- making the mission to provide services to aging citizens that much more complicated.
Penn said the Brazos Transit District has been involved in efforts to advocate for greater funding but has yet to see their requests granted by legislators.
Moving forward, Penn said making sure elected officials -- as well as the general public -- are educated on the need for a stronger public transportation system could help.
"This will help to receive not only the financial support but support in general to keep public transit going, and also to keep improving the transportation infrastructure that BTD has spent years building," Penn said.
At the completion of their study, Mjelde and Dudensing said they developed five recommendations for further, more in-depth study.
They are developing a better understanding of the needs of rural transit; how the use of new technology could improve the coordination of services; the connectivity between the needs of the individual and the greater needs of the community; the use of innovative solutions to keep up with demand using the limited funding available; and assessing the economics of providing the transportation service in rural areas.
The researchers also pointed out that while many of the challenges may be similar, there are no "one-size-fits-all" solutions for transportation providers across the country.
Looking forward, regardless of how those invested in the transportation of seniors choose to address the challenges, Mjelde said it is clear "this is a problem that is not going to go away."