Public transport ‘failing older people’ – what can be done?

An elderly woman getting on a bus.
An elderly woman getting on a bus.

Picking up your bus pass is something of a rite of passage when you hit retirement age, yet a third of those in possession of their free pass never use public transport, a report has found.

But it’s not because they don’t want to.

According to The Future Of Transport In An Ageing Society report, approximately 35,000 people aged 65-84 in England have no choice but to use public transport, but because they have difficulty walking even a short distance, any journey is difficult.

Figures are even worse in rural areas, where just 20% of those aged 70-74 use public transport weekly, compared with 38% of the same age group in urban areas.

The report, supported by The International Longevity Centre UK and charity Age UK, reveals that older people are struggling with travel, including essential journeys like getting to medical appointments.

It was also found that 630,000 people aged 65 and over find it difficult or very difficult to get to their GP, while 1.45 million find it difficult to travel to the hospital.

And often, it’s the people who really need medical attention who struggle the most, with 71% of those in the ‘very difficult’ category saying their health is only ‘fair’ or ‘poor’.

Why isn’t the bus more appealing?

The most common reasons cited for not using the bus were that it’s not convenient, or doesn’t go where they want.

“It is crucial that older people are able to get out and about, especially as the evidence shows this helps them retain their health and independence for longer,” comments Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK.

“Against this context, it is worrying that so many older people are struggling to reach hospital, or sometimes even their local GP.

“The bus pass is an absolute lifeline for many who would otherwise be stranded at home and is utterly essential, but the truth is, it’s not enough on its own to enable older people to stay mobile. This report should be a wake-up call, because it shows our transport system is not currently meeting the needs of our growing ageing population.”

How do we help OAPs get out and about?

So what needs to happen to enable more of our elderly population to use public transport? It’s going to take legislative change and better infrastructure by the Government, the report’s authors say, but technology could also play a part.

They may seem like something out of sci-fi, but driverless cars could help people keep using cars for longer, and they’re already being trialled on UK roads.

A simpler solution would be if more people cycled. Currently only 3% of women and 8% of men over 65 in the UK ride a bike, which is lower than in other European countries.

Not only could cycling reduce health problems, because it gets people doing more exercise, it would help combat loneliness, which has been described as an epidemic among older generations.

Equally, turning other ‘active transport’ types, like walking, into a social activity with the help of volunteers, would encourage more elderly people to get active. Volunteers could also help at transport hubs, which can be difficult to navigate, or by running community car schemes.