The Public Space
March 25, 2015
public transit matters
by Ken Mayer
Around the turn of the century, in the last few years of my father’s life, he was legally blind. This was due to a disease of old age, macular degeneration. Dad was always energetic and willing to learn new things, so we fixed him up with a few gizmos to help him stay in the game.
One was the lipstick camera. My brother-in-law, being an engineer and all-round geek, rigged up a tiny camera, the size of a tube of lipstick, to what was then a giant (32 inch) TV. Dad would use what was left of his peripheral vision to read the paper, now writ large, on the screen.
I took him an old computer and printer. He, in turn, found software that would read out the on-screen menus. One day I showed him how to enlarge fonts and print them out. Next time I visited, the stove, stereo and virtually every switch and knob in the house is sporting a large label.
Fifteen years later much of this wouldn’t have been necessary, because we are much further along with these accessability aids. New markets are emerging for everything from the Chord Buddy seen on Shark Tank to help an arthritic mother continue to play the guitar to whole companies devoted to retrofitting homes with lifts and grab bars.
Dad was wise enough to stop driving when the time came, but it wasn’t easy. Besides getting Mom to give him a lift, he often studied the bus schedule and walked to get on public transit.
My folks were parents of the Baby Boom. Next year, the oldest Boomer with turn 70. Last year, the youngest Boomer turned 50. This group has influenced the American culture and economy for decades, and we are far from finished. Click on the graph (below right) to see what’s coming in Douglas County.
Note the modest increases out to 2050 in ages up to about 60, then the tremendous growth continuing up past age 85. Some of this is due to improved health care, but the bulk is nothing more than aging Boomers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 5,500 older adults were killed and more than 183,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes in 2008. That’s 15 older adults killed and 500 injured in crashes every day. On a per mile traveled basis, fatal crash rates increase starting at age 75 and increase notably after age 80.
Not being able to drive can be a major loss of independence to many elders. This can mean social and emotional losses that can cause feelings of fear due to increased vulnerability, anger that they can no longer manage alone and guilt over needing help from others.
In the past, public transit has been seen in Omaha as mobility for the disabled, the young and those who can’t afford a car. Maybe we ought to look at the issue differently.
Seems to me there’s a potential train wreck on the horizon. What happens when large numbers of Baby Boomers are forced out of their cars? Since my generation has never been willing to settle for what their parents and grandparents accepted, I can almost guarantee that we will find alternatives.
Maybe it’s time to take a long view for ourselves and our loved ones. Let’s start thinking about public transit as a mobility aid – nothing more or less than a computer with enlarged fonts or a grab bar in the bathtub.
What sort of transit system would you like to have available as you get older? How are you going to maintain your independence when you are seventy? Eighty? Ninety?
The Public Space
Ken Mayer is a freelance writer, photographer, consultant and adjunct faculty member at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He has served on the boards of The Nebraska Choral Arts Society, Downtown Omaha Inc. and Landmark’s Inc. Mr. Mayer has been a consultant and volunteer for Omaha by Design since 2002.