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New Report: Common Connections

What do college students and senior citizens have in common? When it comes to transportation, more than you might think.

Young and old people are both more likely to get into traffic accidents. Both groups are vulnerable to the high costs of owning and maintaining vehicles. Both are highly concerned with preserving their independence and freedom of movement. And both often need to travel at times other than “rush hour.”

Both students and seniors, in other words, stand to benefit from high-quality public transportation services that provide affordable, reliable and safe ways to get the places they need and want to go.

Our newest report, Common Connections: The Importance of Public Transportation for College Students and Seniors in Massachusetts, looks at how students’ and seniors’ transit needs dovetail in Massachusetts. 

The report concludes that Massachusetts has an extensive transit infrastructure that reaches most of the places in the Commonwealth where students and seniors live. However, there are still some major unmet needs. Transit service during “off-peak” and evening hours is often spotty, particularly away from Boston, making it difficult for seniors to use regularly scheduled transit services to reach community activities and for students to use transit to reach jobs and classes. Meanwhile, many of the Commonwealth’s Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs), which provide service outside the Boston metropolitan area, have been forced to increase fares and/or curtail service in the face of stagnating state funding.

And the challenge of providing effective transit service to students and seniors is only expected to grow. Massachusetts is expected to add 600,000 senior citizens to its population by 2030 (compared with 2000 figures), with many of those seniors “aging in place” in suburban communities that are difficult to reach with existing transit services. Demand for transit service is already on the rise, with significant increases in RTA ridership in recent years. And, as we’ve noted elsewhere, changes in demographics and consumer trends are likely to increase demand for transit service even further in the years ahead.

One fun aspect of this report is the opportunity it provided for students and seniors to tell their own stories about the importance of transit in their lives, particularly through the informal survey of students’ transit needs conducted by MASSPIRG Student Chapters. I was particularly moved by the story of 82-year-old Leonard Curcio, who relies on his local transit agency and Council on Aging van service to remain involved in his business and preserve his independence.

Massachusetts and other states face a clear choice. They can either make the investments necessary to build on the growing demand for high-quality public transportation, providing a way to maximize the opportunities and potential of people like students and seniors who need it the most. Or they can allow transit service to continue to wither, consigning more students and seniors (and their families) to the high cost of automobile dependence.

Neither option is cost-free. But only one is geared toward meeting the needs of the 21st century.