Public transport and the elderly

New report suggests system is failing

A new report produced in conjunction with think tank The International Longevity Centre – UK (ILC-UK) and charity Age-UK claims that our public transport system is ‘failing the oldest and most vulnerable in society.’

‘The Future of Transport in an Ageing Society’ highlights the travel problems faced by millions of older people. It has been well recorded that the UK’s population is ageing and according to surveys and projections produced by the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) there are currently 11m people aged 65 or over. This figure is projected to rise by almost 50% over the next 17 years. Some 2.97m of these are aged over 80 and just under half a million, 90 plus. By 2030 it is expected that this will rise to 5.3m and 1.2m respectively.

The Government’s current transport strategy focuses predominantly on large infrastructure projects and these will be of less benefit to the non-working ageing community, particularly those living in rural communities. Coupled with the cuts in spending to local authorities, this could greatly affect subsidised and community transport services which the report suggests would ‘affect older people’s ability to travel conveniently, affordably and safely.’

Using data on transport usage from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) they were able to identify five core areas of focus, which the report is broken down into: older drivers, transport to and from health services, the convenience of public transport, active transport and transport in rural communities.

Older Drivers

The report suggests that older people need to be supported in driving safely for longer, with viable alternative transport solutions made available to those who do not have access to a vehicle. 68% of households with an inhabitant aged 70 plus, have their own car. Often elderly drivers are penalised through high insurance renewals, despite being less likely than younger drivers to have a minor accident and making less claims.

Even though concessionary bus passes offer free bus travel to those over the State Pension Age, as well as free travel on other forms of transport for older people living in London, 32% of people in England aged over 65 never use public transport, whilst another 27% use it once a month or less. Further research by Age UK showed that health problems are more likely than age alone to lead to people giving up driving. Only 1% of those surveyed aged 60 plus would give up driving because of their age, while 43% would stop driving due to health concerns.

Transport to and from health services

The report identified that despite a peak in the use of public transport between the ages of 70 and 80, there is a significant decline from the age of 80 onwards and this is attributed to the natural deterioration of health in the elderly, suggesting that public transport is not attainable for this sector of the community. Approximately 35,000 people aged 65-84 in England have difficulty walking even a short distance, but are restricted to using public transport, therefore making any journey difficult. 1.45m of those 65 and over in England find it difficult to travel to hospital, whilst 630,000 of them find it difficult or very difficult to travel to their GP. Among the over 65s who report that it is ‘very difficult’ for them to travel to see their GP, less than 30% are in good health.

These people are frequently the most vulnerable being in the poorest health and often on the lowest incomes and in rural areas. In the ELSA study of those over the age of 65 with longstanding illness, 8% of older people reported that they don’t use public transport due to problems with mobility while 10% reported that their health prevents them from using public transport. Furthermore, the report showed that over 50% of those who said they were unable to travel to a GP did not have a free concessionary pass.

The subject of dementia is also covered and the effect that it has on its sufferers. The Alzheimer’s Society suggests that people tend to stop driving within three years of getting their first symptoms, making them more likely to use public transport; however there is a concern that their symptoms could easily be confused by drivers as alcohol abuse. A number of operators already run dementia training schemes but more could be done to improve this. Likewise, it is suggested that transport assistance cards could be implemented throughout the industry and standardised so that those passengers potentially travelling across more than one network wouldn’t need to have a separate card as is currently the case.

Convenience of public transport

As well as health care, the elderly need access to other vital services including supermarkets and post offices. Among the over 80s, less than 55% report finding it easy to travel to a hospital, a supermarket or a post office.

The most frequent reason given for not using public transport among those 65 and over was that it’s not convenient and does not go where they want. Interestingly, these responses were highest amongst those with access to a car, in good health and living in more affluent areas.

Poor routes and lack of convenience were also cited as reasons for not using public transport and the report offered a number of solutions as to how this can be improved. These included; Expansion of real time audio and visual information on buses, which would be particularly helpful for those with visual or audio impairment; Expansion of live departure boards at bus stops, to enable those that don’t have access to the internet to determine whether services are running; Volunteers, who could assist passengers, as well as other transport users giving up seats for those with mobility issues; Highlighting the true cost of a car journey and the recently introduced Buses Bill which should promote integrated and convenient bus systems.

Active Transport

The report highlighted the connection between travel and quality of life, saying that mobility improves the wellbeing and health of older people as well as the wider community. Access to reliable, affordable and safe transport is important for older people to maintain contact with friends and family who may live some distance away, helping to avoid loneliness and isolation which can adversely affect their health and well being. The report also focused on improving walking and cycling facilities.

Transport in rural communities

As stated earlier, transport provides vital links to important services and in rural communities this is particularly important for those with mobility and health problems where facilities may not be available locally or be more difficult to access. Just 20% of those aged 70-74 living in rural areas use public transport weekly, compared to 38% of those who live in an urban setting. This is mainly due to the increasing demise of local services as operators struggle to provide a cost effective, regular service in areas of decreasing population density. However, further ONS predictions suggest that rural populations are expected to age faster than urban populations, attributed mainly to the increased cost of living. By 2028 the over 85 age group is set to increase by 186% in rural areas, compared to just 149% in the UK as a whole.

Policy and Research Officer of ILC-UK, Helen Creighton said, ‘Travel is essential for independent living and has been shown to benefit physical health and mental wellbeing in later life. Furthermore there is evidence that maintaining older people’s mobility has substantial economic benefits, with analysis by ILC-UK estimating that concessionary fares will provide a net benefit to the wider community of £19.4 billion in the years up to 2037. This report, which highlights the travel difficulties facing older people, emphasises the need to adapt our transport system to meet the demands of our ageing society.’

Charity Director at Age UK, Caroline Abrahams, added, ‘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. Against this context it is worrying that so many older people are struggling to reach hospital, or sometimes even their local GP.’

‘This report should be a wakeup call because it shows our transport system is not currently meeting the needs of our growing ageing population. 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.’


‘For example, better transport planning and more imaginative use of volunteers could make a big difference today; and in the medium term ‘driverless cars’ and other technological innovations could be real game changers.’

The Future of Transport in an Ageing Society is available from the ILC-UK website

For further enquiries call the ILC-UK office on 0207 340 0440



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