The fact is that most people outlive their ability to drive. Therefore, maintaining mobility also requires you to assess the environment in which you move. Paradoxically, many communities that cater to retirees are far from urban areas with public transportation. While such places might offer peace and quiet, they can become isolating if you can’t drive.
Public transportation predates the automobile in Athens, where mules once pulled street cars in the late 1800s. But public transit as we know it, “The Bus,” didn’t begin operating until 1976.
Athens Transit now runs 23 buses on 18 routes covering the 44-square-mile county. The University of Georgia also runs 32 buses in and around campus. “Together these two systems boast daily passenger boarding second only to MARTA in metropolitan Atlanta,” according to the ACC website.
Passengers over 60 pay $1 during peak hours and 85 cents during non-peak hours to ride The Bus. Frequent riders may purchase a pass for $18, which covers 22 rides. If you live along a UGA route, you can hop on board their buses for free.
According to Athens Transit Director Butch McDuffie, senior citizen and disabled riders purchased 7 percent more single trip passes and 49 percent more 22-ride passes this year than they did last year.
While ridership is up, not everyone lives along a bus line. For people with mobility impairments, Athens Transit also provides curb-to-curb transportation known as “The Lift.” But you must live within one mile of the fixed bus route and apply to ride. Now that all buses have handicapped access, The Lift is used less than before, according to the transit website.
Beyond public transportation, the Athens Community Council on Aging also provides a dial-a-ride transportation service to people 60 years and older. The service is free for riders meeting their low-income criteria and $10 for everyone else.
While some people move to retirement communities once they quit driving because transportation is part of the package, not everyone wants that option. According to the National Aging in Place Council, more than 90 percent of older adults would prefer to live independently in their own homes rather than move to senior housing.
Seeking a walkable community
When Bree and Richard Hayes, both psychologists, neared retirement, they began thinking about leaving their waterfront home in Mobile, Ala. They had raised four children in suburbs where they could “do nothing without a car.” Living 12 miles from the city, the empty-nesters too often found themselves foregoing sociability for remaining comfortably at home.
The couple decided to find a walkable community that would force them to get into the game. “We want to force ourselves to move, to walk to the grocery store, post office, recreation, restaurants, etc. We also want to conserve gasoline and reduce our carbon print,” says Bree.
So last June the Hayes moved to the Five Points neighborhood in Athens, where it takes them 15 minutes to walk from their house to a grocery store in the nearby commercial district. And Bree says the walk is a lot more fun that going to the gym. “I’m very sensory aware when I’m walking. You smell gardenias and honeysuckle. You see the beautiful new green of spring. You hear the birds hatching their babies. If you were in your car, you’d miss it all,” she explains.
Katie Throne, a realtor with Full Circle Real Estate, says that she’s seen a resurgence in older, in-town neighborhoods because walkability is so attractive. “Retirees want to be able to walk to restaurants and shopping,” she says.
Walkability generally means that streets have dedicated sidewalks and marked pedestrian crossings and that destinations are within walking distance. Is Athens walkable? Well, that depends on whom you ask and where they live. “Ideal Living” magazine included Athens in a list of “20 top walkable cities,” but “Walk Score,” a website devoted to making it easy for people to evaluate walkability, gives Athens Clarke County an overall score of 26 out of 100, a “car-dependent” ranking.
“The walk is a lot more fun than going to the gym.”
Some government officials and citizen activists want to change that. Tony Eubanks, steering committee member of Complete Streets Athens, says that streets need to be safe and convenient for everyone, regardless of their age or ability. Complete Streets Athens is a community advocacy organization “working to ensure safe, equitable, and accessible transportation choices.”
The first step in doing so is an honest assessment of our streets. The Athens-Clarke County government earlier this year hired a national engineering firm that specializes in bicycle and pedestrian transportation to perform a comprehensive assessment of the whole county. Once the assessment is complete, the firm and ACC staff will create a Bike/Pedestrian Master Plan.
Staying active and engaged in the community means residents must have a way of getting to public spaces and social activities, and communities are more vibrant when the citizenry has easy access to healthy food, shopping, healthcare, entertainment and outdoor recreation.
On Nov. 7, Athens voters will have a chance to vote on whether to improve sidewalks, trails, bike paths, and public transit. The extension of the one percent sales tax referendum will be on the ballot, with almost half of the total $109.5 million project list allocated for “car-less” transportation.
Mobility and community are interdependent. And understanding your community is key to getting around it.
“When you’re healthy and you’re getting to know your community, that’s the time to memorize it because if you do get infirm, you’ll know the path. I mean that metaphorically and literally. It’s a blessing to be able to do that,” Bree concludes.