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BEHIND THE WHEEL

Workshops Aim to Get Seniors to Hop On the Bus

Orange County transit authority program shows elderly travelers some alternatives to driving. Safety issues are a big concern.

October 14, 2003|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

For someone who doesn't drive, Nancy Green gets around.

Four times a week, the 72-year-old Brea resident reports to her part-time job as a playground supervisor at a Fullerton elementary school. She occasionally accompanies fellow seniors at her apartment building to lunches at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park. She enjoys regular walks at a botanical garden in Newport Beach. And last month, she took three of her great-grandnieces and their friend on a tour of downtown Los Angeles.

Green accomplishes it all using a commonly overlooked resource in auto-centric Southern California: public transportation.

"I can get pretty much anywhere," said the spry and talkative Green as she prepared for her playground duty at Laguna Road Elementary School one recent morning. "There really isn't much to it."

The Orange County Transportation Authority would like to have many more seniors follow in Green's footsteps, right to the bus stop. The agency began an outreach program last year to encourage more of the elderly to become bus riders.

The goal is to give senior citizens, whose ranks are growing rapidly, an alternative to driving. The issue of safety threats posed by elderly drivers came to the forefront this summer after a 86-year-old man plowed his car into a busy farmers market in Santa Monica, killing 10 people and injuring 79 others.

In workshops that last a little more than an hour, OCTA staffers show people how to plan trips by checking schedules and routes. The session is capped with a ride around the block in one of the agency's buses.

"We want to demystify the process for them," said Dana Weimiller, the program administrator. "Once they understand how it works and they have been on a bus, they are like 'Wow, I didn't realize it was so simple.' "

According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, nearly 3 million of the state's 22 million licensed drivers are 65 or older. State law requires drivers 70 or older to pass a written test and vision exam, but not a driving test.

"Seniors are reluctant to give up their independence, and we recognize that," Weimiller said. "The bus will not be the cure-all, but it at least suggests to them that there is an alternative."

Since the program began last summer, 1,600 seniors in 64 senior centers and housing communities have gone through the program, Weimiller said. The agency is hoping that once seniors realize buses are cheap -- 50 cents gets you an all-day senior pass in Orange County -- and convenient, they will win converts. Currently, about 17.5% of OCTA's regular riders are 65 or older.

But even as seniors welcome Weimiller and her program's suggestions, the challenges are evident in the comments of Dixie Shaw, a 79-year-old Placentia resident who attended one of the outreach sessions in August.

"It was very well done," Shaw said of the presentation. "And the bus ride was very nice."

But she admits she hasn't taken advantage of many suggestions offered in the program, such as using a trip-planning sheet to map a route or calling the agency's help line. In fact, she hasn't once stepped aboard a bus since taking the class.

She has a busy schedule, visiting her husband at a nursing home in Fullerton and attending to other commitments, Shaw said, and although she avoids driving her car on the freeways, driving is convenient.

"Unless I absolutely have to, I won't give up driving," she said.

Green works on convincing people like Shaw that buses are as flexible as cars, if you just take some time to understand the system.

The Cleveland native, who moved to Los Angeles in 1965, has had only four cars in her life. She used them mostly to shuttle supplies for a nonprofit child-care center she founded and ran for nearly 20 years. Two years after she retired from her business in 1988, she put away her driver's license too.

She has used buses and trains all her life, she said, and believes her fellow seniors should do the same as old age dulls their reflexes.

"I don't even accept rides" from older drivers, Green said. "Some of them take medications and you don't know if it is OK for them to drive."

Green is a walking encyclopedia on local public transportation systems. She carries with her two bus passes and several schedules, including the OCTA bus route, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority's bus route, the DASH line and Southern California's rail systems.

"I'm an inquisitive person," she said. "If I see something, I want to know what it is."

That's how she found out about the OCTA outreach program, when she saw fliers about the workshops in the lobby of her apartment complex. She put a copy on the door for each of her 104 neighbors.

She had been running her own one-person outreach program since moving there in 1999. She gave it a name, XYZ -- for "Extra Years of Zest" -- and began handing out information on how to get from here to there to anyone who wanted to know.

She helps residents of her complex get to the airport -- a bus ride to the Green Line and a free shuttle to the terminal. She invites them to lunch in Newport Beach, which is a 45-minute bus ride on route 47.

"Most people are still trying to drive," she said. Getting them to try buses instead is like "helping someone with baby steps," she said. "You have to hold their hand. They learn by doing."

Green personally accompanies people who are trying to navigate the system. She suggested that the OCTA program might be more successful if they had facilitators to help people through the first steps.

"Once you get them going," Green said, "they are off."

*

If you have a question, gripe or story idea about driving in Southern California, write to Behind the Wheel, c/o Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, or send an e-mail to behindthewheel@latimes.com.

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