Seniors # 1 Issue: Transportation

Wilmington, NC – It takes Margaret Rogers 25 minutes to cross the street.

That's 16th and 17th streets to be precise. She lives on one side, her doctor's office is on the other, and in between are a score of busy lanes of traffic she's afraid to cross in her wheelchair.

So instead she heads to the bus stop. That journey takes her down 16th, along Shipyard, to Carolina Beach Road. Nearly a half an hour later, she's at her appointment. And the return trip is more of the same.

There's a crosswalk that's closer, but Rogers says the ramps are places to put her at risk from right-turning vehicles, and after a woman and her daughter were killed trying to cross nearby a few months ago, Rogers decided the bus is simply the safer way to go.

Roger's journey illustrates what many seniors and disabled in the region already know, getting around without a car is a daily challenge. Getting around without a car, and with limited physical mobility, is almost a hazard.

Annette Crumpton knows the complaints well. As director of New Hanover County's Senior Center, she says, her transportation coordinator's phone is the busiest in her organization.

At forums and in surveys, Crumpton says, transportation comes up again and again as the number one issue for her clients. And she should know; her agency coordinates the para-transit vans operated by WAVE transit. It's a service that takes local seniors to doctor's appointments and on occasional shopping trips.

But as Crumpton describes it, when it comes to car-less seniors, transportation is a lot more than running errands.

"Everything," Crumpton says, "your total mobility depends on whether you have transportation. Your independence depends on it. To go to a concert, you and I don't think anything about that, going to Thalian, going to Kenan, you don't do that if you don't have your transportation there ready to take you."

To get where they need to go, Crumpton says, seniors and the disabled often make-do with a patchwork of solutions: public buses, rides from friends and family, even taxi cabs.

But Linda Pierce of ElderHaus says simply relying on charity, instead of having reliable alternatives, take a toll on senior's self respect and well-being.

"And that's why we tell families, you have to make them know that you're available to them," she says. "It's something families need to talk about way ahead of time."

Those who work with the elderly say the problem's getting worse, as more people choose to stay in their own homes as they age, and with more retirement communities being built in the suburbs. When a resident of Castle Hayne or Porter's Neck has to put down their car keys, the rest of the world gets much farther away.

For seniors and disabled people who do try to make their own way, on foot or in a wheelchair, Margaret Rogers says Wilmington streets can be a hostile place. She says she counted almost forty near-misses from cars last year, before she stopped keeping track.

"It's not a happy feeling,'" she explains angrily, "to ride down Glen Meade with a big UPS truck coming at you, and there's nowhere for you to go, you're as close to the curb as you can get."

As much difficulty as she has getting around, Rogers says she attends as many public meetings as possible - to argue with officials about the needs of those with limited mobility.

She says when she brings up a concern "they smile, I smile. [I] come home, set up plan, call one week, send letter the next one. And I'll do that for five years if I have to. [You] have to make a nuisance of yourself before they will listen."

WAVE Transit director Albert Eby is often the target of Roger's ire, but he agrees that the entire system needs more to do more to become more accessible for his older and handicapped users, on and off the bus.

"The bus is great," Eby says, "having a bus stop is great, but if someone can't get to a bus stop, especially someone that may have a disability, I think we're doing that person a disservice and we're really doing ourself a disservice."

Elby says he lobbies local planners and politicians not just for the bus system, but the entire range of pedestrian needs - from sidewalk repairs to crosswalks.

But while there's been a little more money in local budgets for those projects lately, those who use the system say there's still a long way to go.