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RTA officials: Aging population means an increase public transit ridership

The Chicago area’s population of 60 to 64 year-olds has jumped 19 percent in recent years, boding a “silver tsunami” of opportunity to increase public transit ridership, RTA officials said Wednesday.

But the jump in Chicago area seniors between 2007 and 2011 also represents a challenge for public transit, noted a RTA Regional Transit Strategic Plan that was the subject of a public hearing Wednesday.

If more mainline public transit buses, trains and stations cannot be senior-friendly, more and more travelers will have to rely on far costlier para-transit service, the study warned. Such door-to-door service costs the PACE suburban bus agency $40 a ride, although the rider only covers $3 of that amount, RTA officials said.

The aging of the nation’s Baby Boomers – our largest generation – is creating a “silver tsunami’’ of opportunity for public transit, said RTA executive director Joe Costello. Such seniors may want to turn to public transit if they find it more difficult to drive in their golden years or can no longer can afford cars, officials noted.

To respond, officials said, aging buses should be replaced with ones outfitted with street-level entry steps, stations need wheelchair-accessible ramps and elevators, and bus stops may need “curb cuts’’ to make it easier for seniors with decreased mobility to maneuver.

The Strategic Plan also identified tourists as a potential source of increased ridership in a time of tight public dollars for transit.

A recent American Public Transportation Association study found that 7 percent more Americans plan to vacation in a city this year than last year, and nearly 60 percent of them plan on using public transportation. The study identified Chicago as the third most popular big-city vacation destination in the U.S.

With more Americans opting for “staycations,’’ more suburbanites could be taking public transit into Chicago for special events – like Taste of Chicago – or to other suburbs for activities, such as the Naperville Ribfest or Lombard’s Lilac Festival, said Leanne Redden, RTA senior deputy executive director.

“Off-peak times (weekends and midday week days) are a really good opportunity market,’’ Redden said. “If you can jump on a Metra train instead of a regular highway with construction, that’s a great option.’’

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