A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Commentary: Lack of transportation options have affect on health, livelihood, economy and more

By Jeff Rubin
Special to KyForward

To many of us, driving is a privilege we too often take for granted. Ingrained in our culture as a rite of passage in our teenage years, it is the primary source of getting to and from work, shopping, church, or social activities as an adult, and the last vestige of freedom many adults are unwilling to give up as they grow old.

We are a nation that relies on our automobile, and Kentucky is no different. With a population of some 4.3 million residents, no less than 3.4 million vehicles were registered in our state in 2015. Take away anyone under 16 (approximately 900,000) and that’s the equivalent of 1.07 vehicles for every adult age 16 to 85 plus residing in our state.

In Madison County, with a population of approximately 67,000 residents 16 or older and some 67,800 registered vehicles, we see that a similar ratio, 1.02 applies.

Of course, everyone over the age of 16 doesn’t own or operate a vehicle. Some people don’t want to drive, some don’t for personal reasons, others for legal infractions, and still others due to physical, mental, or age limitations. However, what this numerical exercise makes abundantly clear is that whether out of reliability, convenience, or necessity, Kentuckians place an overwhelming dependence on their automobile.

Yet, in doing so we may fail to fully comprehend the consequences of such reliance to ourselves, our community, and our economy.

According to a survey conducted by AARP’s Public Policy Institute, more than 20 percent of Americans age 65 and older don’t drive. That percentage will only grow as boomers age (78 million) and elders (85 plus) continue to live longer. Another report cited by Transportation for America adds to the urgency of municipalities, state, and regional planners addressing this issue by pointing to the fact that 15.5 million Americans 65 and older currently live in areas where public transportation service is either poor or nonexistent.

When you consider the significance of all this, consider too, that men typically outlive their driving days by seven years; women outlive theirs by ten. The impact this will have on health, socialization, and local economies cannot be overstated. People who don’t drive make few trips to the doctor (15 percent); fewer trips to shop or eat out (59 percent); and fewer trips to visit family and friends (65 percent) than those who have access to transit.

The average individual may spend anywhere from 20 to 25 percent of their income on transportation. That runs second only to the cost of housing. Failure on the part of communities to adequately plan for and fund alternative transit may ultimately determine where we live, how we live, and even when we can get around.

Take a moment to consider what your own life might be like if you were the one who could no longer drive. How would you get to your doctor’s appointment, go grocery shopping, attend church, socialize with friends, or even get to work? You might ask yourself too, who would you rely on for getting around? For those who do not drive, many depend on family or friends for essential rides. However, among those that do, many say they feel guilty in asking for “nonessential” trips, such as to the library, a restaurant or a movie.

Kentucky currently has the sixth largest aging population in the nation. Yet despite its ranking, there is no state wide plan in place to provide transportation for elders and others who are either no longer able to drive or who have no local bus or other transportation programming in their community. The issue, as is often the case, begins and ends with funding.

In Madison County and the sixteen other counties that make up the Bluegrass Area Development District, efforts to focus attention on expanding public transit as part of a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) have met with similar funding objections.

It did however, yield one surprising admission. With input from the judge executives, mayors, and two citizens from each county represented in the region, the latest strategic plan calls for the introduction of a regional transportation plan to evaluate future access to employment centers, better integrated land use planning, and the establishment of one transportation planning organization with an end goal of developing a regional public transportation system. I applaud that recognition and consider it a first step.

In the meantime, many residents in Madison County and beyond rely on the Kentucky River Foothills Development Council to provide them with local public transit. Since its beginning in 1986, Foothills Transit has provided intercity and intra city transit to residents of Clark, Estill, Madison, and Powell counties, with extended commuter service to Lexington from Madison County and Winchester. However, with fixed stops, limited hours, and insufficient funding, the likelihood of keeping up with anticipated demand for expanded services seems daunting.

Public transit encompasses a variety of venues including pedestrian right of ways, walkability, bicycle and road safety, and vehicular movement. Together, its relationship to land use planning, health, housing, safety, job growth, and the local economy cannot be ignored. Nor should the call for creative thinking on the part of civic leaders be hindered by a current lack of funds. Other communities and other states faced with similar challenges have risen to the occasion.

It’s all part of creating a livable community.


Jeff Rubin is an advocate and adviser on community and aging issues, having spent over 20 years as a director and facilitator of community service programs at the local, state and national levels. An advocate for “age-friendly” and “livable” communities, Mr. Rubin is currently working to advance these initiatives statewide in Kentucky and invites your comments, involvement, and support. He can be reached at Jeffrubin@windstream.net.

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