The Bus Stops Here: For Seniors in Madison
















If you are 65 or older and have an ample nest egg, Madison is the place to live. A recent study by the Milken Institute ranked Madison No. 1 for successful aging among the 100 largest American cities: 

Home to the respected University of Wisconsin, Madison is a hub of innovation and intellectual stimulation. Economic growth gets a boost from UW’s research needs, and quality health care is a big plus. Cultural amenities attract highbrows and regular folk alike, and Madisonians also enjoy the amenities of Chicago, just 150 miles away. Cost of living, high for the Midwest, remains an issue.

In subdividing the overall ranking, the study ranked Madison first for people 65-79 years and third for people 80 years and over (it ranked Provo, Utah first for the older subgroup).

Many people who abandoned the city proper while in their younger years as part of a great migration to the suburbs are moving back into those cities again and want, among other things, a robust public transportation system. Some move into residential communities designed specifically for people 55 years or older. Others who may never have left, also downsize, moving from a 3-bedroom to a 2- or 1-bedroom residence, renting instead of owning, using no or one instead of two cars and wanting to be in walking distance of such amenities as grocery stores and restaurants. There has developed a whole industry catering to the needs of older people who are now part of the ‘baby boom’ generation. Old ‘babies’ for sure. 

The establishment of housing for older people during the time of the “suburban migration” unfortunately followed the general car-centric trend oblivious to the fact that people should not be forced to drive themselves. Consider the example of Oakwood Village, a well-known retirement home run by Lutheran Senior Ministries. Originally established in 1948, its older campus along Mineral Point Road in western Madison has good access to bus service all seven days of the week, even if the weekend hours are rather limited. Its newer campus on Tancho Drive in northeast Madison also has many of the amenities seniors look for; but it has no bus service. If residents are to go anywhere outside an organized trip, they must either drive their own car or get a ride. How is that consistent with fostering independence? Now, it seems, the idea that seniors may thrive best in Transit Oriented Developments where they can walk or take transit is all the rage.

But it is not just that the baby boom generation was large. People are also living longer while baby boomers had fewer children per person than did their parents. So while some in the transit world prefer to focus on the millennial generation, its new technologies, and its willingness to embrace public transportation, it is also important to recognize that the proportion of our population 65 and older, already significant, continues to grow and also needs public transit, perhaps not when still ‘young old,’ but eventually. Madison’s population may be somewhat younger than the state as a whole for obvious reasons, but it is not that much younger. In 2010 for example, one in ten Madisonians was 65 or older, more than 3 percent were 80 years and older and these figures will be substantially greater in the future.

Simply put, it is not realistic to expect everyone to drive forever although many attempt to hang on to their car keys way past the time when they should give them up. After all, they were in a generation that equated driving with “freedom” and stigmatized riding the bus. But younger people neither want nor expect to spend time chauffeuring around an older parent who no longer drives, and older people do not want to be a burden on younger people. They can achieve that sense of independence if they have access to public transit. 

You may have noticed that the Milken report did not mention transportation when it summarized its reasons for ranking Madison first for successful aging. That might be because it ranked Madison 11th in terms of transportation.  That is not a terrible ranking, but is not in the top ten either.

The Milken study looked at a community’s investment in public transportation and the percent of commuters who walked to work (p. 50). So it is no surprise that places with robust public transit systems and better pedestrian facilities, such as New York City and Boston, ranked higher on transportation even if they ranked lower overall. 

So the question is: “When will the Madison Area recognize that it sits on a treasure, and give its transit system its due?”  Yes, the transit system did receive accolades in 2012 from the nationally acclaimed American Public Transportation Association. Compared to other cities its size, Madison has a good bus system. But let us not limit our sites only to other cities our size. The Milken Institute did not. If Madison is truly to become a great American city of the 21st century, it cannot continue treating public transit like a second-class solution.

The Bus Stops Here is produced monthly by members of the Madison Area Bus Advocates.