Oakland’s New Road to Seniors' Independence Starts Construction

Oakland’s New Road to Seniors' Independence Starts Construction

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Above image: Artist’s rendering of future BRT stop courtesy of AC Transit.

OAKLAND, Calif.--As Alameda County’s AC Transit begins construction on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) serving several ethnic communities along Oakland’s International Boulevard, community advocates, not just locally but around the country, will be watching to see how well the new transit design fulfills its promise to better serve one population that relies heavily on the bus system--seniors, particularly low-income elders, many of whom travel along this corridor.

A commonly voiced fear about the new BRT line is that better transit will raise real estate prices in an area of historically lower-income residents. Low-income elders living in rapidly changing neighborhoods are in gentrification’s crosshairs. But access to safe access to reliable transit is one of the most important factors allowing them to age in place--and stay in Oakland.

The BRT line, scheduled for completion in two years, will replace the 1 and 1R lines on International Boulevard, providing connections from San Leandro in southern Alameda County to downtown Oakland. Stops on the new line will be spaced one-third of a mile apart.

Helping Seniors Navigate System

BRT is projected to increase ridership along this corridor from 25,000 trips per day to 36,000. “I’m really, really happy about that,” said Chonita Chew, a “travel trainer” with United Seniors of Oakland and Alameda County (USOAC). The group helps seniors 55 and older transition from driving to taking transit.

“I’m happy about the BRT. It’s going to make my job easier,” said Chew, who teaches elders how to navigate the system’s electronic kiosks and physical byways.

“The BRT route is heavily traveled by seniors and people with disabilities,” said Joel Ramos, regional planning director at TransForm

He noted that BRT’s planners put together a list of about 100 senior destinations along the proposed route when they first started working on the project eight years ago. Those destinations helped determine the locations of many of the BRT stops. Ramos said that seniors and senior advocates played an important role in shaping the services BRT will offer in Oakland.

For older people, Chew explained, transit “cuts back on isolation. It’s the benefits of going somewhere and getting around. It gives [seniors] independence, especially when they have to give up their car.”

“The idea of this project is to make mobility, particularly along that corridor, much easier,” said AC Transit spokesperson Clarence Johnson.

To make sure the design of the stations is age- and disability-friendly, AC Transit brought on some of the same designers behind nearby Berkeley’s Ed Roberts Campus, an education and events center nationally considered an icon of universal design (a design philosophy aiming to make spaces and products equally accessible to people of all ages and abilities). Ed Roberts was a MacArthur Foundation “genius award” winner and quadriplegic, who helped found the Center for Independent Living and World Institute of disability.

BRT station features that benefit seniors, such as level boarding from a raised platform, make access seamless for baby strollers, as well as wheelchairs, by eliminating the need to climb stairs to get on the bus.

“The major [problem] I hear is crossing International,” Chew said. BRT will provide a safe place to stop in the middle of the street for many seniors, who need two signal cycles to make it across. “It’s just going to increase ridership,” she added. “And I think it’s going to take a lot more cars off the road.”

What Seniors Want

“What we heard from a lot of seniors,” said Ramos, is “we just want to get places safely and comfortably.” He added, “Nobody likes waiting around for a bus--standing around effectively exposing yourself to crime and any kind of danger.”

Well-lit and sheltered BRT stations and buses scheduled to arrive every five minutes will enhance safety for seniors and all riders.

Community input into the design process drilled down to the fine points of user experience. Sidewalks near BRT stations will be textured, to alert blind residents that they are close to the bus stop. Based on input from seniors, the texture won’t be so bumpy that it is hard to navigate with a walker.

“Little things like that are being put into the station design so that universal accessibility designs are not just met but exceeded,” said Ramos.

Oakland riders of all ages will get a chance to compare the operation of the BRT to its potential some time in 2017, when work is completed.

USOAC’s also developed a travel training showing older adults to how “to get where you want to go and back with confidence and independence.” Those interested in Alameda County can contact travel trainer Chonita Chew at (510) 729-0851.

Laura McCamy wrote this article for Oakland Local with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media, sponsored by AARP. This is the first in a series about the effect of gentrification on seniors in Oakland.