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Plan ahead for an aging population on the go

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By ALICIA CALDWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2001


The police call it SEA.

Sudden Elderly Acceleration.

You've probably heard a few stories about it. Typically, it goes like this: Older person, trying to get to Publix, driving large Buick, hits gas instead of brake. Vehicle ends up in someone's living room.

These sad stories usually involve people who understandably do not want to give up the ability to get from one place to another on their own.

Who could blame them?

The difficulty faced by aging drivers has been an issue in Florida since the introduction of the automobile and the Northern retiree. But census figures released last week show how it could get worse and why Pinellas ought to think about reinventing public transportation.

The baby boomers who have been raising children and building businesses here have been quietly doing something else: getting older. Like the first gray hairs sneaking in, the numbers subtly reflect inevitability.

Assuming no plagues or great variations in people moving in or out of the county, a wave of Pinellas residents will make their way into the senior citizen category during the next couple of decades. The number of Pinellas residents ages 45 to 54 increased by more than 56 percent during the last decade, census figures show. As they get older, those residents will want to keep doing what they've always done -- go shopping, visit friends and occasionally see their doctors.

Think about it. How many people do you know with their own cars who would use public transportation for these things? Have you ever ridden a PSTA bus?

If you're like most people in Pinellas, the answer is no.

Let us acknowledge that the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus system is an important way for low-income people to get around. They could not conduct their lives without it.

But as for the throng of baby boomers with IRAs, we're not a bus generation. Maybe the county needs to think micro bus -- as in VW with peace signs painted on the side -- to capture the imagination of aging boomers. It's a joke, but one not far from reality.

Brian Smith, Pinellas planning director, said transportation planning is peculiar in the way that people are picky about the cars they buy. Your ride says something about you.

"You can't stereotype what people are going to think when they're 75 or older based on what 75-year-olds want now," Smith said.

It makes sense. Though they are popular, luxurious cars, I cannot fathom waking up one day, no matter how old I am, with the irrepressible urge to buy a Cadillac.

The county seems to be on the right track, at least in the short term. The new trolley system the PSTA is running up and down the beaches and into St. Petersburg is a success. People like them and use them more than buses.

"It's unique," said Roger Sweeney, PSTA director. "It's something that isn't a bus."

It's a trend that has not gone unnoted by folks such as John Doglione, vice chairman of the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization. Doglione and others are considering a countywide monorail, fed by bus or even trolley lines, as they put together a long-term mass transit plan.

"Building more roads is not the answer," Doglione said.

Transportation planning doesn't have the cachet of, say, announcing a new BayWalk in downtown St. Petersburg with funky shops and movie theaters. But providing for the transportation needs of people who have made their lives here is important.

"As today's boomers age, transportation will probably take on a much different look," Sweeney said.

It's a look that government needs to make sure someone will wear.

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