Johnson County Seniors Keep Their Independence Through Public Transit

Feb 11, 2016

Every Tuesday and Friday, about a dozen seniors from the Santa Fe Towers Apartments in Overland Park eagerly drop quarters into the fare box of the 812 Flex route bus. 

Many of the passengers are old hats when it comes to public transit. They've got their fare ready well before they get on the bus, and some pull along wheeled baskets to tote around the groceries they'll get from Hy-Vee.

One of the riders on a recent Tuesday was a woman named Carolyn, who asked that only her first name be used. She's used buses to get around Johnson County for the past 7 years.

"I'm legally blind, so I have to do something for transportation," Carolyn said. "When I found out this bus came, I just started using it to run to the grocery story or run other errands."

For Carolyn and the others at the Santa Fe Towers, using the bus is a cheap and easy way to take care of their own needs. If it wasn't available, Carolyn says she'd have to rely on others.

"I would have to impose on my son and daughter-in-law," Carolyn said. "And I did have my son take me this past Saturday to look for a watch, but I hadn't asked him to take me any place probably for four months."

Rimik Karapetyan is an Armenian emigrant who acts as Santa Fe's unofficial translator. She's used buses for years and has taught other residents, primarily those who don't know English, how to find routes and stops.

"I go all the way to downtown [Kansas City], make transfers and come back here to Overland Park," Karapetyan said. "It's so easy, but people don't know how to do it at first."

Residents at Santa Fe and the Overland Park Towers are lucky. The 812 Flex route runs practically up to their doorstep, but that isn't the case elsewhere in Johnson County. When the area started to develop after World War II, its roads were almost exclusively planned for cars.

Kansas City Area Transportation Authority Chief Planning Officer Chuck Ferguson worked on Johnson County's transit system for more than 20 years before the ATA took over management of the line. He says Johnson County's suburban roots just aren't a great fit for buses.

"Johnson County is a true car culture," Ferguson said. "It's a great network of streets to utilize a car on, but for the most part public transit was, as it was in many parts of the country, an afterthought."

Credit: KC Communities for All Ages / Mid-America Regional Council

And the county is headed for some big changes in the next 15 years. According to statistics from the Mid-America Regional Council, Johnson County residents aged 65 and up will increase by 144 percent from 2010 to 2030.

By comparison, Jackson County is expected to only see a 56 percent increase during the same time period.

MARC Senior Transportation Planner Karen Clawson says those big changes inform how the ATA will have to develop public transit in Johnson County.

"We know that you can't necessarily run a large bus to every corner of the region," Clawson said. "So we're exploring other opportunities like micro-transit, van pooling and increasing ride sharing in our region."

And officials in Johnson County are starting to give those ideas some financial backing. For years, Johnson County's transit system struggled with funding. But last year, the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners narrowly passed a property tax increase that pumped more than $1.5 million into public transportation. 

They also scraped together an additional $1 million by allowing the KCATA to take over management of the system and through matching funds from Kansas City. 

Much of that money will go toward expanding paratransit services for elderly and disabled residents sometime in the third quarter of 2016. It'll also be used to start a taxi voucher program. Paratransit makes up about 10 percent of Johnson County's annual ridership, and that will likely rise with increasing senior populations. 

"Of 60,000 trips a year through [paratransit], about 70 to 75 percent of those trips are for work," Ferguson said. "Being able to provide a service to a growing population is not only important, but it's really required."

Still, there are basic issues that need to be solved with Johnson County's regular bus routes. Ferguson says Johnson Countians don't turn to public transit because there simply aren't enough buses running.

"What we hear the most is, 'Transit doesn't do anything for me because it doesn't serve anywhere near me,'" Ferguson said. "Or, 'The bus only goes two or three times in the morning, that doesn't help me in the day, in the evening, or at night."

Currently, the KCATA doesn't offer weekend or night service on the former 'JO' bus routes. Carolyn says that means service can be a little spotty.

"Let's call it unpredictable," Carolyn said. "Sometimes you end up waiting for 30, 40 extra minutes because something happened with the bus."

Another big consequence of Johnson County's planning is poor walkability, which is a real concern for seniors. Clawson says that has to be a key part of any transit planning going forward.

"I don't think you can take a 40 foot bus and run it into a suburban area and expect that people will be okay with walking half a mile to get to their building," Clawson said. "We need to give people, especially seniors, options so they can feel safe walking on sidewalks."

Ferguson says the ATA is looking to implement changes gradually over the next two or three years to start addressing some of these issues and make transit more attractive in Johnson County. Part of that includes looking at developing a route along 95th Street and connecting buses to Johnson County Community College.

"We're looking at extending service on Metcalf, service that might extend later in the day or even run on a weekend in the future," Ferguson said. "We're going to see growth in not just commuter services, but services where people can take [a bus] to dinner, an event, maybe even a movie."

This story is part of KCUR's reporting project "Aging in Place," an exploration of how the Kansas City region will meet the needs of an expanding population older than 65.

Cody Newill is a reporter for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @CodyNewill or send him an email at