Sunsetting of Elder Express highlights transportation needs for older adults
TransportationWheels stop going round and round

Sunsetting of Elder Express highlights transportation needs for older adults

'Things change over time — the demographic changed, needs change — and we need to pivot with it'

Elder Express vehicle comes to a stop. (Photo courtesy of AgeWell Pittsburgh)
Elder Express vehicle comes to a stop. (Photo courtesy of AgeWell Pittsburgh)

Sheryl Stolzenberg is frustrated by her commute. She used to travel between The New Riverview and Squirrel Hill Jewish Community Center twice a week via Elder Express. Now, Stolzenberg is stuck.

“They told us that not enough people were taking it and that’s why they are reducing it,” she said.

Ever since moving into Riverview almost four years ago Stolzenberg used Elder Express, a transportation service — operated by AgeWell Pittsburgh and ACCESS — that serves older adults living in the 15217 zip code. Van rides start and end at Riverview. Stops occur at the Squirrel Hill Health Center, JFCS Squirrel Hill Food Pantry, grocery stores, senior living centers and other nearby locations.

Stolzenberg rode the van on Mondays and Tuesdays to the JCC.

“Whenever I got on, there was someone getting on from another retirement community,” she said.

AgeWell representatives said Elder Express was a useful resource for older adults to reach stores, social engagements and community-based educational programs.

Nonetheless, notification was sent two months ago that “due to declining ridership” Elder Express’ final day of regular service would be April 5 and that the new Friday-only service would be limited to four runs, with the last run beginning at 1 p.m.

As part of the changes, Murray Towers, Imperial House and Beacon Place were dropped from the route. In order to reach those locations and other sites, passengers were instructed to contact ACCESS, a shared-ride public service.

Operated in Allegheny County since 1979, ACCESS relies on federal and state funding to deliver affordable transportation.

ACCESS’ public-private partnership facilitates about 5,000 trips each week for older riders, disabled individuals and others, according to representatives.

“It’s a good service, but it has limits,” Stolzenberg said.

The Squirrel Hill resident previously used ACCESS to reach healthcare facilities.

If her appointment was at 2 p.m. Stolzenberg said she’d call several days prior and ask to be picked up at 1 p.m.

Though the trek was no more than a couple miles from her apartment, drivers often needed extra time to help passengers enter and exit the vehicle, Stolzenberg said.

“It wasn’t so difficult going on ACCESS but going back could be terrifying,” she continued. “A doctor’s office isn’t open 24 hours. If the vehicle was late you could sit on a sidewalk for an hour.”

A national driver shortage made the service even “less reliable,” Stolzenberg added.

Along with food insecurity and housing, transportation is one of the major issues affecting older adults nationwide, according to Sharon Feinman, division director AgeWell at the JCC.

Transportation barriers prevented 2.3 million older adults from participating in “social activities, visiting with family or friends and attending religious services,” The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society reported. Additionally, of the nearly 3 million older adults in the U.S. who rely on public transportation, more than 600,000 told researchers that their need for transport was due to a medical appointment.

Feinman is aware of the challenges and said that AgeWell — a collaboration between the Jewish Association on Aging, the JCC and JFCS — is exploring various options.

Former JCC staffer Alan Mallinger delivers lunches to homebound older adults via Elder Express. Photo courtesy of Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh

For more than 21 years, ACCESS and AgeWell partnered on Elder Express. The pandemic “prompted a hiatus,” but the JCC and ACCESS responded by using the service to deliver J Cafe meals to those who were homebound. Since its September 2021 relaunch, ridership has trailed pre-pandemic usage by 40%, with rates continuing to decline.

The service averages only “10 rides per day, with some days being as low as 2,” Feinman said.

“It’s well below the minimum requirement of at least 25 rides a day for sustainability.”

Although Elder Express still operates on Fridays — due to a higher usage rate — the subsidized service will sunset at the end of this month.

Feinman and other AgeWell representatives said they’re disappointed by the decision but reality necessitates change.

“We’ve been trying for the past two years to increase ridership through marketing and speaking with people to find out what their needs are,” Feinman said. “People say they want the service but then the ridership isn’t enough to keep it going. It was successful earlier, but things change over time — the demographic changed, needs change — and we need to pivot with it.”

Though subsidized, Elder Express isn’t free for passengers. In order to ride, a personal account with ACCESS must be established before loading an electronic purse with funds. Each fare, which costs $1.75, is then deducted from the passenger’s account. New rides cannot be scheduled unless there’s enough money in an account.

The cheaper option is riding a bus.

Older adults, ages 65 and up, can take any public transit in Pennsylvania for free as long as the person applies for and receives a Senior ConnectCard.

Apart from the bus or ACCESS, other options exist.

AgeWell Rides is a volunteer-based transportation system for people ages 60 and up who do not drive and need to get to medical appointments, supermarkets, volunteer sites or other social settings. More information is available at 412-422-0400.

There’s also A to B, a digital tool that recommends transportation options for Allegheny County residents. After answering a series of questions regarding age, ability, insurance and trip logistics, individuals are presented with personalized options for transport.

There are multiple ways to get around the area, but the loss of Elder Express still stings, Stolzenberg said.

Before moving to Pittsburgh, the Squirrel Hill resident worked as a city and county planner in central Pennsylvania and South Florida.

“I got a chance to see how public transportation was handled in a lot of different places, and I never saw anything like Elder Express anywhere I’d been,” she said.

“Unfortunately with ridership dropping since the pandemic, it’s difficult to keep the service running the way that it has been,” Feinman said.

That doesn’t negate AgeWell’s commitment to helping older adults easily navigate the area.

“You can contact us directly and we will work with you,” Feinman said. “We are here to support.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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