While elderly people in the Middle East face significant difficulties using public transportation, the region is also a source for solutions to these challenges.
In the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), public transportation is infrequent and extreme temperatures make actions such as waiting for the bus impossible for the most senior citizens. In some countries, such as Lebanon, public transportation barely exists at all.
Transport for the aged is a global problem. Thus, Israeli-founded Via Transportation, a leader in urban ride-sharing technology solutions, and leading Japanese insurance company Sompo have teamed up to provide public transportation services specifically tailored for seniors in the Land of the Rising Sun.
It is currently in use in the city of Chino, which is located a two-hour drive from Tokyo, with plans to expand countrywide. Forty percent of Chino’s population is over 65 years old, as are 33% of Japanese as a whole.
The service operates through an app called Noraza, with which senior citizens can request a shared-ride that will pick them up and drive them to their desired location, dropping off other passengers whose destinations are on the way. For seniors who have difficulty operating smartphones, there is a number they can call instead.
One impetus behind the service is a desire to decrease car crashes. Over the last two years, 14.4% of vehicular accidents in Japan involved drivers aged 75 and older.
“Elderly people have needs when it comes to accessing culture, entertainment, shopping…, transportation. Many of them hold driver’s licenses even though their cognitive abilities are declining,” Yinnon Dolev, the head of Sompo Digital Lab Israel, told The Media Line. “Some of them are incapable or are not as capable as they used to be, which causes car accidents.
“The government in Japan is very much interested in having these people forgo their driver’s licenses, but that means there has to be a substitute for their needs. … The idea is that the app provides access” to transportation, Dolev continued.
However, for the app to be successful, there has to be a shift in the demographic’s attitudes to getting around, he said, adding that government will have a critical role.
“To engage people in the app, you have to change people’s behaviors; not everyone will download an app and start using vans with local operators. That’s where the city comes in to offer [enticements],” he said.
“The idea is that we give them incentives through the app: a city currency to spend at pre-selected locations. In doing so, a few goals will be achieved: one is to use more public transportation and be less prone to accidents, but also to increase the commercial traffic of the city,” Dolev added.
Thus Israeli technology can provide a public transportation option for the elderly in Japan, but the ability to get around for seniors closer to home in the Middle East is particularly challenging.
Public transportation in the region is generally limited, if it is available at all, and often it does not consider the special needs of the older population.
“In the segment of mass transportation of cities in the Middle East, seniors will still not experience maximum comfort, including due to the hot climate,” Prof. Konstantin Trofimenko, director of the Institute for Transport Economics and Transport Policy Studies in Moscow, told The Media Line.
Trofimenko, whose institute is part of the National Research University Higher School of Economics, said that in the UAE, Dubai’s ambitious Metro rapid transit rail network considers the needs of seniors more so than public buses.
“The main problem with the comfort of public transport in Dubai is, when looking at buses, for instance, often the lack of convenient pedestrian approaches, and heat and dust storms, which can make the use of public transport simply unbearable,” he said. “Metro passengers are generally protected from this factor, as well as provided with basic infrastructure for people with limited mobility.”
Still, Trofimenko argues that there are steps Dubai can take to make the Metro more comfortable for seniors.
“You just need to design all the infrastructure, from the design of vehicles to dedicated lanes for public transport and pedestrian streets, while thinking about what kind of experience – cognitive and emotional – gives older citizens a full ride on the Metro from door to door, possibly with transfers to the Metro and walking after it,” he said.
The International Union of Public Transport has said that all people should be able to ride on public transportation in a manner that is not “degrading to human dignity,” Trofimenko explained.
“From the point of view of persons with limited mobility, the basic infrastructure [required] is low-floor spacious vehicles with a large number of seats, barrier-free stops, and stations and pedestrian infrastructure interacting with them, equipped with elevators, ramps, handrails and so on,” he said.
While the UAE has the wealth to have robust public transportation, not all Middle East countries can afford the same infrastructure.
Abla Mehio Sibai, co-founder of Lebanon’s Center for Studies on Aging, told The Media Line, “Unfortunately, we don’t have public transportation. Whatever little transportation we have for the public is run by private corporations.”
Mehio Sibai, who is also the co-founding director of the University for Seniors program, a lifelong learning program at the American University of Beirut, said that instead, older people rely on family members, private taxis or Uber rides. The latter, the cheapest option for those who do not have a family member to drive them, is, like many other things in Lebanon, slowly becoming less affordable.
“Seniors used to be able to afford Uber as it was cheap, relatively speaking, but now because of what is happening in the country, everything is becoming so expensive,” she said.
Having a senior-friendly environment in the transportation sector and beyond “is not a concept throughout Lebanon and the Arab world,” Mehio Sibai said.
“The older population is not the top priority. In this region, respect and care for the older population have often been shouldered by the family, and the government has been happy with this because it takes the economic burden off of it,” she said.
“In cultures where the family is the main supporter of the older adult, like in the Arab world, and especially in resource-poor cultures, children and pregnant women are higher on the government’s priority list,” Mehio Sibai noted, adding that seniors in the Arab world, unlike in Japan, do not constitute a large segment of the population.
She contends that seniors are more marginalized in the Arab world because they are not politically organized like in the West.
“I have yet to see an association which focuses on older adults like AARP [formerly called the American Association of Retired Persons] in the US. … There are no grassroots level associations,” Mehio Sibai said.
Written by Tara Kavaler, reprinted with permission from The Media Line.