The Texan City by Transit: Lone Star Seniors and the 1970 White House Community Forums on Aging

Our second entrant into the Fourth Annual UHA/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest is Willa Granger, who transports us to 1970s Texas to show how older Texans were stretching to their financial and economic limits to retain their mobility and independence.

In the third week of September 1970, the Nixon Administration, in tandem with state and local authorities, sponsored community forums for seniors throughout all fifty states. In rural churches, suburban nursing homes, and downtown apartment complexes, older adults gathered to weigh in on nine predetermined “needs areas” in anticipation of the 1971 White House Conference on Aging.

In Texas alone, over 26,000 seniors participated in the event; 680 forums, covering 125 counties, took place throughout the state, producing both qualitative and quantitative feedback on issues ranging from income, to “spiritual well-being,” to housing.[1] Delimiting the policy-based boundaries of elderhood was a dizzying process, and the 1971 Conference on Aging revealed the complex and layered needs of seniors. This included a growing appreciation of ageism, a word coined by Dr. Robert N. Butler just two years earlier.[2] Although aging is an empirical phenomenon, one that entails physiological and psychological changes including the onset of disability, to a great degree our assumptions and expectations towards the elderly, including their limitations, are socially constructed, a subtle yet pervasive form of bigotry encoded in language, material culture, and regulatory policy. The contours of old age also vary greatly by income, race, educational achievement, health, and, critically, locale.

White House Conference on Aging Commemorative Envelope, 1971. Author’s image.

To age in a city, even a Texan city, was a unique experience unto itself. Tellingly, a sample of the 1970 Community Forums throughout Texan metropolitan areas reveals how transportation became a critical issue for many low-income, disabled, and car-less seniors. Motion, movement, and the dignity of doing small daily errands intersected with the inhospitable, sprawling landscape of Sun Belt urbanism, a built environment increasingly stretched into large conurbations. In turning to Texas we may examine how the unique metropolitan morphology of low-density, sprawling cities abutted against the inherently urbanistic needs of many seniors. For through the community forums, Texan seniors voiced the need for improved transportation systems, tacitly linking the process of aging with issues of mobility justice; a sampling of these responses, situated in urban areas, reveals the manner by which older adults entreated policymakers to stretch the spatial, temporal, economic, and proportionate scale of transit activity to accommodate their distinct needs.

With the Administration on Aging as its hub, the Federal government disseminated its “Invitation to Design a World,” as one pamphlet called it, to older Americans throughout the country.[3] The phraseology was fitting for a nation grappling with a new demographic reality: by 1970, every tenth person represented a “senior citizen.”[4] Not only did older adults constitute an increasing percentage of the American population—including twenty million over the age of sixty-five—but the 1971 White House Conference on Aging revealed that this singular category, which policy-makers had arbitrarily constructed around one’s sixth decade, was by no means monolithic. On the heels of the Older Americans Act, Medicare, and a growing public awareness concerning the plight of seniors, the United States needed to design an age-friendly world—and fast.

The feedback of older Texan urbanites in September of 1970 suggested the need to realize this new world within the built fabric of cities themselves. In cities physically stretched by social, economic, and infrastructural shifts, Texan seniors asked leaders to respond in kind, by stretching the imaginative limits of policy to better address the needs of older adults. For while Texan metropolitan areas had made significant inroads in public transportation infrastructure in recent decades, the car remained king in the Lone Star State. The mid-century preference for and incentivization of highway construction, which often disrupted established neighborhoods, meant minimal investment in metropolitan transit systems—networks that scantily existed to begin with, unlike denser cities of the Northeast and Midwest (though they too suffered under the scourge of redevelopment).[5] In Austin, for example, the city contracted three distinct, privately-operated bus systems that served a flagging ridership by 1972; as a 1963 city report anticipated, an interest in public transit paled in comparison to vehicular traffic that “[continued] to increase at normal or accelerated rates each year.”[6] But at the community forums throughout the state’s metropolitan nodes—including San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, El Paso, and Austin—burgeoning populations of seniors revealed the disconnect between their daily needs outside the home and the transportation options available to them. The experience of elderhood often triangulated poverty, disability, isolation, and chronic disease into the singular locus of daily life, thereby making transportation—whether on foot (or wheelchair or walker), by car, or by public transit—particularly difficult. Not only could transit tickets or cab fares be prohibitively expensive, but sparse connectivity obligated passengers to make up what transportation planners call the “last mile,” a task that was often insurmountable for disabled or limited-ambulatory seniors.

At San Antonio’s Victoria Plaza, the first publicly subsidized housing exclusively for low-income seniors in the United States, respondents described how “transportation is a great problem because of high prices and lack of availability.” Despite being located at the center of the city’s historic downtown, “Transportation is not available in areas where people need to go.”[7] A similar sentiment was apparent at Morningside Manor, northwest of the downtown, where residents felt that “more of them could go places on their own if the bus fare for them was cut down.” Others suggested that “car pools could be set up to take some of these people to church and church-related activities.”[8]

Victoria Plaza, the first publicly subsidized building for low-income seniors, built in San Antonio, Texas. Texas Architect (January 1963).

Not only could bus fare be prohibitively expensive, in Houston seniors were also hampered by limited transit schedules. “One of the group’s main problem[s] was public (bus) transportation on Sundays for church,” according to the Harris County Community Action Association. “The bus [does not] run in their area at all on Sundays and they felt that cab fare was too high.” In addition to church, “there is a transportation problem also getting to the doctors and hospitals.” In fact, this particular forum of eleven respondents ranked transportation second only to “more money” on a list of their greatest needs as seniors.[9]

Meanwhile, at the Home for Aged Masons in Arlington, nearly seventy attendees prioritized transportation above other issues by cataloguing the following grievances:  “Need city transit in Arlington,” “Need for buses to operate on a regular schedule,” “Need for low taxi fare for aged.”[10] It appears that Arlington lacked its own transit network at that time, for at the East Hall Baptist Church, members of 428th chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons stated that “many people need transportation but we do not want a municipally owned transportation system because this would again be another form of taxation,” arguing instead for a private system “that will serve those of us who are too old or suffer a disability to where we no longer drive,” for “many of us do not own cars.”[11]

In El Paso County (which encompasses the entire metropolitan area along the border), leaders combined their sixteen community forum survey responses into a larger set of deliverables. Again, county officials cited transportation was a top priority: “at several meetings, transportation was voted to be the most pressing local problem.” Municipal leaders crafted a more cogent set of directives, including: “Cross-town service and better transfer points and connections,” “signs identifying which buses may be boarded at a given point,” “better schedules,” and “a lower first step for boarding the bus to aid disabled persons.” As in Houston, it was noted that “Older people do not have adequate public transportation to doctors offices and to hospitals,” with the option to make “arrangements with cab companies to take groups of older citizens to church, shopping, etc. at special prices.”[12]

Austin, Texas transit route coverage in 1964; each of the twenty-one routes is denoted in red. Austin Transportation Plan, 1962-1982 (Texas Highway Department. Austin, Texas: 1965).

Not only did indirect transit routes enfeeble seniors, but sometimes they struggled to even access bus or train stops. This was particularly true for older adults in institutionalized settings. At Austin’s Villa Siesta Nursing Home, located at the city’s suburban fringe, residents noted that “no public transportation [comes] to this facility and taxi service is very undependable and costly.”[13] The same was apparent at the Monte Siesta Nursing Home: “This facility is in the suburbs where no public transportation is available and taxi costs are prohibitive.”[14] The October 1970 ASCON newsletter—Austin Senior Citizens’ Own News—summarized the community forum’s feedback. “Because of inadequate transportation service” it read, “an increasing number of healthy, active older citizens are becoming isolated. Participants in the conferences spoke out against fares too high for slim budgets, restricted routes which too often require many blocks of walking to reach them, and the type of buses now in use which only the agile and active can get on or off.”[15] The complaints of Austinites at community forums were corroborated by an Austin American Statesman article from 1971, entitled “Problem of Aged: No Transportation.” Describing “lack of transportation for the elderly [as] one of the burdens of our time,” journalist Donna K. Bearden went on to detail the work of Caritas, a nonprofit church organization of volunteer drivers tasked with driving seniors to medical appointments, grocery stores, and friends’ houses. According to Bearden, “Thirty per cent of the 26,000 elderly Texans who attended forums on aging in September said they had some type of transportation problem,” and that, paradoxically, the percentage was likely higher, accounting for seniors unable to access the forums because of just that same issue: transit.[16]

In February 1971, the Governor’s Committee on Aging compiled the Texan community forums into a “Report on Needs Defined by Older Texans.” “Accessible and adequate transportation,” the report stated, “particularly public transportation, also ranks as a high priority need.” In addition to those thirty percent of Texan seniors struggling with transit, nineteen percent of respondents did not own or drive a car, while eighteen percent stated that public transportation was simply not accessible, and fifteen percent found it physically taxing to travel.[17] It should be noted that such transportation issues likely defined the experience of older adults throughout the country—and perhaps more so for rural seniors. Not only do the physical realities of an aging body often limit one’s ability to maintain a single-family house or personal car, favoring instead an apartment-style living, but the rigors of life on a fixed income, including the fees for transit or taxi fare, could restrain one’s ability to move about the world—physical disabilities aside. At the forums, Texan seniors asked policymakers to stretch the imaginative and functional limits of public transit, in turn revealing the stretches to which older adults resorted in their daily life.

What we still don’t know, however, is just how the information garnered from the 1970 community forums with seniors—a rare moment of policy-articulation from the ground-up—actually manifested in actionable governance and regulation, including an understanding of how elderhood continues to intersect with transit mobility today, in Texas and beyond. Unsurprisingly, the transit needs of seniors are intimately entwined with a larger discourse on disability, a fitting connection as we mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Whether directly linked our not, the White House Conference on Aging certainly presaged the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, a piece of legislation meant to provide services to the disabled, including incentives for private, non-profit paratransit vehicles. Such buses, which still exist today in tandem with metropolitan transit authorities, offer flexible, point-to-point transportation. Though paratransit would not gain much momentum until ADA, it appears that some local transit authorities were listening to the needs of seniors: in 1972, for example, Austin enacted a reduced fare for older adults and the disabled on its bus system, citing “the loss of earning power of the senior citizen, blind, and the handicapped.”[18]

Coming to terms with old age as a category of social difference, one that is amplified within the built environment, is a critical imperative for urbanists. COVID-19, which is magnified through vectors of age and space, has further underscored this need. The 1970 senior community forums, paired with the present pandemic, reveal how older Americans have constantly agitated for a multi-generational world, one that embraces and normalizes the contours of elderhood—if only, as their informational poster suggests, we would listen.

Willa Granger is a doctoral candidate in Architectural History at the University of Texas at Austin. With an undergraduate degree in Urban Studies and a methodological interest in cultural landscape and vernacula fieldwork, her research filters urban and built environment history through the lens of spatial justice, advocating specifically for a broadened interest in age as a category of historical and social analysis. She is currently writing her dissertation, an architectural history of the “home for the aged” within the United States.

Featured Image (at top): Informational poster for the 1970 White House Community Forums on Aging. Texas State Library & Archive Commission.

[1] The Governor’s Committee on Aging, Community White House Forums: A Report on Needs Defined by Older Texans (Austin, TX: February 1971), Texas State Archive, Box 1995, 060-7.

[2] Robert N. Butler, “Age-ism: Another form of Bigotry,” in The Gerontologist 9, issue 4 (Winter 1969): 243-246.

[3] Administration on Aging, Invitation to Design a World… Second Reader: 1971 White House Conference on Aging (May 1971), Texas State Archive, Box 1995, 060-7.

[4] Administration on Aging, Every Tenth American: The Program of the Administration on Aging (May 1970), Texas State Archive, Box 1995, 060-7.

[5] Austin, for example, featured a now defunct network of electric streetcar lines from the 1890s to the 1940s, creating its own “streetcar suburb” of Hyde Park; horse-drawn rail cars existed as early as the 1870s. The imposition of Interstate 35, opened in 1962, in addition to earlier redlining, segregated the city according to race and ethnicity—a divide that still exists today.

[6] City of Austin, Traffic & Transportation Department, Austin’s Public Transit System, (May 1963), 3.

[7] White House Senior Forum with the Resident Council of Victoria Plaza, San Antonio, TX. (September 16, 1970), Texas State Archive, Bexar File Folder.

[8] White House Senior Forum with the Residents of Morningside Manor, San Antonio, TX. (September 25, 1970), Texas State Archive, Bexar County File Folder.

[9] White House Senior Forum with the Harris County Community Action Association at the Kelly Village Neighborhood Station (September 22, 1970), Texas State Archive, Harris County File Folder.

[10] White House Senior Forum with the Home for Aged Masons of Arlington, TX (September 23, 1970), Texas State Archive, Tarrant County File Folder.

[11] White House Senior Forum with the 428th Chapter of the American Association of Retired People in Arlington, TX (September 24, 1970), Texas State Archive, Tarrant County File Folder.

[12] Frances A. Whited, “Summary of El Paso County Community Forums Conducted in September 1970 in Preparation for the 1971 White House Conference on Aging (nd), Texas State Archive, El Paso County File Folder.

[13] White House Senior Forum with the Villa Siesta Nursing Home in Austin, TX (September 24, 1970), Texas State Archive, Travis County File Folder.

[14] White House Senior Forum with the Monte Siesta Nursing Home in Austin, TX (September 23, 1970), Texas State Archive, Travis County File Folder.

[15] “Mini Conference Report,” ASCON 5 (October 1970), 1. Austin History Center.

[16] Donna K. Bearden, “Problem of Aged: No Transportation,” in the Austin American Statesman (April 12, 1971), 8.

[17] The Governor’s Committee on Aging, Community White House Forums: A Report on Needs Defined by Older Texans (Austin, TX: February 1971), Texas State Archives, Box 1995, 060-7.

[18] Traffic & Transportation Department, City of Austin, Transit Action Program, 1972-1977 (October 1972), 54.

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