Photo courtesy Valerie Lefler
"In a rural community, the lack of transportation can literally be a death sentence."
When Valerie Lefler was a teenager growing up on a dairy farm in rural Nebraska, one of her regular chores, when she wasn't milking cows, was to drive the workers' family members around.
"I helped them to get to important appointments, such as parent-teacher conferences at school," she explains. "Otherwise, many times, the mom wouldn't have been able to go, because the dad was working and had the family's only truck. So I would drive her."
That youthful experience gave Lefler insight into the difficulties residents of sparsely populated rural areas and small towns face when they don't have a vehicle or are unable to drive. According to the American Public Transit Association, only 33 percent of residents of small towns and 11 percent of those in rural areas have access to public transit options such as buses or van pools.
As the executive director and founder of the nonprofit Feonix: Mobility Rising, Lefler and her team connect residents in "vulnerable and underserved communities" with the transportation services they need in order to access health care, get to work or school, or simply be less isolated. The concept of providing individuals with needed transportation when none exists is often referred to as "MaaS" or "Mobility as a Service."
As a "transportation technology innovation framework," MaaS, says Lefler, "is not about the retroactive process of making systems that have 'special accommodations' for seniors, individuals with disabilities, veterans, refugees, and families in crisis . We should design mobility solutions to be inclusive and equitable and factor in their needs in the first place."
"If you're in a community where you haven't had transportation options for a long time, you just give up on once-routine parts of life. You don't even think about going to have coffee with your friends on Tuesday or going to the VFW on Friday night anymore, because it's been years since you’ve been able to do so."
To that point, Lefler notes that more than 70 percent of rural public transit agencies only provide service Monday through Friday. "If you have a bad cold Friday night, by the time you see a medical professional three or four days later, you’re looking at possible hospital admission," explains Lefler. "In a rural community, the lack of transportation can literally be a death sentence."
Feonix operates in Michigan, Missouri, Texas, Wisconsin and South Carolina, where the organization and AARP Driver Safety have teamed up to launch the Ride@50+ Program, a "one-stop shop" for access to transportation options in the Columbia area. (Rides aren't just rare along country roads. Even city residents can be stranded when they don't have a car or can't drive.)
With Feonix, one option is that car rides are provided through a network of drivers who receive only a mileage reimbursement. Most of the drivers, Lefler says, wouldn't seek work as a taxi or ride-share driver but routinely give their relatives or a fellow parishioner a ride to the doctor.
"They're just local people willing to help their neighbors," she explains. "Before automobiles were common, my great-grandfather would catch a ride into town with the mailman. People used to know their neighbors and barter things all the time. Not so much anymore."
Another benefit of having a structured ride-sharing and ride-sourcing service through which people can schedule a trip or seek transit options and training is, says Lefler, "the pride factor." By contacting a service as opposed to asking an individual, users "don't feel like they're being a burden."
While a ride service is often essential for getting people to medical appointments and the grocery store, Lefler wants nondriving residents to think beyond such travel tasks.
"Many times, if you're in a community where you haven't had transportation options for a long time, you just give up on once-routine parts of life," Lefler observes. "You don’t even think about going to have coffee with your friends on Tuesday or going to the VFW on Friday night anymore, because it’s been years since you’ve been able to do so."
- "Stranded: Bridging the Transportation Gap for Rural Communities," by Valerie Lefler
More Services and Solutions
Photo courtesy City of Fontana
- In 2018, the Independent Transportation Network of America, or iTNAmerica, gave its one-millionth ride to an older adult (age 60+) or a person with impaired vision. The nonprofit has been providing what it describes as "arm-through-arm, door-through-door" transportation services since it was founded in 1995. (Learn more about the program's origins.) Affiliates now provide low-cost, personalized rides in a dozen states, from Maine to Florida to California.
- In Delaware, the state government hosts the Senior Citizens Affordable Taxi (SCAT) program, which provides a 50 percent discount on taxi fares for people 65 and over and for those with disabilities.
- In El Dorado, Arkansas, the volunteer-placement nonprofit El Dorado Connections runs El Dorado Express, a service that provides free transportation to people 60 and over. Volunteer drivers transport them in town and to distant cities such as Little Rock, Hot Springs and Shreveport, Louisiana. (El Dorado Express will drive people ages 40 to 59 for rates that range from $7 for distances of up to 20 miles and $60 for a 300-mile round trip.)
- In Fontana, California, the office of Mayor Acquanetta Warren reports that the city's "curb to curb" Senior Transportation program provides 50,000 rides a year to people age 55 and over as well as those who are medically disabled. The service takes residents to doctors' offices, the senior center, hospitals and shopping centers. Weekly excursions take passengers grocery shopping and to Target (Wednesdays) and Walmart (Fridays).
For many older adults, on-call transportation services can be lifesaving. "Without it I wouldn't be able to go anywhere," says a Fontana rider named Melba. "And then I would totally give up."
This article is adapted from the "Provide More Ways to Get Around" chapter of the AARP publication Where We Live: Communities for All Ages — 100+ Inspiring Examples From America’s Community Leaders (2018 edition). Download or order your free copy.
Article by Patrick J. Kiger | Additional reporting by Melissa Stanton | Page published March 2019