Transportation for Seniors – We’re Going Places! #3

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Guest blogger Alex Iselin explores specific tech-based transportation options for seniors

Part 3 of a 3-part series

While it’s too early to know the full impact of technologies like ride-hailing apps and self-driving cars on transportation for seniors, local transportation programs that aren’t based on emerging technology continue to have a significant impact. There are many non-profit programs providing rides for seniors, often operating on a small scale and enlisting drivers to offer rides in company-owned vehicles. The Community Arranged Resident Transportation (C.A.R.T.) program in New York City provides free transportation for seniors who need meals or rides to medical appointments, senior centers, and family visits. MTA Access-A-Ride offers rides for individuals in NYC who are unable to use the bus and subway systems. In more rural Ithaca, New York, since the early ‘70s Gadabout has hired volunteer drivers to offer rides for individuals 60 and older and those with disabilities. Where I live in Colorado, Via offers a similar service for older adults.

One non-profit organization in particular serves many local communities. ITN America (Independent Transportation Network America) started with a powerful story when its founder, Katherine Freund, learned that her three year old son had been hit by a car being driven by a senior with dementia. Freund was, of course, deeply impacted; but she recognized that the root problem was bigger than this one incident. She was motivated to do something about it, and she responded by creating ITN. And fortunately, her son recovered well.

Larger than other local senior transportation services, ITN is approaching 27 affiliates around the country, primarily in suburban communities. Average ITN rides are short – often less than 10 miles. The company is often compared to Uber and Lyft despite being quite different from these services. While we might expect Freund to be concerned about this comparison, instead she admits, “If anything, they’ve made things easier for us. Before they came along, we had to explain what we did. Now we just say, ‘We’re something like Uber and Lyft.’”1 Rather than hindering business, the comparison may help ITN build brand awareness. The company has also been compared to a hotel concierge because drivers help seniors carry items and escort them from door to door.

While seniors can schedule rides through a smartphone app, ITN differs from other ride-sharing services in several ways. Riders pay a yearly subscription fee, usually $50 to $100, in addition to fees for individual rides that are typically lower than those of a taxi. Seniors can accumulate ride credits when they stop driving by donating their vehicles through ITN’s CarTrade program. And ITN driver incentives are notably different from that of other ride services. In lieu of pay, ITN offers a way to accrue value over time. Drivers, often working adults and retirees who live in the same neighborhoods as their passengers, are volunteers and can’t accept tips. A driver in an ITN community accumulates 30 cents per mile of credit towards his own Personal Transportation Account, or towards his aunt’s account in another ITN community. In this way, driving for ITN may be more appealing to retirees who provide rides for social good, with the added benefit of planning for their own needs and that of their loved ones.

Unlike most transportation services, ITN offers a free hotline and searchable online database service called Rides in Sight. The service helps seniors and their families across the country find transportation. And although ITN isn’t widely well-known, the company hasn’t gone unnoticed either. Among Freund’s recognition is being named one of “12 People Who Are Changing Your Retirement” by the Wall Street Journal in 2008, being honored with the Inspire Award by AARP The Magazine in 2009, and being recognized as one of the top 11 social entrepreneurs by Forbes in 2012. Fast forward to today, many headlines on transportation cover technology companies releasing new mobile applications, acquiring large financial investments, and forming partnerships with vehicle manufacturers and robotics companies to enhance their offerings and develop self-driving cars.

But in spite of being around for many years longer than many other ride-sharing services, it is possible that ITN’s annual subscription fee (on top of its per-ride fee) and request for advance notice to schedule rides have contributed to their modest growth. The toughest challenges that ITN has faced with regards to widespread growth and adoption, however, become apparent when comparing its business model to that of Uber. With each new ITN affiliate comes the need for local startup funding, a local operations team, and the optional support of an ITN “pre-affiliate” representative who provides coaching to the local team in the early development stages. According to Freund, raising this money and finding the right people to manage an affiliate can take time. As importantly, once created, ITN affiliates have faced challenges maintaining a sufficient pool of volunteer drivers. Freund indicated that the few times affiliates have failed, the reason is usually that it wasn’t able to maintain a consistent group of drivers.

Meanwhile, Uber has leveraged their mobile application and for-profit driver model to scale rapidly. After developing its initial smartphone application, the company piloted the service with 3 cars in New York City in January 2010. Tracking the company’s spectacular growth over the next few years: official launch in San Francisco in July 2010; acquisition of a $1.25M investment in October 2010; acquisition of a $11M investment in February 2011; launched in NYC in May 2011; acquisition of a $32M investment in December 2011; launched in Washington D.C., Chicago, Seattle, and Boston, and pursued international expansion in Paris, in the winter of 2011; acquired a $258M investment and pursued expansion in India and Africa in August 2013; acquired a $1.2B investment as it pursued the China market in June 2014; you get the point. Over this time period, Uber was able to expand rapidly in both national and international markets, create several service offerings at various price points, and widen its service offerings outside of car rides.

It’s not that ITN has avoided the use of technology; among their technology-enabled resources are a web portal for affiliates to measure their performance, as well as ITNRides software to manage accounts for members and volunteers, schedule and track rides, calculate billing and finances, and manage community outreach. But ITN and Uber employ fundamentally different business models; the technology, funding model, and target population clearly differentiate the services. And perhaps ITN was initially ahead of its time, as Uber’s success has benefitted ITN by making the concept more comprehensible. These may explain why ITN has seen gradual growth over a couple of decades, while Uber has seen explosive growth in a handful of years.

Still, ITN’s impact is significant. At the time of writing, ITN has offered over 660,000 rides. The company has compelling stories of the ways in which it has helped seniors. One such story was when a 90-year-old rider, an engineering teacher in New Jersey, was running late. She explained a situation of not meeting her driver at the scheduled pickup time because her class went overtime: ITN drivers know my schedule better than I do…The driver actually found her way through the maze of classrooms…to find me.” Knowing that the teacher couldn’t drive, the driver admitted: “I was worried about her.”2 I wonder…will self-driving cars generate humane stories like this one?

As an effort to commemorate poignant stories like this, Freund celebrated ITN’s 20-year anniversary by embarking on a 60-day cross country Storybook Tour road trip in 2015 to visit seniors with stories of how ITN had touched their lives. ITN launched a #storybooktour Facebook campaign and created a dedicated website to display photos and videos of Freund’s interviews along the way. The company also held a #sharearide campaign that year, encouraging people to offer rides to older adults in need of a lift, and to post pictures and stories of their experiences on social media.3

Another small-scale transportation service, SilverRide, distinguishes itself with a travel agent touch to its offerings. SilverRide offers services in the San Francisco Bay area such as private excursions, social events, and courier services. The company requests advance notice for rides, guarantees on-time pickup and drop off, offers accompaniment to an appointment or activity, and manages payments automatically. As well, the company partners with SilverPlanet to help seniors navigate housing decisions. SilverRide also allows seniors to enlist the help of “Silver Advisors” – geriatric care professionals who provide Medicare assistance, fall prevention services, driving ability evaluations, and other services. Notably, their offerings reach far beyond a car ride.

SilverRide illustrates a recurring theme among several service providers for seniors: an overlap with travel, housing, and wellness. Services in the sharing economy may indirectly help seniors get to and from their destinations without directly offering transportation services. Stay tuned for a future blog post covering this topic.

As I alluded to above, several car companies and transportation providers have made significant progress in the development of self-driving cars. Uber is offering select riders a lift with their self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. But with an Uber driver and engineer in the front seats, how close are we really to a widely available, fully autonomous car? A research analyst at BMI Research thinks we still have a ways to go – 15 to 20 years, in fact. Already there are reports of mishaps in Pittsburgh, such as a fender bender as well as a car going the wrong way on a one-way street.

While Uber, Google, Tesla, and others race to get fully autonomous vehicles to market, there seems to be little conversation about the social and psychological implications. Do non-driving seniors, and the broader population, in fact want self-driving cars? Yes, at least to some extent. But will we buy them? Will we get bored of them? What will the word “driver” even mean? Will seniors feel more or less independent? A recent article in Forbes, as well as a study conducted by AAA (indicating that ¾ of Americans are afraid to ride in a self-driving car), start to explore these important topics. But more discussion about the implications is needed. Why? Because it just might impact the massive R&D investments being made in autonomous vehicle development…and the lives of our citizens.

The ensemble of innovation across a variety of industries — only a subset of which I cover here — spawns a myriad of possibilities. Keeping pace with the speed of innovation, older adults will certainly be going places.

About Alex Iselin: Alex is the Founder of Better With Age LLC, a research and design strategy consultancy that helps teams create products and services that address the needs of older adults. Alex applies a range of methods to identify, deconstruct, and strategically solve complex design challenges. By employing a human-centered approach, he supports teams in developing a deep understanding of their users, making data-informed design decisions, and creating relevant and impactful products and services. Feel free to reach Alex via email, or you can find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.