Community Transportation Programs- Helping with Dignity and Caring    
by: Sandra Ray, Staff Writer

There are a multitude of programs available to help the elderly and disabled reach appointments, go shopping, and perform other tasks associated with daily living. Not all of these are easily accessible or easy to find. The requirements often range from proof of age or disability, to income, as well as stating that no other transportation means are available. It is easy to become discouraged with the process and give up interacting with the community at large.

Rural communities, oddly enough, may have more transportation alternatives than urban areas. In recent years, grants from the Department of Transportation and other state and federal programs have increased the amount of transportation available in rural communities, especially for those individuals who need to access medical services. Still, these programs may not offer flexible scheduling, and they may not offer access to shopping in larger areas or simply pleasure trips. Depending on the area and the funding source for the transportation, there may be specific eligibility criteria that limit access for individuals in need.

According to the Department of Transportation, approximately 38 percent of individuals live in areas without access to public transportation. In addition, in late 2006, the first of the “Baby Boomer” generation will reach retirement age. By 2030, the number of individuals who are 65 and older will double from the current number of 35 million to more than 70 million (Community Transportation Association of America, 2003). This influx of individuals who are eligible for senior transportation programs could cause some programs to begin to limit transportation options simply based on inability to serve as many people as need services.

Independent Transportation Network (ITN):

The Independent Transportation Network (ITN) has developed a viable model program that can be readily duplicated across the United States, helping to solve some of the transportation woes that communities are facing today. Started in 1999 as a result of research sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration, AARP, and the Transportation Research Board, the Maine-based non-profit offers the program to seniors and individuals with vision impairments.

The mission statement of ITN is “to provide a community-based, and community supported, economically viable and consumer-oriented, quality transportation service for seniors.” The program is supported, not only by individuals who use the service, but by businesses who want to encourage individuals to use their company’s services and products. For example, a business may want to provide free trips to individuals who shop at their store or use their products. Businesses can receive monthly statements regarding usage and the customer is provided with quick, easy transportation. Health care providers can also participate and help offset the costs of getting seniors to necessary health check-ups and other appointments.

The project is available in thirteen communities in Maine and is being planned for communities such as Charleston/Trident, South Carolina; Mercer County, New Jersey; Orlando, Florida; and Santa Monica, California. The national network (www.itnamerica.org) is now implementing full-scale nationwide roll-out that started in the fall 2005. Corporations, foundations, and the Federal Transit Administration provided the initial funding for the project which will help reshape the face of transportation for older Americans in the U.S.

The President and Founder Katherine Freund was recently appointed by President Bush to serve at the White House Conference on Aging. Freund began researching the program during graduate school after a fatal car accident involving one of her family members. Her insight into the real problem – seniors not having adequate transportation alternatives – helped shape the research and direction of ITN. Since the White House Conference on Aging occurs only once every ten years, her appointment gives her the opportunity to present ITN to policy makers, leaders, and ultimately, communities who need mobility options for seniors.

Returning Dignity to Seniors:

Seniors who have to stop driving often feel that their world is limited and they are dependent on family and friends to provide them transportation favors. By becoming a dues-paying member of the local ITN, the guilt associated with transportation is removed. Seniors are scheduling transportation that fits their own needs and sharing in the costs of the service. Seniors who are no longer able to drive can sell their vehicles and place the funds in their ITN account to pay for transportation. Scholarships are available for low-income individuals who need transportation, yet cannot afford to participate at the full cost of the network.

The program offers transportation for minimal cost, paid by the mile, for qualifying individuals. Instead of offering bus-style transportation, individuals are transported in private cars and can be picked up right on their doorstep. The service operates 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Individuals can plan their trips ahead or call when they are ready to leave. Individual accounts offer ease of payment, since the account can easily be debited at the time of the trip.

Sustainability of transportation programs developed in communities has long been an issue. When the funding is no longer available, the program is limited or eliminated all together. Since ITN is community-supported by seniors who use the service, businesses, health care providers, as well as local government funding, it is more viable in the long-run. Vehicle donations and volunteers also offset operating costs. Some drivers are paid, yet volunteer drivers are encouraged to help assist even more people. Volunteers support the network by working as drivers, thus minimizing the costs associated with operating the program.

ITN provides a community-based solution with long-term sustainability potential. This means, in essence, that seniors who were once limited in their mobility options may now soon have alternatives. Though the project is still in its initial roll-out stages, the research behind the program is strong, as well as the support at all levels of government. Communities and individuals alike can realize the value of grass-roots programs that provide flexibility for seniors, while still preserving independence and dignity for as long as possible.

 

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