Part two: Like Rappahannock, rural communities around the country are wrestling with transportation challenges. Here’s how some are dealing with them, and how future solutions may be built around software.
For Foothills Forum
Let’s start with a cautionary tale.
As someone who grew up on a dairy farm in Nebraska, Valerie Lefler knew firsthand about the reality of getting around in rural communities, how if you didn’t have access to a vehicle or didn’t drive, you weren’t going very far.
That ultimately led her, in 2016, to launch a company called Liberty Mobility Now, which, she said, would use 21st century technology to address a persistent need. Some described it as the “rural Uber,” although Lefler would point out that that was only partly true.
Like Uber or Lyft, Liberty Mobility would use drivers who earned money by responding to requests through a mobile app. Obviously, they wouldn’t be able to show up in five minutes, but the goal was to pick up a rider within a half hour. That would help fill one of the big holes in rural transportation — rides on short notice. Most services that use volunteer drivers require that you reserve a ride at least two days before you need it, sometimes longer.
But Lefler maintained that Liberty Mobility would be more than a ride-hailing service. She saw it as an all-inclusive transportation system where Liberty drivers would be integrated with existing options in a community, whether it was shuttle buses or a network of volunteer drivers. The company would also use sophisticated software to closely track the transportation choices and habits of residents, and compile data that would enable local officials and agencies to get a good handle on how to serve the public’s mobility needs most efficiently.
Community forum this Sunday
Join the discussion about rural transportation challenges with reporter Randy Rieland, community groups and residents:
• When: Sunday, Feb. 25, 2 p.m.
• Where: Reynolds Memorial Baptist Church in Sperryville.
• Watch: Stream the event online at Facebook.
It was a service beyond the technical capabilities and fiscal means of most rural communities, and Liberty attracted a lot of attention. In 2017, it began working with public agencies, healthcare companies and nonprofits in seven states, including Virginia, where last fall it took a first step by entering into a partnership with UnitedHealthcare to transport Medicaid patients around the Richmond, Roanoke and Southwest Virginia areas.
By then, the company had already made a pitch in this region, specifically to a group that included the PATH Foundation and the Rappahannock-Rapidan Regional Commission. Liberty proposed a public-private partnership through which it said it could not only improve mobility in the five-county area — Rappahannock, Culpeper, Fauquier, Madison and Orange — but also provide detailed monthly reports on overall transportation demand and usage. It suggested a launch as soon as January 2018.
There was interest, but also concerns. Questions arose about relying on drivers using a mobile app in a region mottled with cellphone and broadband dead zones. Liberty noted that it could, for a fee, provide a 24/7 call center. The proposed first-year cost of just under $250,000 — including a set-up charge of $32,500 — also raised eyebrows. So did the suggested rate of $1 a mile for Liberty riders, which in a widespread county like Rappahannock could easily result in roundtrip fares of $50 and above.
The local groups balked, but there was talk of having a follow-up conversation.
It never happened.
Late in December, a nonprofit called TechGROWTH Ohio filed a lawsuit against Liberty, alleging that the company misrepresented facts in a contract, and that it owed TechGROWTH $342,500 on a loan. Soon thereafter, Liberty shut down, and laid off 29 employees overseeing its operations around the country.
While she said she couldn’t discuss the details of the legal action, Lefler did comment, “We ran out of resources and time to prove out the model.”
Remember the Rappahannock Express?
Lefler had taken on a vexing challenge: How do you shape a modern transportation system for communities where buses are as rare as stoplights? How do you efficiently help residents get where they need to go when people are so few and far between?
As rural America grows older, mobility has become a more precious commodity, one that’s critical to staying healthy and, just as importantly, remaining connected to the outside world. Without it, the choice of aging in place degrades to fading in place.
“For a lot of these people, their social support system has been pulled from them. And the services they need are disappearing,” said Carol Wright Kenderdine, co-director of the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center, a program of the Federal Transit Administration. “Someone might say that maybe they shouldn’t live there anymore, but that’s a very difficult thing for people who have spent their entire lives in a community.”
The limitations of rural transportation, though, affect more than seniors. Not even 1 percent of rural residents nationally use public transit to get to work, according to the American Community Survey. That’s not surprising, given how hard it can be to justify investing in something as basic as conventional bus service in sparsely-populated areas. But it does severely limit mobility options.
In 2003, Rappahannock actually had its own bus service. Briefly. Called the Rappahannock Express, it picked up county residents at designated stops and, on different days, transported them to Culpeper, Warrenton or Front Royal. One day a week, however, the bus would pick people up at their homes.
“That day worked great,” said real estate agent Kaye Kohler, who played a lead role in arranging for the service. “On the other days, I thought neighbors would help get people to the bus stops, but that didn’t happen.”
The result is that sometimes the bus would have fewer than a handful of passengers all day. Jackson District Supervisor Ron Frazier witnessed that himself. “It just looked bad seeing a bus running down the road with one or two people in it,” he said.
Funding from the federal and state governments meant the county’s financial commitment was minimal at first — just $2,000. But it would increase over the next few years until it reached $20,000 a year. So, after just six months, the board of supervisors decided to pull the plug.
“The board decided as a group that it was a long enough trial period and that our tax dollars weren’t being spent wisely,” Frazier said. He also noted that personally he was concerned that “providing a subsidy for that could have stopped someone from starting a cab service if they wanted to.”
But Kohler still believes the Rappahannock Express could have worked if it had been given more time. In fact, it had been converted to only an on-demand service, without fixed stops, a few weeks before it was shut down. “People have told me a bus needs to run for a least a year, maybe even two years, in a rural community where you haven’t had one before,” she said. “It takes a while for it to catch on.”
She suggested that those who wanted to get rid of it were insensitive to the needs of many county residents. “I said to them, ‘One day you may need this,’” she remembered. “The decision was stupid. It was disappointing.”
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The group has an agreement with Rappahannock Media, owner of the Rappahannock News, to present this series and other reporting projects.
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The county has not directly allocated money for transportation since then, but it does, through its annual contributions to regional agencies such as the Rappahannock Rapidan Regional Commission (RRRC) and the Rappahannock Rapidan Community Services Board (RRCSB), provide funds that can be used for that purpose. For instance, some of Rappahannock’s yearly dues of $5,200 to the RRRC end up helping to support the Foothills Area Mobility System (FAMS) and its transportation call center. And, some part the county’s allotment of more than $42,000 to the RRCSB helps to cover such services as bus rides to and from the Senior Center in Scrabble.
Buses on Demand
For many rural communities, a regular bus service can be an ill fit, both financially and logistically. By Valerie Lefler’s estimate, the true cost of operating a bus is roughly $4 a mile, and the miles can add up quickly.
But in the southwest tip of Virginia, where it juts toward Kentucky, an agency on aging and public transit called Mountain Empire Older Citizens, Inc. (MEOC) runs the transportation service for Wise, Lee and Scott Counties, as well as the town of Norton, population 3,900. It’s built around a fleet of 48 buses driven by paid drivers. Most can carry up to 12 passengers. The agency is primarily funded through a combination of federal and state grants and contributions from local organizations and governments.
“It’s bus on demand,” said Mitch Elliott, MEOC’s transit director. “We come to your home. We pick you up and take you where you need to go. If it’s not a medical appointment, we ask you how long you’re going to be somewhere, and we try to schedule a route around when you’re ready to be picked up again. If it’s a doctor’s appointment, we have the person call us back, and we try to send the nearest vehicle to pick them up.”
The service has limits — it’s available only weekdays until 5 p.m. There’s also a fare of $1.50, although it’s half as much for people 60 or older, or 18 and younger. Also, requests need to be made at least a day in advance. But it’s been working this way since the 1980s, and now transports between 700 and 1,000 people a day.
Typically, according to Elliott, only a handful of routes are scheduled in the less populous counties, Lee (54 residents per square mile) and Scott (44). (Rappahannock has a population density of 28 residents per square mile.)
“It’s complicated, but we make it work,” he said. “If you try to do a fixed route in a rural area, there are so many people who cannot get there.”
Taking a regional approach to transportation is important, but so is close coordination with other social services, Elliott noted. Often, local agencies can be too narrowly focused on their own agendas, and lose sight of how transportation — or lack of it — is critical to people getting the help those agencies are offering.
“Here’s what we’ve learned — we could not do this by ourselves,” he said. “We have to work with other services. On one bus, we might have a general public person going to the doctor, someone going to the PACE Center (a senior care facility), and another person who’s a Medicaid client.”
Efficiencies of scale
Sam Purington is also someone who understands the value of looking at rural transportation holistically. He’s the executive director of the Volunteer Transportation Center (VTC), a nonprofit that coordinates rides for residents of three rural counties in upstate New York near the Canadian border.
He explained that a little more than a decade ago, when a group in Jefferson County, N.Y., started looking at how volunteers could best serve the community, it became clear that transportation was the greatest need. It also was evident that it was being provided in a piecemeal way.
“It was like the Wild West,” Purington recalled. “Whether it was an office of social services or veterans affairs or an aging agency, they provided different services, but they also included rides. We told them we could coordinate the rides. There was resistance. We had to show them that we could help more people by making the rides more efficient.”
Today, the nonprofit oversees a group of 250 volunteer drivers serving an area roughly the size of Connecticut. And, the focus on efficiency means most trips involve multiple riders in a car. That reduces costs since the drivers are reimbursed for gas.
In recent years, the nonprofit has sought outside contracts, such as with addiction treatment services, area hospices and mental health clinics, and one that enables it to provide transportation for all Medicaid patients in the tri-county region. That has prompted an expansion to a staff of 28 from just five people in 2010. The growth, Purington said, has made it possible for the center to greatly extend its reach.
“The more rides you have, the more opportunities to share those rides,” he said. “If you don’t have that, your economies of scale vanish, and your ability to help is drastically reduced.”
The annual budget for what Purington described as the “charitable rides” part of the operation is about $300,000. He said only 4 to 5 percent of that comes from local municipalities, with the bulk coming the United Way, foundations and private donations.
Purington said VTC has also had to embrace more technology. The center now has its own small IT department, which has developed software that makes it easier to schedule the most efficient routes. It also has developed a mobile app that allows the staff to communicate better with all those volunteer drivers, and for the drivers to track their mileage.
Even smaller ride services are starting to lean on technology to simplify the job of coordinating volunteers. An example is Ready Rides, which transports the residents of nine small towns in New Hampshire to medical appointments. During 2013, its first year in operation, Ready Rides made 115 trips. Now, its 55 drivers handle up to 250 rides a month.
It’s vital, said Ready Rides coordinator Meri Schmaltz, to not only recruit volunteers constantly — her organization offers $50 to any driver who brings in a new one — but also to find ways to ease their burden. Technology can help.
“We have software that all the drivers have access to,” Schmaltz said. “And they can go in and look at the schedule. They can see where someone wants to go, when they want to go there, how long the trip is. And they can choose which trips they want to take.”
The future of rural transportation may simply come down to software. Given the sparse populations, investments in infrastructure don’t make much sense. Nor does taking on the labor costs of a typical transit operation.
But using computer programs that enable nonprofits or public agencies to maximize the contributions of a band of volunteers is a promising alternative. That’s part of what Katherine Freund, a leader in shaping senior transportation for almost 25 years, has in mind.
Back in 1995, Freund started the Independent Transportation Network — now known as ITNAmerica — a few years after her toddler son had been seriously injured when he was hit by a car driven by an elderly man who probably shouldn’t have been behind the wheel. That motivated her to give older people who couldn’t — or shouldn’t — drive another option, one she calls “dignified transportation.”
It evolved into a program designed to help seniors get rides in private vehicles, usually driven by volunteers. A cornerstone of the service is what’s known as a “Personal Transportation Account.” Riders or their family members in communities where fares are charged for rides may pay into an account with cash. Also, volunteers can earn credits by serving as drivers themselves, saving them for their own future needs. Or, they can trade in a car they no longer use to cover their fares. Other features, called Ride & Shop and Healthy Miles, enable stores or healthcare facilities to kick in funds to cover rides to their locations.
ITNAmerica now has a network of 13 affiliates in 12 states, albeit none in Virginia. It has largely focused on urban and suburban communities, but now hopes to roll out a model called ITNCountry. Freund explained that, for a modest fee, rural agencies or nonprofits could become associated with ITN, and that would give them access to the organization’s digital “toolbox,” including Personal Transportation Accounts.
“We want to make it inexpensive so people in small, rural communities can participate,” said Freund, who lives in Maine. “It could be an aging agency or a Rotary Club or a church. The software is a big part of what they’d be getting. It will help them do rides coordination and store all the information about their volunteers.
“But their members would also be connected to a national network,” she added. “Say you live in Washington, but your father lives in West Virginia. He needs transportation, but you can’t provide it. So, you volunteer and your credit for volunteering can be used to provide transportation for him in West Virginia.”
Freund noted that it would be up to the local groups to set membership fees, and, also fares, if any, for riders, and whether they want to pay a staff or rely solely on volunteers. Her goal, she said, is to give them autonomy while providing an opportunity to tackle a pressing need.
“About 80 percent of our population lives in less than 5 percent of the land area. The other 95 percent is a transportation desert.”
One ride at a time
That brings us back to Valerie Lefler. Despite the folding of Liberty Mobility, she’s intent on moving forward with her thinking about rural mobility, and is now exploring other options. Lefler acknowledged the difficulty of sustaining a business with such thin margins and slow-moving revenue streams.
“You’re growing, growing, growing, but you just can’t get over the hill,” she said.
She learned other things over the past year, such as how much collaboration among groups in a community affected the launch of a Liberty Mobility operation.
“One thing that was on our radar, but we didn’t know to what scale, was the importance of existing relationships within a community,” she said. “In communities where things were very fragmented and they weren’t used to working in large groups and there wasn’t a lot of coordination, it was a longer haul to get everybody on the same page. Whereas, in the communities where there were already a lot of groups working together, from the United Way to the transit agency to the local food pantry, and they all came together on this. You could feel the energy.”
Lefler also believes that as much need as there may be for better rural transportation, you can’t expect a community — particularly an aging one — to quickly embrace new options.
“The psychology shift in a community takes time,” she said. “Particularly when you’re working with seniors, who are risk-averse. They want some time to contemplate things. It’s about more than just the ride. It’s not just about the data or solutions engineering. It’s also about the psychology of the consumer. Sometimes with transportation, that gets underplayed.”
But Lefler said she feels strongly that it’s critical for rural communities to stay committed to helping their residents become more mobile, that making it easier for a child to get to a doctor’s appointment, or a widow to a grocery store can have a real impact. And, it can make a huge difference for those, like many in Rappahannock County, who are at great risk of losing human connections.
“It’s one ride at a time,” she said. “One ride can mean a lot more in rural communities. One ride can be meaningful. One ride is a victory.”