Transit service with a twist

Networks use credits for seniors who no longer can drive.

Published May 13, 2007

ORLANDO - Adele Fredel, 83, blacked out in Publix six months ago and gave up driving because she doesn't want to hurt people.

Stanley Weinroth, 79, needs a lift to rehab while recovering from a stroke.

Angelina Gruner, 77 is stuck at home because her husband's kidneys gave out.

These are the inevitable byproducts of aging America's dependence on cars, especially in Florida, where public transportation provides all the comfort and coverage of a thong bikini.

Now, a new way to liberate homebound older people is edging into the state.

Called an "independent transportation network," it functions like a discount taxi service with a help-your-neighbor twist.

People who can't drive get door-to-door rides in private cars. Volunteer drivers build up credits for when they or loved ones need rides. Throw in community donations, and the nonprofit network can charge much less than a cab. And, if you like, you can pay for rides by donating your car.

"For a man, it's hard to accept people doing things for you, but it's wonderful," says Weinroth, who uses a fledgling network in suburban Orlando to get 11 miles to a stroke rehab clinic. His wife still drives to nearby neighborhood destinations, but won't hazard the confusion of Interstate 4.

The inspiration

Kathy Freund was studying public policy at the University of Southern Maine 18 years ago, when an 84-year-old neighbor drove over her son.

That got her to thinking: How can society take care of people who shouldn't be driving?

Government subsidies sometimes help the poor, but what about everyone else?

Church volunteers barely scratch the surface.

Public transportation leaves yawning gaps.

Freund developed the first "independent transportation network," or "ITN, " in Portland, Maine, more than a decade ago. One premise was that volunteers would build up credits that they could use when they lose their capacity to drive.

In reality, only about one-third of the Maine rides are provided by volunteers. Part-time, paid staff members in network cars do most of the driving.

Riders, 65 or older, are "members" of the network, which bills them monthly at a per-mile rate that undercuts cabs by about half. With one day's notice, riders can go anywhere they want around the clock. They don't tip, don't have to carry cash and make friends with the drivers.

Portland now runs about 1,500 rides a month, with 50 volunteers and is growing about 10 percent a year. With a grant from Atlantic Philanthropies, Freund recently created ITNAmerica, an attempt to spread the Portland model to other cities.

Five new networks, including Orlando's, are up and running.

'We've been rescued'

Vincent and Ruth Combs' 2002 Lincoln Town Car stays idle in their condo garage, unless their son comes to visit. They were considering a move to Virginia, to be near their son, until Orlando's ITN got cranked up in October.

The charge isn't cheap. Each ride starts with a flat rate of $3, plus $1 a mile. A 5-mile trip to the doctor costs Combs $8. A cab usually charges about $2.50 to begin and $2.50 a mile, which makes the ride about $15, plus the inevitable tip.

But it's not the savings that draws the Combs. It's the same few people, both volunteers and part-time staffers, who show up.

"It's like your next-door neighbor picked you up and took you to the doctor," Ruth Combs says.

Genevieve Tolar, whose eyes went bad, goes to YMCA exercise class three times a week, often in the 10-year-old Oldsmobile Ciera she donated to the network. "I like the people who come for me," she says "We do a lot of talking."

John Rickelman volunteers for the network two or three days a week in his Dodge Caravan. "I've met a lot of interesting people, " he says. "You exchange experiences."

Besides, volunteers build up credits at 44 cents a mile. Rickelman has amassed more than $400 in credit and is due for a knee operation soon.

Guess how he plans to get around town while recuperating.

Already, the idea of a nationwide coalition of transportation networks has borne one fruit:

A volunteer driver in Portland uses her credits so her mother in Orlando can ride for free.

A political problem

One out of five Floridians older than 65 doesn't drive. Half of those older than 80 let their drivers' licenses lapse.

No single method of transportation will solve the puzzle, but independent networks look promising, says Debra Shade, director of Neighborly Care Network, the nonprofit agency that operates Meals on Wheels in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Neighborly Care plans to crank up a transportation network in Clearwater and Dunedin this fall, Shade says. It will follow the Portland pattern, but not as part of ITNAmerica.

Neighborly Care already has a fleet of vans, cars and drivers that ferry people to adult day care and congregate dining. The agency also has dispatching software to match drivers with riders. And Neighborly Care has a ready-made network of volunteers and donors who can help keep ride costs low.

The organization hasn't yet settled on a fee structure, but it has a big advantage, Shade says: vans with wheelchair lifts.

"People want to help their families, but they can't always help with money," Shade says. "Say I have a little Volkswagen, and my mother is in a wheelchair. I'll volunteer to drive someone else, and you send a wheelchair vehicle to get her."