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A sustainable solution to the senior transportation gap

With the first Baby Boomer set to turn 65 next year, the transportation industry should be preparing for a senior boom. ITNAmerica devised a solution that combines volunteer efforts with a sustainable and technologically-savvy business practice.

With the first Baby Boomer set to turn 65 next year, industries including the transportation sector are preparing for a senior boom. A Maine-based nonprofit, ITNAmerica, has developed a solution that combines volunteer efforts and donations with a sustainable, long-term and technologically-savvy business practice.

I spoke this week with ITNAmerica founder Katherine Freund about how the system works -- and how the model is expanding to build community mobility within the private space.

Talk about the transportation gap for older Americans. How big is the problem?

The transportation problem for older people that we're really just beginning to experience is going to continue to grow over the next couple of decades. We've added 30 years to the human lifespan in the last 100 years. We're experiencing an aging revolution that is affecting all aspects of our lives. One of the systems we're outgrowing is the transportation system. Currently in the United States, more than 90 percent of "person trips" are taken in a private automobile -- either as a passenger or a driver. People now outlive their decision to stop driving. Women outlive the decision by more than 10 years. Men outlive the decision by more than six years. The number of people who are unable to go where they want to go is growing everyday. Only 2 percent of trips for people over 65 are taken on public transportation. That number is expected to decline.

Why the decline?

We can only surmise. But the changes that go with older ages make it difficult for people to use public transportation. People have more difficulty carrying packages. They need canes or walkers. They have visual impairments and begin to experience balance issues. It just makes it more difficult to wait at a bus stop and mount the steps of a bus. We need a transportation system that is designed for people at these older ages. Ten-thousand people will turn 65 a day starting in 2011.

Right. By 2030, one in five Americans will be 65 or older.

Yes. And people in their 60s typically are still driving and able to use public transportation. At about the age of 75, we notice an increase in crash frequency. People at older ages are also more easily injured in lower-velocity crashes. The transportation system was never built for people at these ages. You're standing on a bus and you can't get to your seat in time because you're moving more slowly, and the bus starts up and you fall. Or you're walking on an icy sidewalk and you [fall] and break your hip and your life is never the same again.

We needed a transportation solution for a people at these older ages. We don't usually think in these terms, but quality of life can be determined by whether you can get to where you want to.

How does ITNAmerica fill in that transportation gap?

If we know that 90 percent of trips are in automobiles, it's a good assumption that people like automobiles. Independent Transportation Network said, If automobiles are what people want, we're going to use automobiles. Another assumption in this system was that if you can't drive, we have to pay for your transportation with public resources. That's a terrible assumption. How are we going to have a system that is sustainable economically if we have all these people aging out of driving -- and at the same time we have a tax burden for Social Security and Medicare and prescription drugs?

If I provide good service, people will pay for it. So ITN is a service people pay for. We came up with a social enterprise. It runs like a business, but the bottom line is dignified mobility for the aging population of the United States. It doesn't make a profit, but it uses volunteers and it accepts contributions and donated cars. We built a system that uses private automobiles and we drew the characteristics from private automobile ownership.

Have you every heard someone say that automobiles are a symbol of independence? We spent a long time thinking about that. How can we find a way to capture the feeling of independence and the symbolic value of automobiles and build that into a transportation alternative that will be so satisfying for the people who use it that their affection for their automobiles will be transferred to a transportation service that meets their needs when they can no longer drive? We incorporated various characteristics into ITN. It is available 24 hours, seven days a week for any purpose -- just like a private automobile. People who use it may ride alone, or they may have guests in their car. There are no value judgments made on the worthiness of drives. We don't take the medical appointments first, so the people who want to go play Bridge have to wait. Once you become a dues-paying member of ITN and you open a prepaid personal transportation account, you can call up and schedule a trip. A car will come to your door and someone will assist you into the vehicle if you need assistance, carry packages, fold walkers.

We found ways to convert resources -- that were not dollars -- into transportation. We help people who have cars they can no longer drive to liquidate those capital assets and deposit them as credits into their personal transportation accounts. And since labor is a major cost of transportation, people who volunteer to drive others now get a credit in the ITN system. They can store that in their personal transportation account for when they're older and someone can drive them. Or, since ITN is a national system, if they have a family member in another city, [that family member] can pull those credits out. We call that transportation social security.

How do you use technology to connect seniors to transportation?

We use mapping technology. We use a geographic information system. We have one database for the whole country. We'll be using Windows Azure cloud computing. The software does the routing of the vehicles and the matching of volunteers with people who need rides. It also handles the finances. Volunteer management is a huge part of sustainability -- and the software helps to make that happen. There is member management -- all the people in the system and the information we need for them. The information system helps to create an organized institutional memory. This problem is so vast that we need a system that will survive us. (Here's a video about how ITNAmerica uses technology.)

What's next for the organization?

We're continuing to work on the roll-out in the United States. We're in 18 communities in 14 states now. We have new cities coming on. We're finishing up the business plan for Canada. We have been invited to collaborate on a business plan in Australia. Last month, three different European countries asked us to participate in a study being done by the European Union. Aging is a global issue and transportation is a global issue.

The most exciting thing we're working on now is called ITNEverywhere. Half of older people in this country live in communities that have no public transportation -- and many of them are too small for the ITN model. To address the needs of smaller communities, we've been working on a research and development project. It takes the core business innovations of the Independent Transportation Network [and puts] that as the core for a suite of software programs that will access unused private capacity. Traditionally, transportation has occurred in the private automobile. How do we use information management to group those vehicles, so people share private capacity? ZipCar is a form of this. It's community mobility created in private space. With information management, you can get people in the empty seats. Until now, they've been all separate little silos -- the ride-share silo, the car-share silo, the volunteer transportation silo. ITNEverywhere is a software program that brings all the silos together. We'll be building in 2012.

Photo: Katherine Freund

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com