Transforming Mobility in Rural America Through New Technology

Asked at the CITRIS-co-hosted “Transforming Mobility” conference last week: How is it that Amazon can deliver toilet paper to a person in the Adirondacks overnight, but it takes that same person three days to arrange transportation to a doctor’s appointment?

Next Avenue/PBS: If you’re 60 or older, need a ride and happen to live in the small sunbelt town of Wickenburg, Ariz., you can call the Freedom Express. A van driven by an older adult volunteer will pick you up, for, what the name implies, free.

The town of about 6,000, 60 miles outside Phoenix, has what many rural areas don’t — affordable transportation for older adults. The idea was born at a town hall meeting where Charles Petersen, a program director and manager at the Foundation for Senior Living, asked people what they needed most. The resounding reply: transportation.

“A high proportion of our seniors live alone,” he said, at a recent conference at the University of California-Berkeley called Beyond Here and There: Transforming Mobility in Rural America Through New Technology. “There is isolation, which is worse than smoking.”

Petersen consulted with community groups, town officials and the Salvation Army, which had been raising money for his organization, and cobbled together a service that costs $91,000 a year to operate. In three years, it has provided 21,000 rides.

Technology to Help Get Rural Health Care

It is one of a number of innovations aimed at helping older adults in rural America maintain their health. Some are using available technology for ride hailing, car sharing, recruiting volunteers and educating riders. Others are hoping to harness new technology that will allow older motorists to drive safely for more years or will guide drones and driverless vehicles.

“How can all this creative disruption be applied to an older population?” asked John Feather, CEO of Grantmakers in Aging, which co-hosted the conference, attended by researchers, policymakers and philanthropists. (Feather was named a 2016 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging.)

Health risks to those without transportation are well-documented. Missing treatment for kidney disease, wound care, heart disease or cancer can be life-threatening and costly. One analysis, included in a report prepared for the conference, estimated that improving transportation to medical appointments for people with disabilities would save $19 billion a year.

Photo: Wickenburg’s Freedom Express