Mobility crisis? Non-driving seniors navigate ridesharing options

Mobility crisis? Non-driving seniors navigate ridesharing options

newsThe Palo Alto Weekly published a terrific article on the difficulty in area residents (Palo Alto and Menlo Park) in getting around if they are no longer driving a vehicle.  The article focuses on private transportation options available to seniors.

At 88, Carol Dondick has not allowed her decision to stop driving interfere with her life.
The Menlo Park resident gets out of the house four or five days a week — sometimes more — to attend her watercolor class, writer’s group, genealogy group, hair appointments and other engagements using a variety of private transportation options available to seniors, including rideshare companies Uber and Lyft and Avenidas Door-to-Door, a service operated by the nonprofit senior agency Avenidas.

Dondick, who drove for more than 60 years in her hometown of Los Angeles before moving to Menlo Park six years ago, said not having a car has worked out well for her.”It’s very convenient,” she said. Compared to the expense of routine car maintenance and insurance, the cost of private transportation seems affordable, she added.

Dondick books her own Uber rides through the app on her cell phone for impromptu errands. For her standing weekly engagements, she typically uses Avenidas Door-to-Door, which is tailored for seniors. The service requires scheduling a ride at least 36 hours in advance and will take riders anywhere within an 8-mile radius of downtown Palo Alto for $13 or less, depending on the distance. Customers are billed at the beginning of the month for all rides taken in the previous month.

Dondick is among a growing number of seniors who no longer drive; nationwide there are about 8.4 million such seniors. By 2030, that number is expected to increase as the senior population nearly doubles, according to statistics released by the National Caregivers Library, creating an unprecedented segment of the population dependent on private and public transportation.

In Palo Alto, public transit choices available to seniors could actually diminish in the coming year despite this trend. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), which operates the countywide bus system, is currently redrawing its bus routes, which could reduce service to seniors in Palo Alto. The final overhaul is still pending.

Palo Alto resident Dawn Wilcox, 80, said it’s become increasingly difficult for her to rely on VTA buses due to her visual impairments. The proposed VTA changes would create dire problems for others like her who depend on the current routes through Palo Alto, she added.

“When I could use the bus, it was the Line 35 that goes up and down Middlefield. They’re threatening to cut that, and we’ve been working to counteract that. It would be terrible,” she said.

Wilcox, a former member of Palo Alto’s Bicycle Advisory Committee whose vision began failing at age 50, used to drive. Then she bicycled everywhere in town until about 2007 but can no longer do so. Until recently, she often used the federally funded Outreach paratransit service but said that service became more challenging for users last year when the VTA took over the operation from the nonprofit Outreach & Escort Inc., which for decades held the contract to provide the service.

“Now we have something called VTA Access, and it’s quite different than it was before,” Wilcox said of the Outreach replacement. “You get into the car, and you’re not going where you want to go — you’re going where two or three other passengers want to go. So it can take a long time and, if you’re elderly or have just had dialysis or something, I don’t know what you do. It’s really hard on them.”

The VTA changes could prompt private programs to take over where public services leave off.

Phil Endliss, coordinator for Avenidas Door-to-Door, said the need for the senior ride program already is far greater than what the agency can provide.

The service gives 6,000 rides a year to 200 people, with a core of about 65 “very heavy users,” Endliss said.

“We want to be able to help as many people as we can,” he said. “That’s our charter — that everybody in the community stays vibrant and keeps on doing things they’re interested in doing regardless of their ability to drive.”

Last year, the agency started supplementing its service by outsourcing rides to Lyft when volunteers aren’t available, so people won’t be turned away.

Door-to-Door currently employs about 20 volunteer drivers and one paid, part-time driver. Endliss said he would like to expand the program if the agency could find more volunteer drivers. The 8-mile radius stretches to San Carlos, Redwood City, Atherton, Woodside, Menlo Park, Portola Valley, East Palo Alto, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View north of Grant Road.

Palo Alto resident Solveig Jensen Brodsky, who stopped driving 18 months ago when she noticed some weakness in her right leg, is among those who rely on Door-to-Door for shopping and other appointments, but said she still feels limited on when and where she can go due to the advance-booking requirement and weekday hours, she said.

“If something comes up last minute, sometimes I just can’t go,” Brodsky said. “I can call friends or one of the kids but, you know, they’re busy. I try to take care of myself so I don’t have to call them.”

Brodsky is considering getting a smartphone so she’d be able to summon an Uber or Lyft ride evenings or weekends, when Door-to-Door does not operate.

“Let’s say it’s four in the afternoon, and I want to go to Stanford for a concert or something, I’d use Uber,” she said.

She’s considering taking lessons on how to drive with her left leg but “only if I can do it safely. I haven’t ruled it out,” she said.

For those who can’t afford private transportation, Palo Alto’s city-operated free shuttle service makes stops at several major senior housing complexes in town, including Lytton Gardens, Channing House and Stevenson House. And unlike the Door-to-Door service, the shuttle can accommodate wheelchairs as long as they have working brakes.

“The Crosstown Shuttle (running from the downtown Caltrain station to Stevenson House on Charleston Avenue near Middlefield Road) is one of our most popular routes among seniors and school students,” said City Transportation Engineer Ruchika Aggarwal. The city shuttle also operates an “Embarcadero” route, running from the downtown Caltrain station to the Baylands.

The city is considering improvements to the shuttle based on nearly 2,000 responses to a 2015 survey of users, Aggarwal said, but potential reforms have been put on hold pending upcoming changes to the Palo Alto portions of the VTA’s bus routes.

Wilcox, the formerly bicyclist, increasingly relies on Avenidas Door-to-Door to get to her weekly volunteer commitment at the health library of the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Palo Alto.

Although she can pay for the transit service, many others who live on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) cannot afford to use private transportation routinely, she said.

“If you’re living on SSI, it’s peanuts,” she said.

Mountain View resident Therese Salamida, 89, said getting where she needs to go without driving herself is very challenging.

“I do miss driving,” she said. “None of the alternatives is a bullet that works all the time. You have to use your own resources as much as you can.”

ALTERNATIVE TRANSPORTATION

AVENIDAS DOOR-TO-DOOR — Service provided by the nonprofit senior-services agency Avenidas
Availability: 8:15 a.m. to 4 p.m., weekdays (not wheelchair accessible)
How to reserve: Call 650-289-5411 at least 36 hours in advance
Cost: $9 – $18 (up to 12 miles)
Info: avenidas.org

LYFT — Private rideshare
Availability: 24/7 (not wheelchair accessible)
Minimum charge: $5
How to reserve: Smartphone app required
Info: Lyft.com

UBER — Private rideshare
Availability: 24/7
Minimum charge: $6.55
How to reserve: Smartphone app required
Special features: UberWAV provides wheelchair-accessible vehicles
Info: Uber.com

VTA ACCESS PARATRANSIT –Public service for disabled riders
How to reserve: Eligibility requirements (must apply)
Info: 408-436-2865

GO GO GRANDPARENT — concierge ride service using Uber
Availability: 24/7
Minimum charge: $6.55 plus $0.19/minute concierge fee
How to reserve: 855-464-6872 (prior registration required)
Special features: Rides within 15 minutes, by-the-minute updates for family members
Info: 855-464-6872 and https://gogograndparent.com/

by Chris Kenrick
PALO ALTO WEEKLY
February 3, 2017