- By Katy Read
Part of the Transforming Life as We Age Special Report
At 72, Valerie (who asked that her last name not be used) takes public transportation to her daytime job in social services. But one night a week, she leaves her home in San Francisco to rehearse with a chorus on the other side of town. That’s when she calls SilverRide. The company has some things in common with ride services like Uber or Lyft, but it was specifically designed to meet the needs of older adults and people with ambulatory or other limitations. Clients like Valerie appreciate its security and reliability.
SilverRide delivers her to chorus rehearsals and concerts and takes her home afterward. The round trip costs about $90, but she says a cab ride with tip would be nearly the same. Valerie likes SilverRide because she knows she can rely on the drivers to be there right when she needs them.
“With taxis, over many years, I’ve not been able to go out to certain things at night. I’d wait two to three hours and a taxi would never show up,” she said. “This offers me the ability to do things I want to do and could not otherwise do.”
Ride Services for Special Needs
“When you get a ride from us, it’s a lot more than a ride,” said Jeff Maltz, who launched SilverRide in 2007 after hearing about older adults facing transportation problems. He also thought about his own grandmother, who used to love going to a bookstore. “Once she became wheelchair-bound, she never got to go to the bookstore again,” he said.
We’re in a period where there is tremendous development and enhancement of transportation options.
— Virginia Rize, National Aging and Disability Transportation Center
Drivers for SilverRide undergo background checks and random drug testing, but they also get training in transporting people with special needs of all kinds, physical and cognitive.
“The truth is, it’s a little easier to help someone in a wheelchair,” Maltz said. “If you’re helping somebody with a cane or walker, there’s a higher risk of fall.” SilverRide calls the service “door-through-door.” Drivers don’t pull up to the curb and wait for the passenger to hop in. Instead they provide a safe escort from indoors to the car and back indoors again at the destination.
SilverRide staff asks new clients about their mobility or other limitations when they sign up. The company also gathers information about whether there are steps outside clients’ homes, how to reach their emergency contacts, how often a client likes to go out and where he or she likes to go. The company promises to keep those details and preferences on file and confidential.
Ride prices are quoted in advance and paid with an on-file credit card or withdrawn from a prepaid account. Fees are based on time required, distance, location and time of day. The fees for many rides fall in the range of $20 to $45 one-way, Maltz said. And the service doesn’t always end when riders reach their destinations. For an additional fee, SilverRide drivers will stay with clients who can’t or don’t want to be on their own, accompanying them to games, shows and other events. Those costs range from $45 to $85 an hour. The company says its drivers spend 70 percent of their time in that capacity.
Drivers, who get liability insurance coverage from SilverRide, also shuttle customers to and from medical procedures that involve anesthesia, where doctors recommend against patients driving themselves.
Riders can summon SilverRide with a phone call or by email, convenient options for those who aren’t adept with smartphones. “We have a [smartphone] app,” Maltz said. “Zero people use it.”
Existing Transit Options Are Stretched Thin
“There are lots of models that have aspects of what is offered in SilverRide,” said Virginia Rize, co-director of the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center. “I think we’re in a period where there is tremendous development and enhancement of transportation options.”
Programs are emerging across the country to serve older people and those with mobility issues. Some cities are working with ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft to better serve older populations. But there are also other entrepreneurial ventures, nonprofits supported by grants and donations and volunteer programs. They include vehicles that can accommodate a wheelchair, rides that can be summoned by phone call, trained drivers who help passengers to the car or combinations of those features.
Mary Blumberg, manager for strategic planning and development for the Atlanta Regional Commission, said the city is pursuing multiple solutions at once. “One of the ways we’re trying to address issues here is to offer a lot of different options for folks,” she said.
The reason for this wave of developments nationally is a growing need that will be challenging to meet. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires local governments to provide rides for anyone who can’t use ordinary public transportation. Often, what’s provided are minibuses that carry multiple people, each to a different destination, while others ride along waiting for their stops. It can be a slow and inconvenient way to get around. In addition, these services are struggling to stretch their capacity for an aging population.
In Minneapolis and St. Paul, for example, the minibus service called Metro Mobility is run by an agency called the Metropolitan Council. The council administers several transportation programs region-wide, including bus and light rail service. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of Metro Mobility rides needed by residents of the Minneapolis–St. Paul region is expected to double, reaching 2.9 million rides, straining the overall transit budget and potentially forcing cutbacks in the region’s other transit programs.
Many Happy Returns
For now, SilverRide operates in the San Francisco Bay Area, but Maltz hopes to branch into other cities. He believes accessible transportation can translate into better health for aging people by enabling them to socialize and take part in activities they would otherwise miss. He gave an example by telling a story.
SilverRide got a call from someone whose uncle had been told he had two weeks to live, Maltz said. The uncle wanted to visit a gay bar one more time before he died. After making sure the man was OK to travel, SilverRide drove him to the bar and handed him off safely to the bartender.
“On the way back, the guy asked if we could take him again the next day. We told him we’d take him as many times as he wanted to go,” Maltz recalled. “The guy wound up going to gay bars three to five times a week — for the next five years.”
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