Most of us take our mobility for granted. We grab our keys and head out to work, buy groceries, and shuttle our kids to movies and soccer practice—all without a second thought. But for the one-third of Americans who don’t drive and many others who lack access to a working vehicle, transportation options don’t come easy—especially in rural America, where transportation has long been a seemingly intractable problem.
The technology revolution is showing potential to help solve that problem and enable more Americans to take part in the economic and social lives of their communities. One new and promising service is Liberty.
The Robinson family at a neighbor’s dairy farm
21st Century Model Meets Rural America
Liberty has been described as the Uber for rural America, since it connects riders to drivers through a mobile app similar to those used by Lyft and Uber. But to founder and CEO Valerie Lefler, “Liberty is about more than just giving rides. It’s about providing Mobility as a Service.”
The company engages local partners to identify a community’s transportation gaps and then works to fill them. Liberty charges customers $1.10 to book and $1 dollar per mile on average. In addition to the app, customers can schedule rides through Liberty’s call center. Liberty uses area-specific mobility managers who provide a direct line of communication to customers and also work to build partnerships in the community.
Just launched in 2016, Liberty’s rural strategy has already brought it to three states (Nebraska, Ohio, and South Dakota), with seven total expected by year’s end. Applications to bring service to more than 60 counties in 2018 could mean the company will be operating in 16 states by the end of next year.
Target Market Typified
Yankton, S.D., (county population 22,616) epitomizes rural transportation challenges. Buses require a 24-hour advance reservation and only operate weekdays 7:30 to 4:30, and taxicab supply doesn’t meet demand.
The city recently was able to secure a $25,000 grant from the local economic development corporation to bring Liberty to Yankton County. The Mayor took an inaugural ride on June 30.
“They are not looking to own the market, but fill gaps in the service,” said City Commissioner Nathan Johnson, who was instrumental in bringing Liberty to town.
Beth Robinson was one of Liberty’s first customers. Robinson is a mother of three children and a family caregiver for her husband, Chris, who has a terminal heart defect and uses a wheelchair part-time. Since the onset of Chris’ illness in 2010, Beth’s caregiving responsibilities have prevented her from working outside the home. The family relies almost exclusively on Chris’ disability income.
Locating rental housing that was both affordable and accessible in town proved challenging. They rented a five bedroom farmhouse outside town at about half the price of a three bedroom apartment in Yankton. But soon after moving, their vehicle broke down. It’s been out of service ever since.
Then Beth discovered Liberty. Chris, after catching an accessible bus for the 17-mile journey into town, was unable to schedule his return trip. Liberty does not yet have access to accessible vehicles in Yankton, but the area manager and her husband, a liberty driver, came through. They lifted the 150-pound wheelchair into the back of a small SUV and got Chris safely home, groceries and all.
“That had us for customers for life after that,” said Beth.
Since then, the family has taken 6-7 Liberty trips—to buy groceries, check out books from the library, and get her kids to a summer cooking class.
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Whether innovative companies such as Liberty will be able to survive in resource-constrained rural markets and whether they can complement, rather than compete with, existing public transportation are open questions. To enter a market, such services will likely need start-up funds and local partners who can help subsidize trips for those unable to pay the full cost of a ride. But the enthusiasm communities have shown for this service gives hope that a generations-old problem for rural America just might have a solution. Such issues and solutions will be explored in more detail in future blog posts.
About the author: Jana Lynott is a senior strategic policy adviser with the AARP Public Policy Institute, where she manages the AARP transportation research agenda. As a land use and transportation planner, she brings practical expertise to the research field.
Also of Interest
If you look at the 2017 Long Term Services and Supports (LTSS) Scorecard, you may notice that something is different in this third edition– housing and transportation indicators are included for the first time. Affordable and accessible housing and transportation options are key components of a livable community. Having options that people can access, regardless of their age, income, physical ability or other factors brings them closer to the community features and services they need to remain engaged in their communities.
AARP’s Livability Index gives higher housing scores to neighborhoods in counties with more subsidized (sometimes known as affordable) housing, as it ensures that people of all incomes can have access to a place to live. One of the elements of a high-functioning LTSS system is that it gives people choices about where to live and receive services. Affordable housing is essential to shifting the delivery of LTSS from an institutional model towards home and community-based care. However, a major barrier to transitioning people out of institutions and back to their communities is the lack of affordable and accessible housing options. The Scorecard includes a measure of the supply of subsidized housing at the state level, an important resource to help individuals with lower incomes and LTSS needs stay in the community and receive services at home or in a community setting.
This Scorecard measure captures the total amount of subsidized housing opportunities—spanning many different programs—divided by the total number of housing units in a state. The total number of subsidized housing opportunities has risen since 2011, but it still falls short of current and future needs.
This chart shows the supply of subsidized housing opportunities in each state in 2015 (blue bars), the improvement from four years earlier (red line), and the gap in affordable housing opportunities (light blue solid area). Nationally, there are more than 18 million renters at or below area median income (most of whom are cost-burdened by housing) and fewer than 8 million potentially subsidized units. There is still an affordable housing crisis in our country.
The solution seems simple – we should build more of this housing. Federal programs such as Section 202 have historically built new affordable housing for older adults with low incomes. However, the federal government has stopped funding new construction of this and similar programs, and fewer affordable apartments are available under these programs. Vouchers have become more popular due to their efficiency, but holders may have a hard time finding appropriate housing and landlords who will accept their voucher in more livable neighborhoods. Those counting on a subsidized unit might find that there are not enough available in a helpful location.
Decades ago, we did not anticipate that people with LTSS needs would stay in their communities, so most of our neighborhoods were not designed for their needs. While communities work to build more housing with “universal design” features, many units may have steps and other barriers that are problematic for those with LTSS needs. This must change if our communities are going to meet the goal of providing options for all people of all ages.
The good news is that there are more opportunities today (the blue bars in the chart) than in the past (the red line) as vouchers have increased and programs such as the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program build more units. States can help by allocating these tax credits in ways that enhance livability, developing housing trust funds, grants or loan programs, or taking other steps. However, it is clear that government cannot solve this alone, especially when proposals to build new affordable housing meet objections. Building livable communities for all must be a goal for all – not just policymakers, but builders, homeowners, residents and neighbors.
Join Dr. Harrell and other AARP experts for a twitter chat to discuss housing needs and the LTSS Scorecard at 1pm EDT on July 19. Join the conversation using #PickUpthePace and share your questions and insights.
Rodney Harrell, PhD, is Director of Livable Communities for the AARP Public Policy Institute. His expertise includes neighborhood choice, housing affordability and accessibility, transit-oriented development, community redevelopment, sustainable community initiatives and other livable communities issues.
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This post originally appeared in the IAGG 2017 Bridge blog.
Across the globe populations are aging, and this far-reaching change is happening much faster than most people realize. In just five years, the number of older persons will surpass one billion; they are already a fast-growing presence in cities and towns of all sizes, every region and all segments of society.
Photo courtesy of Dan Burden
This change provides countries across the globe with a great opportunity, because older individuals have so much to offer the communities where they live. But making the most of it will require vision and innovative thinking.
Fortunately, we have a growing body of knowledge about what it takes to make a community more “age friendly.” And it is becoming clearer all the time that cities and towns that embrace this priority are rewarded with a better quality of life for all their residents. There really is no alternative, because demographic trends are transforming societies around the world whether they are prepared or not.
Consider these numbers:
- For the first time in human history, by 2030, the number of people age 60 and over will exceed the number of children age 10 and under, an unprecedented demographic milestone that signals new challenges – and opportunities – for institutions, communities, government and the private sector.
- Our very notion of what it means to be “old” is changing profoundly. A 10-year-old in the United States now has a 50 percent chance of living to age 104. By 2050, the United States is projected to have more than 1 million centenarians.
Nations and local communities that take steps to become more livable for all will have the advantage over those that do not. The good news is that practical models on improving communities to be age friendly are available. Pioneering work by the World Health Organization (WHO) provides many insights into how communities can promote healthy, active aging and support inclusion and engagement that benefits all their residents.
The WHO also sponsors a Global Network for Age-Friendly Cities and Communities that share insights on best practices and lessons learned. AARP is committed to making this information more available, and in 2012 we created the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities to further that goal, in affiliation with the WHO.
These age-friendly networks highlight eight domains of livability that help shape quality of life for people of all ages: Outdoor spaces and buildings; transportation; housing; social participation; respect and inclusion; civic participation and employment; communication and information; community and health services.
Importantly, Alexandre Kalache, who helped create the WHO network, points out that age-friendly features do far more than just help seniors, they help everyone. Take the example of a bus that is designed for easy access. “If it is easy for an older person to get in and out of this bus, it is going to be more (accessible) to a child or a teenager, to a pregnant woman or to someone carrying her luggage.”
Design, land use and infrastructure all help pave the way for people to stay engaged in the world around them. But Kalache notes that for a place to be truly age friendly, inclusiveness must become a broadly shared cultural value. As he puts it, such a community is a place “where the attitude is right – from the policymakers to the service providers to the population as a whole…”
Promoting the value of inclusion requires a multi-faceted effort. Age-friendly communities should have physical infrastructures and offer services that help residents of all ages live active, engaged and secure lives. They should enact policies and rules (e.g., zoning and land use regulations) that create an accessible built environment and ensure affordable and convenient housing alternatives.
Age-friendly communities should provide transportation options that meet the varied needs of residents, including easy access to health care and retail shopping for basic necessities. They should keep the environment clean and public spaces safe and free of crime.
Age-friendly communities should give residents access to housing that is located near crucial services, such as transportation, health care, retail and recreation. Available housing should include choices that meet the needs of residents of all ages, including families with kids and those with grandparents.
All of these things make it easier for people to live the way they want to. And the fact is that most of us want the chance to age in our homes and communities for as long as possible. AARP surveys consistently show that older people desperately want to hold on to their independence and avoid moving into nursing institutions.
Yet obstacles often stand in the way of living independently and securely, particularly as we get older. Take the basic example of walking safely to the store or strolling around the block. In the United States, adults 65 and older make up 13 percent of the population, yet they suffer nearly 20 percent of pedestrian fatalities. Communities can do better. As a start, they should make changes to street, crosswalk and sidewalk design, maintenance, and signage. Poor infrastructure is also often the cause of older adult falls and falls are the cause of 68 percent of older adults’ hospitalizations.
Engagement, Foresight and Inclusiveness
Importantly, age-friendly places recognize older adults as the community assets that they are. They know that older residents offer experience and perspective that should be taken advantage of when it comes to planning, implementation and evaluation of programs and policies. They understand that in the process, the benefit flows in both directions: Older adults who get involved benefit personally from a sense of purpose and engagement, while the community gets the value of their experience. Inclusion leads to better decisions that help everyone.
An inclusive approach to age-friendly planning also raises awareness of changes affecting communities and the needs of residents. Noteworthy changes include the growing role of grandparents in raising grandchildren, the increase in multigenerational families, and growing ethnic and racial diversity in older age groups. An inclusive approach also seeks out input from a diverse set of older residents who may offer insights and solutions that would otherwise be overlooked. Further, age-friendly planning recognizes that as the population ages, there will be an increasing number of individuals with disabilities who rely on local services to stay independent.
Commitment and On-the-Ground Action
AARP’s goal is to help people live more easily and comfortably as they age and it has been gratifying to see that this goal is widely shared. Since its start in 2012, the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities has boomed, with a membership that has now reached 163 localities that are home to more than 64 million people living all over the United States. These are communities of all shapes and sizes – from small towns and rural counties to cities as large as Atlanta, Boston and Dallas.
AARP state offices work with local officials and activists across the network to promote age friendliness, and our communities have shown real leadership to prepare for demographic change rather than passively wait for it.
Within the network, we’ve seen a wide range of programs and successes.
- Portland, Oregon adjusted zoning codes and reduced municipal fees to make it easier for homeowners to add an accessory dwelling unit (or granny-flat), which can help residents to age in place.
- New York City added 1,500 new benches and 3,500 new or improved bus shelters, providing resting places for pedestrians and encouraging bus ridership, particularly in locations where older riders were likely to board.
- Washington, DC engaged over 500 volunteers in a multigenerational block-by-block walk program to identify pedestrian challenges such as broken sidewalks, missing curb cuts, and traffic signals that don’t allow safe crossing. It also introduced a free mobile app so people can report problems directly to transportation officials.
- Macon-Bibb County in central Georgia undertook a series of improvements to Tattnall Square Park, such as numerous resting facilities and a new gateway, in order to make the park more accessible and enjoyable for all.
- Westchester County, New York established a program to coach family caregivers who are often faced with difficult tasks in caring for loved ones who want to remain in the community.
Given the breadth of issues that age-friendliness must address, this work requires a local government commitment from the very top – one that filters down through every department to frontline workers. Age friendliness has to work for everyone, so it is vital that local officials and planners work across silos and reach into other disciplines to find holistic solutions. I am heartened by the extent to which age-friendly awareness is increasingly embraced by disciplines as varied as planning, architecture, real estate development and zoning, as well as increasing examples of cross-sector collaboration.
To support this multi-discipline approach, in March AARP sponsored a Summit on Livable Communities, which brought together two key organizations representing different disciplines – the American Society on Aging and the American Planning Association. The summit included 250 aging network professionals and local/regional planners, who talked about ways to work across professional silos to advance livable communities for all people, regardless of their age or ability. I believe some great partnerships were formed during the event, and look forward to hearing about future accomplishments.
We now know that people of all ages want their communities to be age friendly, whether they live in small villages, big cities or suburbs. The need is growing and not just in the developed world. By mid-century, one in five people in developing countries will be over 60. Communities of all sizes, all stages of development and in all regions of the world will benefit by making age friendliness a priority.
Building on our existing knowledge about age friendliness to find new and more effective approaches should be a priority in communities all over, and AARP is committed to helping.
Across the globe, community leaders cannot afford to ignore their aging populations. Everyone will benefit when we embrace this change and work together to prepare for the future.
Debra Whitman is AARP’s chief public policy officer and leads policy development, analysis and research, as well as global thought leadership that supports and advances the interests of older people and their families. Follow Deb on Twitter: @policydeb