A sort of ‘Lyft’ for west metro seniors

ITNTwin Cities’ mileage-based rides could fill the spot left by Five Cities Transportation

A little more than a year after Five Cities Transportation was shuttered due to a lack of available buses and concerns over high subsidy rates, a new transportation company could be poised to take over the service it left behind.

Independent Transportation Network Twin Cities, the state’s affiliate of national nonprofit ITNAmerica, offers a similar dial-a-ride service to residents of Crystal, Robbinsdale, New Hope and St. Anthony.

The network operates much like Lyft, the popular driving service that recently set up shop in the Twin Cities: instead of a bus or taxi system with paid drivers, which can be prohibitively costly, network drivers are trained volunteers who use their own cars, gas and insurance to drive riders anywhere in the metro area.

The network is open to any resident of its four cities aged 60 or older or who identify themselves as having a vision impairment.

After they join the network, riders can call a dispatcher and schedule a ride 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A driver will then arrive to take them to their destination.

“The model of ITNTwin Cities is to have convenience for our members,” said Volunteer Coordinator Susie Johnson.

Riders pay an annual membership fee of $50 for an individual and $75 for families. They then “pre-fund” an account with the network, and transportation fares are taken out of that account after each ride instead of being paid directly to the driver. Members are mailed a monthly statement that shows the balance on their account.

Ridership fares are based on mileage, Johnson said – $2.50 for the initial pickup, and $1.50 per mile driven, assuming the ride is scheduled by 4 p.m. the previous day.

If the ride isn’t scheduled that far in advance – if an emergency arises – the pickup price rises to $6 but the per mile cost remains the same.

Volunteer drivers receive free memberships and receive mileage credits as they drive, Johnson said. They can use those credits to offset fares on their own network account or give it to a loved one to do the same.

“An adult son can drive one Saturday morning a month and gift it to his mother,” she said. Other drivers use the service themselves for eye appointments or in environments when they’d be less comfortable driving themselves, such as into a busy city, Johnson added.

Rider and driver registration is open during the network’s “soft launch” this month, but Johnson said they need another 10 volunteers and 15 riders before they can start offering rides.

Drivers undergo a background check and training program before picking up their first client. Network officials also conduct a ride-along to see a volunteer’s driving habits first hand, said Joelyn Malone, one of the Twin Cities affiliate’s board members.

“The training will consist partly of how to work with older individuals,” she said. “General customer service things, like how to address people … But also things like, if you need to help someone from the door down the doorstep to the vehicle, how do you do that safely? Maybe the individual has a fold-up wheelchair. How do you fold it up and put it in the trunk?”

Malone also plans to be a volunteer driver, and thinks she was the first to register for the training.

She thinks the first batch of drivers will begin their training in the next three or four weeks, and will be able to provide rides as soon as they finish it.

Beginnings and expansion

Malone said she, along with a handful of other “grassroots activists” have been working to establish the network in the Twin Cities for more than two years.

“I’m interested in the whole thing partly because I’ve been working in the areas of service for seniors for 30 years,” she said. “I know what a huge problem transportation can be for people who can’t drive any longer.”

Malone added that she has a vision impairment of her own that might eventually keep her from getting behind the wheel, and that she was motivated by seeing her parents in a similar non-driving situation.

While the network currently serves four cities, Malone said they hope to expand further into the suburbs as city ordinances permit.

“We needed to have it start where there were no taxi licensure laws that would need to be amended for us to provide this service,” she said. “We intend to serve the West Metro area and Minneapolis and inner-ring suburbs.”

Malone explained that the network could legally operate in other cities, such as Edina and Saint Louis Park.

It does not serve them, however, because one city between the current and hopeful service areas – Golden Valley – does not allow for the network to operate as is, and organizers want to keep a contiguous area of service, Malone said.

“Golden Valley would be the link between those service areas, and I know that we do need to be working with them to get a waiver from their taxi ordinance,” Malone said.

Both Johnson and Malone said the immediate hurdle for their organization is recruiting volunteer drivers.

“Other choices seem to be shrinking, so its the right time to be doing this,” Malone said.

Volunteer and membership info: 612 260 5949 or itntwincites.org.


Contact Joe Bowen at joe.bowen@ecm-inc.com