In a past life, as registrar of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, Columbus City Council member Mitchell Brown says he got a keen understanding of the challenges aging Ohioans face.
“When you start to take away the driving privileges because they get older—and vision and night vision all play a part in how someone’s able to get around—and I was always very sensitive to the fact that, wait a minute, let’s see what we can do to help them,” Brown says.
Starting with the Hilltop neighborhood, the city of Columbus and a number of local organizations are launching transportation projects to help seniors get to doctors’ appointments, the library and grocery stores.
Brown says being able to get around, that sense of independence, is wound up in a person’s sense of self.
“You don’t like asking someone to take you here and to take you there,” Brown says. “It’s a burden on them, it’s a burden on you, but how else are going to get around to get your groceries or your doctor’s appointments and all the other things that go on in your life?”
At the Hilltop YMCA on Tuesday, Brown helped announce the launch of a handful of new mobility efforts. If residents have reliable transportation, the thinking goes, they’ll be better able to stay in their homes as they grow older.
One of the projects is a new Hilltop circulator. Rev. Meredith McDougle helped spearhead the program.
"We have a pre-fixed route that we will start with, we'll kind of give that a try for the first couple weeks or so,” McDougle says. “Then we want, as much as we can get, the feedback from the riders so that they can give us their input into where they want to go."
The route loops through the Hilltop and connects the area with other West Side neighborhoods like Woodlawn and Lincoln Park West. For the initial route, at least, the bus will make stops at grocery stores, libraries, recreation centers and senior living facilities.
The plan is to run the circulator five hours a day, picking up at each stop about once an hour.
McDougle says the circulator will be free until the end of the year, thanks to city funding. After that, they’ll charge a small fee that covers the bus as well as other services.
McDougle heads up the Greater Hilltop Area Shalom Zone, a member of Columbus’ network of villages. Part services coordinator, part social club, villages are meant to help older residents connect with others in the community and provide a reliable support network so they can remain independent.
Christine Happel, who leads the Greater Columbus Network of Villages, says a simple ride is one of their commonly requested services. Her organization already arranges more than 100 of them in a month.
“On occasion the volume of transportation service request or the nature of the request extends beyond the capacity of volunteers,” she says. “This is where Lyft comes in.”
Another program, known as Lyfting Villages, will use the ride hailing service to pick up the slack when volunteers aren’t able to meet demand. Lyft’s Demetrius Thomas explains village directors will be able book rides for their members through a central platform.
“Which allows a director or whomever to book a ride for anyone that they need to,” Thomas says. “They don’t need a smart phone, they don’t need to have the app, and it’s how the program is structured, is at no cost to the person using the service right now.”
Thomas describes the program as a pilot that will run through the end of the year. He says Lyft will try to sustain it after that based on the results of the pilot. Funding for the rides comes from the Central Ohio Area Agency on Aging—a non-profit organization which coordinates services in eight nearby counties.
The Ohio State University College of Social Work is planning to study the new mobility programs to evaluate what work and what doesn’t, as well as opportunities for new initiatives.