Laura Dake is executive director of ITN or Independent Transportation Network-Bluegrass. Due to a recent injury that left me temporarily unable to drive, I turned to ITN for transportation around Lexington and quickly discovered what an important difference this nonprofit is making in so many lives in the Bluegrass area. So, I invited Laura to share information about her organization.
Q: First, a brief history on the origins of ITN-Buegrass.
A: About 10 years ago or so, ITN-America decided to launch its model nationwide. In 2007, a lady named Gale Reece had recently retired and was looking for a project in the local community that had something to do with aging. She was particularly interested in housing, but went to the city of Lexington and was told that the real issue in this area was transportation — that people couldn’t really live in their homes without the transportation to get places. They found that ITN-America had started to launch their model nationwide, submitted an application to ITN-America, and it was accepted. I came onboard as a fundraiser because the requirement was that the affiliate needed to raise about $125,000 in order to start.
Q: Who is served?
A: We serve people who are 60 and over and any adult with a visual impairment. Most of our riders are over 75. In fact, at age 65, 88 percent of Americans still drive. It goes down to about 69 percent by age 75. Most of our riders are a little bit older than our minimum age to use the service.
Q: How does the system work?
A: We are open 24/7 and we deliver rides anywhere in Fayette County, northern Jessamine County, and Versailles and Woodford County, for any reason. Riders contact us. We send them an application or they can go on our website and fill one out online.
Q: And what is that website?
A: http://www.itnbluegrass.org/. They fill out an application, then they send in a little bit of money to get their account started. We charge a $50-dollar membership fee, per year, per person and $65 for a family membership and then they fund what we call a personal transportation account. The money that they put in that account may be based on how many rides they think they might be taking in a given month. Then at the beginning of every month, they get an itemized statement for the previous month listing all the rides they’ve taken and how much each ride cost.
Q: Who drives and where do you find your drivers?
A: Our drivers come to us from all different walks of life — people who are really interested in serving seniors. They enjoy driving. We have drivers who have driven for us since we started, which was back in July of 2008. We get them from churches. People read about us in the newspaper. People hear about us on the radio and contact us. Right now, we have about 40 drivers, mostly volunteers. We do have a few paid drivers, but we prefer our volunteers simply because it helps save on operating costs. The neat thing about being a volunteer driver with ITN-Bluegrass is that you earn mileage credit. Every mile that a volunteer drives, they earn 30 cents per mile and that includes the mileage when the person is in the car and when they’re going to pick up the person or they are going to their next rider. Those credits add up and can be stored in the driver’s account. For example, we have a gentleman who has been driving with us since the beginning and he has over $6,500 worth of credit in his account. When he decides to give up the car keys or limit his own driving, he can use those credits to pay for his transportation.
Q: Did the emergence of Uber and Lyft cause any concern and how does ITN differ from those services?
A: We initially were worried about it, but it really hasn’t had any impact on our ride numbers. In fact, in July, August and September we saw our largest ride counts yet. We did three 900+ rides each of those months. And we did over 800 in October. So, we don’t really feel like Uber and Lyft have had that much of an impact. It may in the future as people who are more comfortable with smartphones get older. The difference between Uber and Lyft and ITN-Bluegrass is that you don’t have to have a smartphone with us. People call us and schedule rides. They can email us as well. You don’t need to have a credit card in your smartphone, either. We also provide appropriate customer service for a senior person. Whereas Uber and Lyft will drop you at the curb or at the door, we will actually walk people to where they need to go if they require that. We call it arm-through-arm, door-through-door service. Even if we have to walk up to the 4th floor of an office building, we will do that for folks to make sure that they get in safely.
Q: Baby boomers are reaching 65 at the rate of about 10,000 per day. Are you seeing a commensurate increase in demand?
A: Kentucky is one of the fastest aging states in the country and the numbers that we see might be a reflection of that.
Q: Do you have the volunteer driver corps to keep up with that trend?
A: Not at this time. We are always looking for volunteer drivers.
Q: Tell us what a person who might be interested in driving should do.
A: Give us a call. Our number is (859) 252-8665. Or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll set up training, which takes about 2 hours. We run a criminal background check, and a motor vehicle safety check. If everything is good to go, the person can start usually within the next week.
Q: I saw in a recent ITN newsletter that you are noticing more of certain destinations than others. Do you have data on that?
A: Sure. We collect data on every ride. About 37 percent of our rides are to medical-related appointments. When we started, it was more like 42 percent. My theory is that we are actually driving people who are a little bit younger than we used to and many people are deciding to give up the car keys a little bit earlier than they used to, as well. That may be why medical appointments are down a little bit. Our second most popular type trip is to the hairdresser — 15 percent of our rides are to beauty salons and barber shops. One of the ways I think that ITN-Bluegrass really fills a need in this area is that in Lexington, it’s really hard to get to places if you don’t have a car, especially if you’re not very ambulatory. It’s hard to get to a bus stop.
We have seen a lot of people move out to the suburbs and people are aging there as well. Older people are not moving as much as they used to. Over 85 percent of people who are 50 to 60 say that they want to age in their own homes. But people who don’t have regular access to transportation go into nursing homes 5 to 7 years earlier than people who do have access to transportation. Nursing homes in this country cost on average about $87,000 a year. Assisted living facilities are about $44,000 a year. So, of course, people want to stay in their homes. It’s a big money saver. Transportation is a really important part of having good quality of life after you can no longer drive. We do know that people who don’t have that transportation tend to be more depressed and have more health issues than people who can get out and do things. ITN-Bluegrass is not just about going to the doctor or to the grocery store. We are about encouraging people to go to movies, to meet some friends for dinner, to go to church, to go to exercise, to do all sorts of things that people would have done when they drove, and to really live a full, active, independent life.
Q: Why should local businesses support ITN and what are some ways that they can support the service?
A: A mature ITN affiliate brings about a million dollars’ worth of economic activity to a community in a given year. We bring people to the doors of businesses all over town, medical facilities, hair salons, restaurants. We have a couple of programs for businesses. One is called Healthy Miles. It’s intended for medical facilities. They can subsidize — it could be a dollar, it could be $2, it could be $3 — a trip to that destination. We also have “Ride and Shop” where a retailer would be able to do the same — subsidize a person’s trip to that particular location.
Tom Martin's Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader's Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.