How this Maine woman could revolutionize travel for older, rural Mainers

Despite all the advances the United States has made since the first automobiles motored onto the nation’s roadways, the country still doesn’t have a good solution to a big — and growing — problem: lack of access to reliable transportation in rural areas.

That is, unless people start thinking differently about the transportation model itself and how it’s funded.

Katherine Freund, 64, of Portland still remembers the exact moment she realized how to make community-based transportation services viable for more people, especially older adults. It was 1989, when she was 39, and she was standing by the window in her living room. It was a sunny day.

A couple of important things had happened before that point, and her mind had been working nonstop. She kept thinking about transportation access.

The previous year, her 3-year-old son had been run over by a car driven by an 84-year-old man with dementia. Instead of being angry, Freund said she recognized the older man was just as much a victim as her son.

“When people have dementia, they think they’re fine. If somebody doesn’t tell them, they don’t know. They get in their cars, and they kill people, and they get killed. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be,” she said.

Her son suffered a traumatic brain injury but survived and eventually recovered. Freund said she didn’t want anyone else to experience such distress. She applied to get her master’s in public policy at the Muskie School of Public Service.

It was before attending, as she stood in her living room, that she thought of what later would grow into the Independent Transportation Network. When a friend came to her door a few moments later, she announced, “I have a billion-dollar idea.”

The idea

ITN Portland provided its first ride June 16, 1995. There are now 25 affiliate nonprofit groups in 20 states, supported by ITN America, of which Freund is founder and president. It is the first and only national nonprofit transportation service for seniors.

The organization operates on a membership model. People pay $40 per year, or $50 for a family, to have a car ride available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, within a 15-mile radius of Portland. Trained and vetted volunteers (or paid drivers if there aren’t enough volunteers) give rides to people older than 60, meeting them at their door and helping them to their destination. They charge a small, per-ride fee based on the mileage driven. Those concepts of membership and volunteer drivers, of course, aren’t new.

But Freund decided to broaden the resource base and created personal transportation accounts for each member, to which they can add or subtract currency. The currency can take a variety of forms, making it possible for more people to use the service and get involved.

For instance, volunteer drivers do not collect fares for the time it takes them to get to members’ front doors or get home at the end of their shift. So the organization credits them for those unoccupied miles. The credits are stored in the drivers’ personal transportation accounts, and when they get older they can use those credits toward their own rides.

The system also allows for volunteer drivers to give away their credits, if they want. Some donate them to members who have disabilities or cannot afford the rides. (The average fare is about $11.)

In addition, if it’s no longer safe for seniors to drive on their own, they can put their personal vehicle to good use and donate it. The organization will give them ride credits based on the car’s worth.

“They can turn what is essentially a capital asset into an operating asset,” Freund said.

The real innovations of the model are the personal transportation accounts and flexible approach to resources, which “work like a charm,” Freund said.

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In addition, local organizations such as churches, assisted living facilities and health care providers can contract with ITN to provide rides for their members.

Several health care providers in the Portland area help pay for rides, to better ensure patients arrive on time. About 83 percent of customers use ITN for medical needs.

With the help of private philanthropy, Freund launched, built and refined the first affiliate in Portland. (Public funds can help with initial start-up costs, but they aren’t a long-term answer, she said.) Then, she turned her eye nationwide.

“We said, if we can create a community-based and community-supported transportation service for older people that will allow them to age in place … and we can re-create that model in another city, we can connect all the replicated models into one national system,” she said.

The national rollout started in 2005, and outreach continues. This summer, Freund will embark on a “storybook tour” across the U.S. to listen to the stories of people whose lives have changed because they or someone they know no longer can drive safely. People can sign up to be included in the tour at www.storybooktour.org/.

As of April 22, ITN had served a total of 11,901 individuals, worked with 1,649 volunteers and provided 647,882 door-to-door rides. The national organization, based in Westbrook, has an annual operating budget of about $1.3 million. Much of it comes from fundraising.

And now?

Freund’s biggest challenge lies ahead: broadening the model into areas with less population density. She wants to open up the service to anyone, regardless of age, and call it ITN Everywhere.

“I think ITN Everywhere is the most important idea I’ve ever had in my life,” she said.

We tend to think of public transportation as, well, public. A city identifies the mode of transportation needed, creates a program to address that need, levies taxes and encourages people to use the transportation. But it doesn’t work in rural areas.

“It was crystal clear there was absolutely no way to solve the problem by designing a solution that was going to rely on taxpayer support,” Freund said.

So instead of using vehicles, capital, fuel and insurance funded by the public, and setting specific routes, why not combine all available private transportation resources and create a clear-cut way for people to access them?

Her idea is not to replace public transportation but, rather, complement it. She would combine the services of private ride-sharing programs; community transportation vehicles, such as vans belonging to senior centers, assisted living facilities and YMCAs; the ITN model built for senior transportation; and others.

The goal would be to make more efficient use of existing programs and vehicles that otherwise might sit idle. Freund would use what she calls a “suite of transportation software programs” to coordinate the different types of travel.

She estimates she’ll need about $3 million to build the technology suite and launch it. She received a total of $425,000 over the last six years from Jane’s Trust, the Florence V. Burden Foundation, the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation and additional fundraising in order to complete research for the model. But more funds are needed to apply that research and test the technology in more communities.

You can learn more about ITN Everywhere at www.itneverywhere.org.

The need

The need to adapt to an aging population is clear. About 10,000 baby boomers will turn 65 every day until 2030, according to the Pew Research Center, and people are living longer. In the last 100 years or so, Americans have added 30 years to their life expectancy.

And transportation is expensive. Ask someone to name the top household expenses in the U.S., and they’ll probably note food, clothing and shelter. It’s not. It’s shelter, transportation and food — in that order.

WESTBROOK, MAINE -- 05/01/14 -- Katherine Freund is the founder and president of ITN America, which provides personal transportation services for the elderly. She has plans to expand the service to more rural communities. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Katherine Freund is the founder and president of ITN America, which provides personal transportation services for the elderly. She has plans to expand the service to more rural communities. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Many people planning for their later years do not think of how long they will need transportation or how much it will cost. Women outlive the decision to stop driving by about 10 years, and men outlive the decision by about six years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

What will they do in that time if they live in a rural area and have to see a doctor, visit family or buy groceries? Will they get behind the wheel and put themselves or others in danger? Or will there be an alternative? If Freund achieves her dream, they will only have to pick up the phone, and the car will come to them.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is a writer and storyteller. As editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News, she writes the newspaper's opinion on matters from Kittery to Fort Kent.