Friendly atmosphere makes rides more fun

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Sometimes, senior transit services are restricted to shopping for groceries, medical appointments, or other essential errands. The Independent Transportation Network (ITN) in Portland, Maine, provides numerous rides for such purposes, but it also accommodates the social and recreational needs of its clientele.

"We take people to bridge games all the time," says Katherine Freund, founder of ITN, which utilizes a small fleet of Ford Tauruses as well as the cars of 118 volunteer drivers.

"We try to provide something that is as close as possible to the comfort and convenience of having your own automobile," she explains.

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The service is available around the clock, seven days a week, which also makes it unusual for a noncommercial service.

Because this nonprofit, community-backed system was born as a research project and continues as a developmental model for economically sustainable senior transit, the purpose of each trip is logged. Half are made for medical reasons and many for a "high-order social purpose," namely to visit nursing-home-bound spouses, sometimes on a daily basis.

But whatever the reason, Ms. Freund says the rides themselves help people feel less isolated and lonely.

"Automobiles have a very friendly atmosphere inside; they're like these rolling machines with couches," she observes. "They're small. You talk. That's what you do, and that's what our drivers do."

Practically every passenger chooses the front seat, unless it's already occupied.

Only about 5 percent of the trips are shared with another person, yet 80 percent of the passengers have indicated a willingness to do so. Computer-assisted scheduling is expected to increase the number of shared rides, resulting in greater economy and more social interaction.

"We've put people in vehicles who haven't seen each other in 20 years," Freund says. "In a sense, we are re-creating a community of older people who were dispersed throughout the community."

Seniors don't ride free. They pay about a third of the actual cost. Businesses, which have passengers dropped at their doors, pay for ride-and-shop fares. Another major source of revenue is adult children, who may live in another community but establish prepaid accounts for their parents to use the ITN's system.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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