This article was originally published by Salud America!
In rural areas, a car is a lifeline to groceries, community, and medical care – all the basics of life.
Seniors who can no longer drive, or others without access to a car, must depend on neighbors and whatever public transit may be available.
Enter Rabbit Transit, which is striving to connect otherwise isolated individuals. The agency serves York County and nine other rural counties in Central Pennsylvania, providing some 2.5 million trips a year, explained Richard Farr, the agency’s executive director.
“Part of our mission statement is really focusing on a high quality of life for our residents,” Farr said. “We recognize the importance of unique transportation solutions.”
Existing services to get people to medical care, provided by Medicare and through the Americans with Disabilities Act, have holes.
Rabbit Transit has therefore worked to cover seniors and to get people to, for instance, groceries and community centers.
These are lifestyle and welfare issues that, at first glance, don’t appear to have anything to do with healthcare, but actually provide the backbone to make people healthier.
“I really think health happens outside the doctor’s office,” Farr added. “In the office may be too late for you.”
So it is vital to extend transit services to groceries and to social contacts that help human welfare.
Getting fresh food where it’s needed
“Access to fresh food is incredibly important,” Farr said.
To take care of that and related needs, Rabbit Transit began Senior Shared Ride way back in 1982 as a van service for seniors in need of groceries, and the agency now plans to expand to other groups.
The basic plan is simple. Seniors call for a van the day before from a limited range of hours available, Farr said. Vans may leave at 9 or 10 in the morning and return at 1 or 2 in the afternoon. Because every part of the 10 counties served has a grocery store, a medical facility, and a community center within 11 miles, the trips can be kept short and affordable. Payment is currently $2.35 each way, with Rabbit Transit picking up the rest of the $15.57 average trip cost.
The exception is for a hospital or specialized medical facility, Farr explained. In this case, the trip can be far longer, 30 or more miles, in which case the cost is $6.65 one way for seniors, out of a total expense of $44.
Fortunately, Pennsylvania has a ready source of cash to subsidize the Senior Shared Ride service in the form of lottery profits directed to the program. “Many of my counterparts” across the country, Farr said, “would love to have a senior lottery program.”
A grocery partner for transit
Another innovation began in 2001 in York, the only urban area Rabbit Transit serves, with some 40,000 residents or a bit more than 100,000 including adjacent areas. Grocery stores have been leaving the downtown for suburban areas, causing difficulties for those without car access.
Fortunately, Giant groceries stepped in to partner with transit. “They are sponsoring shuttles six days a week to two different grocery stores,” Farr noted. The vans stop at housing complexes and provide time and assistance for those in senior and public housing to board.
The plan has been a big success, expanding to include the west side this year. In fiscal year 2016, the Giant Shuttle program provided 3,753 trips, with a projected 3,920 trips this fiscal year.
Indeed, Rabbit Transit partners with multiple organizations, including the Healthy York County Coalition and Family First, to provide services. Education is also an important component, to make people aware of the multiple services available.
For those who have been in food deserts or otherwise don’t eat healthy, Farr said, Rabbit Transit even brings in a chef to the main York transit center to show how to cook fresh food in simple, three-step recipes. And they sponsor a fresh-food pop-up truck to spread healthy food around the community.
Extending services to others in need
Of course, seniors are only one group of people in need of transportation. While there are existing programs for the disabled, there is a “glaring” hole for low-income rural people, said Sherry Welsh, transportation project manager for Rabbit Transit. Latinos also, for example, tend to live in areas that lack safe streets and sidewalks and have fewer grocery stores, according to research reviews by Salud America!
Even getting to work can be a problem, and Rabbit Transit is just beginning to look for solutions.
“We need to get data first, then go to funders,” Farr said. “We need to know where they live and how many.”
Realizing the need for continued improvement, Rabbit Transit received a grant to begin the 3P Ride – standing for People, Places, and Possibilities – about a year ago. The program “brings people to the table who use our services,” said Welsh, with about 40 participants, from seniors and disabled people to decision makers. “We focus on being inclusive, bringing people to the table who really should be.”
Yet “there is always more to accomplish,” she said, and the process has been extended beyond its trial first year. “The overarching theme is: transportation is a necessity for just quality of life. Just as people’s needs are changing, the community’s needs are changing, and we have to change as well.”
With its willingness to experiment and a ready source of funding, Rabbit Transit has become a pioneer in helping the communities it serves.
“I like to think we’re pretty unique,” Farr said. “Certainly, we look at best practices, transit agencies doing innovative things, we steal pieces of.”