In a rural area in central Wisconsin, an elderly mother is slowly losing her vision. Her doctor has advised her to stop driving, prompting an important question: As she lives alone, how will she get to the grocery store, medical appointments or family visits?
Her daughter contacted Holly Keenan at the nonprofit Lutheran Social Services (LSS) of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. The three women explored transportation possibilities.
Keenan is highly qualified to provide a range of ideas. She is a certified mobility manager, someone who knows about transit options for people who cannot or choose not to drive. Keenan introduced this client to a program run by LSS called Make the Ride Happen, which arranges transportation for nondrivers. The options presented depend on where the nondriver lives, and may include volunteer driver programs, van and carpools, shared ride taxis, public buses, paratransit or private drivers.
The mother and daughter decided that paying a small fee for rides from LSS’s corps of 60 volunteer drivers would best suit her needs.
Keenan’s new client is one of two million Wisconsin nondrivers scattered across the state. They include people with impaired vision, aging adults, students, low-income individuals, those with physical or cognitive disabilities, and those who simply prefer not to drive.
Mobility managers, available throughout Wisconsin, provide information, help nondrivers explore options, and sometimes help a client pay for transportation. In most cases they don’t provide rides directly, but they are experts at connecting clients to the rides that are available. They may work for a nonprofit, like Keenan, or they may work for a local government or transit agency. Some have received special training while others learn as they go.
“It’s a challenge to come into a community, figure out what transportation options exist, and then connect the dots,” Keenan says. “If there are service gaps, a mobility manager tries to find creative solutions.”
Assisting rural residents with transportation is especially challenging, as the distances between homes and destinations can be great. “There are places in the state where we have a ‘transportation desert,’ where options are few and far between,” says Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired Executive Director Denise Jess. And, she notes, the cost of the ride can vary widely from place to place and is often more than the rider can afford.
Transportation planning has historically prioritized the needs of people who drive, not those who don’t. Take the car out of the equation, and people are often left guessing at the best way to get around. There lies the benefit of having a mobility manager on your side. But they can’t invent a resource that isn’t already available.
“A mobility manager is going to do the very best job with the transportation tools that they have, but if there aren’t good options, they can’t magically produce them,” Jess says. And sometimes, adds Keenan, the available choices do not suit the person who wants a ride.
Wisconsin has been leading the charge in connecting nondrivers with rides. In 2008, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation introduced a unique curriculum, available to prospective mobility managers, that covers the complexities of public transportation. That led to the formation of the Wisconsin Association of Mobility Managers (WAMM), which lists the mobility managers available in every part of the state.
“The goal in the state of Wisconsin is to allow non-drivers to accomplish the activities of daily life with the same ease and timeframe as someone who can drive a car,” Denise says. “We’re far from that now. But mobility managers are playing an important role in getting us closer.”