Better Rural Mobility Through Technology: The Role for Philanthropy

Accessible Olli from Local Motors.jpg

Mobility—the power to move and travel—is a critical social determinant of health and wellbeing, both for individuals, whose quality of life and ability to age in place may hang in the balance, and for communities, where good transportation options are inseparable from economic growth and development. With so much at stake, it is unfortunate that few funders consider the state of mobility in the places where they invest.

One reason may be that most of us take our mobility for granted. We can generally count on being able to drive ourselves, catch a subway, call a cab, summon an Uber or Lyft, or bike or walk where we need to go.

But that assumption doesn’t work in many small towns and rural communities. Rural America is closer than you probably think (in almost any city, you are really just two counties away from a rural area), yet good transportation options can be inaccessible, unaffordable, or simply unavailable.

Mobility matters to people of all ages. In our car-centric culture, anyone without access to a car (or truck) or who can’t drive due to disability, frailty, age, or other reasons is at a huge disadvantage. For the teacher in a remote community with a long and complicated trip to school or the person with kidney disease who lives 100 miles from dialysis, the question “How will I get there?” can be fraught.

Bringing the power of new technology to rural America

Silicon Valley ingenuity may be a good source of new approaches as technology disrupts the transportation, supply chain, and telecommunications sectors and momentum builds around tech-driven innovations like autonomous vehicles (AVs), drones, ride-hailing apps, telehealth, and Mobility as a Service.

Philanthropy also has an important role to play. At Grantmakers In Aging (GIA), we have been working on rural aging, focusing most recently on mobility issues. We believe it is time to widen the circle of collaborators to include technology and industry innovators who can imagine and build solutions to empower the lives of millions.

To explore these exciting possibilities, GIA recently gathered leaders from philanthropy, the technology and automotive industries, and rural transportation and human services for a meeting at UC Berkeley sponsored by the May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust and co-hosted by the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Banatao Institute.

We also published a report, "Mobility & Aging in Rural America: The Role for Innovation: An Introduction for Funders," exploring tech-driven mobility solutions already in use, how technology can be a force multiplier for rural communities, what’s in the innovation pipeline, and funding suggestions for grantmakers. The report was supported by the May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust, Tivity Health, St. David’s Foundation, and the Consumer Technology Association Foundation (CTA).

A few key examples from the report:

  • Concept Vehicles: AccessibleOlli shows what the future might look like. Self-driving, electric, and partially created with a 3-D printer, AccessibleOlli comes from Local Motors, which worked with IBM, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) Foundation, 16 industry partners, and older adult focus groups. Accessibility features include a retractable wheelchair ramp, machine vision that can direct a blind passenger to an open seat, and software that can communicate with riders in sign language. 

Toyota’s e-Palette is an autonomous, battery-powered “mobility eco-system” that can be configured as a taxi, delivery truck, mobile office, or store. Imagine the services a homebound or disabled person, or just someone who lives a long way outside town, might receive if a driverless e-Palette brought them to their door.  

  • Drones: One of the biggest rural mobility challenges is weather. In Virginia, the nonprofit Health Wagon was having trouble getting medical supplies to Appalachian mountain communities. With special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration, they used a drone to fly supplies into a designated remote medical area. That was a one-time event but recently the FAA announced commercial drone pilot programs in several states so it is unlikely to be the last.

  • Software: Rural communities have a tradition of "neighbor helping neighbor" exemplified by volunteer driving programs. Nonprofits get more help from their volunteers by using cloud-based scheduling software, such as RideScheduler or Assisted Rides, that allows volunteers to sign up online. Not only do volunteers drive more, but nonprofits save staff time (and Post-it notes) and capture useful data for evaluation.

  • Mobility Management: Communities and nonprofits hire mobility managers to use technology to run transit systems more efficiently, help riders plan trips, and coordinate options from volunteer drivers to van pools. Even places with populations too small to support a commercial transportation network company (TNC) like Uber or Lyft can use mobility management to improve options. Innovators like ITNCountry and Feonix: Mobility Rising can also help.

Many service providers and philanthropists in rural places have told me that mobility is the #1 issue that they face. Technology could do much to change that. It’s also important that we do this thoughtfully. Internet connectivity is not yet what it needs to be in many rural communities. We must avoid deepening the digital divide or inadvertently increasing social isolation. And as someone asked at a community event in the Adirondacks, if Amazon can deliver a 12-pack of toilet paper here in 12 hours, why does it still take three days for me to schedule a trip to the doctor?

On the other hand, some thought leaders like Stephen Johnston, co-founder of Aging 2.0, believe that rural America, free of urban congestion, will eventually be the most successful setting for innovations like driverless cars.

We can’t overlook rural America, which is home to 60 million people and essential to our economy. By working imaginatively and collaboratively, we can have a huge impact. Perhaps most importantly, this less-travelled road leads directly to the goal that got most of us working in philanthropy in the first place: making people’s lives better.

John Feather is CEO of Grantmakers in Aging