After giving up driving at age 92, Saratoga resident Marilyn M. White became acutely aware of the “need for someone to pick me up to go to the doctor’s office or grocery shopping.”
The innovative Reach Your Destination Easily (RYDE) transportation program does just that, giving West Valley seniors like White a welcome sense of independence.
Spearheaded by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, RYDE provides affordable curb-to-curb transportation for residents over age 55 in Saratoga, Cupertino, Campbell, Monte Sereno, and Los Gatos. No bus schedules to negotiate, no ride sharing apps or complicated pricing to figure out.
"We've got too many older folks who are housebound, simply because they don't have transportation choices. It’s just not healthy,” Simitian said. “For both their physical and mental well-being, we want them up and about, out in the community – seeing their friends, having an opportunity to socialize, getting to their appointments, playing an active role in local affairs.”
In its first year, RYDE provided 3,345 rides to West Valley seniors. A quick phone call at least 36 hours in advance is all that’s required to schedule transportation, priced on a sliding scale.
“I love it. I don’t know what I’d do without it,” said White, who uses the service several times a month for medical appointments, social visits, community meetings, or shopping. “A system to take seniors around is needed so much now. I sure as heck would be a volunteer driver if I was younger.”
Launched in October 2017, RYDE grew out of a six-week taxi pilot program in Saratoga that clearly established the need for better senior-focused transportation as county-wide bus services continued to decline.
With nearly 43,000 residents over age 55 in the West Valley, “it was clear this was a wider issue across the region,” said Simitian. “Frankly, there aren’t a lot of transportation options for seniors in our community who either can’t drive or no longer feel comfortable driving.”
Simitian engaged West Valley cities and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) as funding partners to share the $250,000 annual cost with the County, and two community-based non-profits to actually develop and operate the RYDE model, which relies on volunteer drivers, as well as two paid drivers and one paid on-site coordinator for each operations center.
West Valley Community Services operates the program for Campbell and Cupertino seniors, and the Saratoga Area Senior Coordinating Council operates RYDE for Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, and Saratoga residents. The RYDE centers are open weekdays from 8am – noon and 1pm - 4:30pm. to take reservations, dispatch drivers, manage client payments and subsidies, and provide information.
“It’s important for seniors not comfortable with technology to be able to call a number and have a person at the other end listen to their concerns and book a ride for them. They need that human touch,” former Cupertino Mayor Savita Vaidhyanathan said at the time the RYDE program launched.
All RYDE drivers are vetted and complete an online training course focused on working with older adults with mobility and vision limitations.
“Initially, many families aren’t comfortable when seniors are taking a ride in a car where they don’t know the driver,” Vaidhyanathan said. “If you tell families and seniors that the driver will understand their concerns, they seem a lot more relaxed.”
RYDE drivers escort clients to and from cars, and help with safety belts if needed, and caregivers or companions can accompany seniors at no additional charge. (Drivers, who use their personal vehicles, can accommodate clients with canes and folding walkers, but not wheelchairs or motorized scooters.)
Cost was another factor in developing a senior-focused transit program. While the West Valley includes four of Silicon Valley’s most affluent zip codes, 22,000 residents are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, and many seniors on a fixed income can’t afford market rate on-demand ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft.
RYDE fees are based on income, as well as miles travelled, and in the first year of operation, 72 percent of RYDE clients were eligible for subsidies covering between 50 and 90 percent of the cost.
In addition to the five cities, the RYDE service area includes the Sunnyvale CalTrain Station, as well as several medical centers and hospitals in the region. RYDE program coordinators will also help seniors with trip planning outside the West Valley region.
Eventually, Simitian hopes to expand and adapt the RYDE model to other parts of Santa Clara County, where one in four residents will be over the age of 60 by 2030, according to estimates by the County Social Services Agency.
“As our County ages, the need is sure to grow. We involved two nonprofits that know their communities and the folks we’re trying to serve. We split the funding seven ways,” Simitian said. "This is one of those times when we can do so much more if everybody will just take a little piece of the project, and that’s exactly what happened.”