Ride hailing services (such as Lyft and Uber) are frequently pointed to as a means of filling mobility gaps in a transportation system, especially in areas that are not well-served by transit. How might nonprofit organizations address the mobility needs of their clients through ride hailing (also known as Transportation Network Companies, or TNCs)? Many people who use nonprofit services (e.g. food assistance, social services, health care or educational support) also experience transportation challenges in reaching that service. This is an under-examined area in our new mobility landscape. This research project found that TNC use by nonprofits is uneven, and while useful and addressing a need, there are significant costs in price and capacity that make Uber and Lyft impractical. Led by Dyana Mason of the University of Oregon (UO), the final report (downloadable below) shares qualitative interviews with nonprofit service providers and clients discussing TNCs, as well as policy recommendations.
"I think this work is important for public policy, because as ridehailing services – and soon, autonomous vehicles – come out, policymakers are going to be considering these services when they're looking at their overall transportation plans for communities, and it's important to make sure the needs of nonprofit organizations and their clients are involved in those conversations," Mason said.
WHAT DID THE STUDY LOOK AT?
Mason investigated three research questions:
1) Are nonprofits located in neighborhoods that are served effectively by TNCs and other mass transit options?
2) What are the opportunities and obstacles facing nonprofit leaders and policymakers in leveraging TNCs for increased mobility and services provided by nonprofits?
3) How do clients of nonprofit services use TNCs along with other transit options to access social services?
Mason and UO graduate research associate Miranda Menard conducted semi-structured interviews with nonprofit leaders and clients of community service organizations in the Seattle, WA metropolitan region during the summer and fall of 2020. Ten interviews with eight nonprofit organizations were conducted, along with ten clients of three of the nonprofits. This site was selected because the city is a leader in offering a robust public transportation system with multiple modes and services available and in the adoption of new transportation technologies. In addition to public transit services provided by Metro Seattle and Sound Transit, King County provides paratransit services for those eligible, and some community organizations offer shuttles or volunteer-driver services to individuals who need a ride.
Finally, a number of the nonprofits in the sample had also been awarded an Uber Community Impact Initiative Grant. These grants provided them with credits to use in offering their clients Uber rides. In these cases, it was most frequently the nonprofit organization that assisted clients in using the TNC, including setting up the ride and communicating information on the driver, vehicle, time and location for pickup.
TNCS ARE A USEFUL GAP-FILLING TRANSPORTATION OPTION...
Overall, TNCs were perceived as more convenient and easier to use than all other transportation options, except for the popular volunteer driver programs offered by a small number of organizations.
…BUT THEY ARE COSTLY IN TERMS OF BOTH MONEY AND TIME
Mason found that many nonprofit organizations are very interested in using these types of technology to support client needs, but it is a strain on their capacity to serve their clients - in both their budget and staff time.
Nonprofit organizations primarily used grant funds to cover the expense of the rides for their clients. Without a subsidy, either by the TNC providers or government grants, nonprofits would use TNCs much less frequently. One nonprofit leader stated, "The obstacle is really the financial piece. It's not a cheap service, really."
The other significant cost is the staff time necessary to support their clients’ TNC rides. "The staff essentially serve as a smartphone for the client," said one nonprofit leader. Using staff time to coordinate Uber rides was usually more time-intensive than using the volunteer driver program. Some clients lack access to a smartphone or a credit card, and some clients have physical or developmental disabilities that prevent them from being able to use the TNC app technology. Even when clients could use the app themselves, there could still be additional staff time needed to process paperwork to reimburse them for the rides.
NOT EVERYONE CAN USE TNCs
Moreover, those with disabilities encounter even more challenges with using TNCs. Most TNC vehicles are not outfitted to be able to accommodate those who use a wheelchair. Some markets do have wheelchair-accessible vehicles, but they are few and far between. There are also many documented cases of TNC driver bias against those who have disabilities.
Lastly, nonprofits continue to experience challenges using TNCs in reaching some traditionally underserved communities, particularly those for whom English is not their first language, and those who live outside of major transportation networks.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PRACTICE AND POLICY
Based on the interviews with clients and service providers, the researchers put together a set of recommendations to improve the accessibility of nonprofit services through TNCs.
INCREASE OUTREACH TO UNDERSERVED COMMUNITIES
Several organization leaders wanted more effective outreach strategies to reach underrepresented communities, including immigrant communities, lower-income individuals, those with cognitive or physical disabilities, those in outlying areas and those who do not speak English as their first language.
Collaborate - Larger and smaller nonprofits could work together to identify and serve clients from underserved communities, alongside local and state agencies.
Fund equitably - Grant funding from government agencies to underwrite rides for underserved populations.
Understand underserved communities - Policymakers and planners should continue to develop holistic knowledge of underserved communities, and create and implement plans to better serve them.
ENCOURAGE NONPROFIT MANAGERS TO INTEGRATE TNCs INTO OFFERINGS
Some organizations approached for interviews either did not recognize how TNCs might be helpful for their operations or had dismissed the option entirely. More research should be conducted to identify organizational barriers to TNC use.
Train nonprofit service providers - Training programs can be offered and implemented by funders in the philanthropic and public sectors. These trainings can include best practices in using TNCs, how to access funding to support TNC use, and other supports nonprofits can use in client transportation.
Communicate client needs to policymakers and planners - Nonprofit managers should work with policymakers and planners to inform decision makers of client needs, and the benefits and challenges of using TNCs to meet those needs.
SUBSIDIZE THE USE OF TNCs
Most nonprofit organizations do not have the capacity to use TNCs at significant levels in their operations without financial support from either government or private foundations.
Expand grants - Government agencies should consider expanding grants to nonprofits for use of TNCs, particularly to support rides from underserved areas or populations.
Communicate client needs to foundations - Nonprofit managers should communicate client transportation needs to private foundations in order to encourage increased philanthropy to support TNC costs.
DEVELOP AND USE MORE ACCESSIBLE TECHNOLOGIES
Intensive nonprofit staff time is necessary to coordinate client rides, and the experience often wasn’t positive: confusion and miscommunication about billing, nonprofit staff members paying for rides through their own personal accounts, and heavy paperwork for reimbursements.
Develop intuitive app interfaces - TNCs can develop an app interface for use by nonprofits can enable them to directly communicate with their clients in-app and assist with booking and paying for rides. For example, Lyft Business provides an easy interface for health service providers to book rides for their clients, and offering a similar option for nonprofit organizations would reduce staff time invested in TNC coordination.
Provide promo codes - TNCs can offer user codes that nonprofit organizations can provide to their clients, billing more efficiently to a central organizational account. Organizations can set parameters on allowable distance and cost. This can eliminate most needs for nonprofit staff involvement, allowing clients to book their own rides.
Use tablets/computers - Nonprofits can provide tablets or computers at service sites where clients may be able to log in and book a ride with a TNC, paid for by the nonprofit.
SUPPORT TNC VEHICLES AND DRIVERS IN ACCESSIBLE TRANSPORTATION
Many nonprofit clients, including seniors and those with disabilities, use wheelchairs and other mobility aids. TNCs have limited availability of vehicles that are able to take riders using wheelchairs. TNC drivers might also receive limited training in supporting those with cognitive limitations, specifically in assisting riders in leaving the location and getting into the car.
Rebalance use of TNC’s and paratransit vehicles between those who do and do not use wheelchairs - TNCs may help provide more accessible services to those who do not need a wheelchair, allowing those who do need wheelchairs to use a higher proportion of paratransit services. Individuals with physical or cognitive disabilities that prevent them from using TNCs should get top priority in using subsidized paratransit programs.
Increase use of wheelchair-accessible vehicles by TNCs - Policymakers may require TNCs to provide enough wheelchair-accessible vehicles servicing an area to be adequate for the population. Some jurisdictions have already begun this process, including California which recently passed the TNC Access for All Act.
Photo by Pasquale Senatore/iStock