Four women pose for picture in a car.

Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller (left) and Newton Senior Services Director Jayne Colino (top right) take a ride with Newton seniors during NewMo’s June 17 launch.

Mass Innovations, From The Beacon, Summer 2019

In Newton, a new service is being viewed as a model for combining ride-sharing technology and senior transit, allowing senior citizens to stay more fully engaged in their community.

On June 17, the city launched Newton in Motion, or NewMo, a publicly subsidized ride-share service for residents age 60 and older. Residents call a phone number or reserve rides on a phone app, allowing them to travel to medical appointments, shopping areas and other city locations for fares ranging from 50 cents to $5 per ride.

Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said the new service combines technology and a new business model to transform senior transportation. The whole city benefits when seniors can get to doctor’s appointments and social gatherings, she said.

“It allows our community to stay connected and vibrant, because our population that is 60 and older is deeply involved in the life of Newton,” Fuller said. “We’re making sure they stay a part of our community.”

While other communities have been testing partnerships with ride-share companies, the Newton program is believed to be the first of its kind in the state – a dedicated municipal senior transportation service available on demand.

The city of 89,000 signed a three-year contract with New York transportation company Via, which provides four Mercedes-Benz Metris vans sporting the NewMo logo. The vans hold up to six passengers, and one vehicle is wheelchair accessible. The service runs on weekdays, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and from 9 a.m. to noon on weekends.

In this first year, the city will pay Via $489,000 to run the service, with $350,000 coming from the city’s senior services budget, $25,000 from a Community Compact grant, $25,000 from a formula grant for councils on aging, and the remainder from rider fares. Freedman has also applied for a community transit grant from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

Jayne Colino, Newton’s senior services director, said that 40 percent of Newton’s households now have a person over 60 years of age. The city’s previous taxi-voucher system had suffered as the taxi industry struggled to compete against the ride-share companies, she said.

“We knew that we had to take a new approach because the traditional providers were not there in the way that we needed them to be,” Colino said.

Nicole Freedman, Newton’s transportation planning director, contacted transportation companies like Via, Uber and Lyft to see what might be possible for senior ride sharing. Newton received five proposals, several of which the city considered viable.

Via promises careful screening and training of drivers, Freedman said, and can handle demand surges by putting additional vehicles on the road during peak times.

“They do a lot of data analysis and know the patterns,” Freedman said.

To use the service, seniors must sign up for a Via account and use either a credit card or voucher codes purchased through the city.

Seniors frequently share the vans with other riders. The city warns of wait times of up to 30 minutes, but so far the waits have averaged 10.9 minutes, according to data available through July 7.

Under a former taxi-voucher system, the city provided 25,000 trips a year. In NewMo’s first three weeks, 401 seniors had signed up, with 804 trips made.

Colino advised other interested communities to prioritize public outreach to lessen confusion at the outset, and to reassure residents that the program has been well designed.

“We wanted people to know that we were responding to changing needs, a changing industry and changing quality,” Colino said.

Depending on how NewMo performs, Newton may expand the option to groups such as workers or children heading to after-school programs. But for now, the city is focusing on seniors. A user survey is planned after about six months.

For more information, contact Newton Transportation Planning Director Nicole Freedman at 617-796-1120, ext. 1481, or nfreedman@newtonma.gov.

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