Driving Companions Program: A New Transportation Solution

Two men parked in a car in front of house.

A robust transportation network that includes community transportation options is essential to ensure that older adults have access to healthy food and that they can get the medical care and other services that they need. Aging and Disability Services has partnered with Sound Generations for many years to support their volunteer transportation and nutrition transportation programs. Today, new initiatives are responding to changing needs and changing technologies. One such innovation is the Driving Companions program.

Driving Companions is similar to volunteer transportation in that volunteers use their own vehicles to meet the transportation needs of older adults; however, unlike most volunteer driver programs, Driving Companions involves an innovation to better serve communities of older adults who sometimes face disparities in accessing services. Rather than relying on an existing network of volunteer drivers, Driving Companions clients recruit their own drivers from within their circle of friends, neighbors, and friends of friends. This allows them to identify a volunteer who is sure to deliver the service in a culturally and linguistically relevant way.

While this program is still new, clients are already responding. For example, Kay learned about the program through a friend at her senior housing complex. “My car got trashed. I had a minor accident with it and the insurance company … trashed it. In the meantime, I’m without a car, and I had this part time job. Bethany knew a friend of mine. So [Bethany] and I got together, and I simply rode with her.” Kay said that having a ride to work saved her a lot of time and money. She has a working car now but plans to continue using the program because of “the comfort of her driving, the cost and nastiness of parking, and then the gas.”

Another participant, Lois, recently moved to Seattle. She needed someone to take her to medical and physical therapy appointments while she figured out how to navigate Seattle. Before Lois heard about the Driving Companions Program, she paid a private service. “I didn’t like … how long [people] have to wait [to get on] and then they have to wait two or three hours while they drop everyone else off before they get home,” she said. “I just love [the Driving Companions program]. They pick you up when they say they’re going to pick you up—drop off and pick up—which is fantastic. You don’t have to wait around for two or three hours.” Lois plans to become a volunteer driver. Her reasoning is that “they helped me, and if I can help someone else … why not?”

The Driving Companions project began as a pilot, with funding from the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) allocated as part of the initial roll-out of the Age Friendly Seattle initiative. In 2018, the Seattle-King County Advisory Council for Aging & Disability Services (ADS) identified additional funds to keep the fledgling service up and running through June 2019. These funds will be included in the Aging and Disability Services Community Transportation Request for Proposal (RFP) in January. The RFP will give community agencies an opportunity to propose what they see as viable transportation solutions to serve the changing needs of older adults in King County. ADS staff and community members serving on the RFP rating committee will review proposals and determine whether Driving Companions or a similar program will continue to receive funding from ADS. For more information on the funding process, see the Seattle Human Services Department’s Funding Opportunities webpage.

In the meantime, clients such as Kay and Lois enjoy their newfound freedom and mobility.

Contributor Jon Morrison Winters is the lead planner on transportation and housing issues for Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County, which is a division of the Seattle Human Services Department.

This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of AgeWise King County.