Volunteer driver programs at risk from changing demographics, ridesharing services


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Volunteer drivers are a key component of human services transportation in Minnesota. They provide low-cost transportation for trips ranging from non-emergency medical appointments to general errands. Most of the organizations that use volunteer drivers are located in small towns or rural areas where dedicated transit services do not exist. But changing demographics and the rise of ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft could put many volunteer driving programs at risk, according to a new U of M study.

“The programs evolved and worked well to meet the transportation needs of the World War II generation,” says Frank Douma, director of the State and Local Policy Program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “More numerous members of the baby boom generation, who were looking for ways to productively spend their time in retirement, often provided these services. But as time passes and the baby boomers themselves need transportation services, there are fewer members of Generation X to meet this increasing need.”

At the same time, ridesharing programs emerged in the marketplace. Rideshare drivers expect to earn income, and their organizations face higher insurance requirements than volunteer programs do to cover the higher risk from offering more trips by a wider variety of drivers.

Given these two trends, volunteer driver programs face significant hurdles, Douma says. To counteract these challenges, the Minnesota Council on Transportation Access (MCOTA) commissioned a study of volunteer driver programs in Minnesota. The objectives were to learn which organizations use volunteer drivers, how they organize and fund their volunteer driver programs, and what challenges and barriers they face.

“MCOTA also requested recommendations regarding which of the identified barriers would be most productively addressed, and what methods would help providers address these barriers,” says Noel Shughart, planning coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Office of Transit and lead staff person for MCOTA.

Douma’s team surveyed providers and reviewed current laws and regulations, including insurance. The research revealed the following findings:

  • The flexibility and lower cost of using volunteer drivers creates a valuable and useful service that could not be replicated, except at higher rates, if at all, which could create significant hardships for providers to meet their core mission.
  • Demographic and regulatory changes are combining to threaten the continued viability of these services.
  • While the demographic issues are not easily addressed, it appears the regulatory issues, especially related to insurance, could be improved to promote rather than discourage volunteers from driving.

Specifically, Douma recommends changes to Minnesota laws and regulations to better distinguish volunteer drivers from ridesharing subcontractors and employees. “For example, state statute could specify a particular IRS mileage reimbursement rate as the ceiling for volunteer drivers, and anyone receiving a per-mile rate above this would be regulated as rideshare.” Statute could also exempt certain trip types, such as medical trips, from higher insurance requirements, or specify that some trip types be offered only to volunteer drivers at lower reimbursement rates before being offered to ridesharing providers.

Another recommendation is to further enhance the attractiveness of being a volunteer driver by allowing them to claim “no-load” miles—those made before picking up clients and after dropping them off. “This provides volunteer drivers with some compensation for their entire trip,” Douma says.

Posted in Accessibility (for people with disabilities), Rural transportation, Sharing economy, Transportation research

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