EDITOR'S NOTE: A chance meeting last spring with officials from West Sacramento, California, led to a discussion on how a like-sized city to Mansfield, but in a different part of the country, is trying to improve the quality of life for its aging population. Today's installment is the second in a three-part series on that question as part of our Gray Matters project. Part I was published on Dec. 12. Part III will be published on Dec. 14.
After scrapping its commission on aging and committing to a more holistically age-friendly decision-making process, West Sacramento began a listening tour.
With help from AARP, the city conducted a community-wide survey of residents over age 45 and also held focus groups and community meetings.
Among the key themes that emerged was the notion that while many seniors were unable to drive or use the city’s bus system, they were unhappy with and unlikely to use paratransit options for individuals with disabilities.
So, West Sacramento set out to create and promote a more convenient and palatable transportation option than the existing bus system.
The city launched a microtransit program that offers on-demand ridesharing for residents of all ages.
“I’ve described it as kind of a love child between Uber or Lyft ride-sharing and the bus,” West Sacramento mayor Christopher Cabaldon said. “Basically, for roughly the price of a bus, a Mercedes van picks you up within a block and a half of your origin and drops you off within a block and a half of your destination.”
The service is a pilot program using vehicles from the rideshare company Via, but drivers are city staff rather than contractors.
To describe the impact the rideshare program has had on residents, Cabaldon shared the story of an older woman who used to spend upwards of two hours trying to make the two-mile trip to the city pool for her daily recreational swim.
The journey began with an eight-block walk to the bus stop. Because the woman’s pace was slow, she often would miss the bus. Buses only came once an hour.
Now, when the woman wants to go for a swim, she uses a smartphone app or a phone call to contact the city for a ride. Within eight minutes, a van picks her up. Ten minutes later, the van drops her off at the pool.
Quality of life has also improved for that woman’s neighbor, who told city leaders she bought ice cream at the grocery story for the first time in 10 years, thanks to the rideshare program.
By making it possible to prune back the number of nearly-empty buses that run throughout the city, Cabaldon said, the program should easily support itself.
“It’s pretty clear from both the citizen-demand side and from the financials that this is going to survive the pilot stage and probably grow,” he said.
A second key takeaway from the city’s listening tour was that seniors expressed a very strong interest in volunteer opportunities. City leaders were surprised to see this was one of the top three requests among seniors.
West Sacramento is part of a network that brings technology companies into city hall as “startups in residence” to work on projects that benefit the city and its residents.
As part of its age-friendliness initiative, the city partnered with a startup that is beta testing a municipal app to help connect people with volunteer opportunities. The startup is using West Sacramento’s app as a model to build a product other cities will want to license.
West Sacramento has seen early success using the app to connect volunteers to neighborhood projects, such as cleaning up park benches.
In the future, the city hopes to make more specific asks on the app, to better utilize seniors’ skillsets and to meet higher-level needs in the community. For example, they may ask for a volunteer with auditing experience to help a local nonprofit that needs an audit done.
Other age-friendly projects in West Sacramento have included a makeover at a key intersection near the city’s senior center, a partnership with the local library to offer computer classes, the expansion of the city’s Coffee with a Cop program and the reintroduction of a paper newsletter the city previously stopped distributing in favor of an e-newsletter.