By Lauren Korduner, Special to the Independent
The City Council approved guidelines for a pilot transit program for seniors and disabled adults featuring the popular rideshare service Uber, the first of its kind in the nation. The program, expected to launch sometime in mid-June, will provide rides at a subsidized rate.
Under the agreement approved Tuesday, May 9, Laguna Beach seniors 55 and older, and disabled persons, will pay no more than $5 for one-way trips within city limits. Seniors 55 and older would need to be commuting to a medical appointment or be unable to drive a car. No such restrictions are placed on users aged 75 or older. Fares for destinations up to 15 miles outside Laguna Beach will cost no more than $8 and will be limited to medical facilities only. Low-income seniors will pay no more than $1 each way for an Uber ride. During the first two months of the pilot, the first 40 rides of each month will be free.
The alliance is a first for Uber, said a company spokesman who testified at the hearing.
Assistant City Manager Shohreh Dupuis called the six-month Uber pilot program “a complement” to existing transit available to seniors.
The goal is to enhance transportation services to Laguna Beach seniors with the Uber pilot program, Dupuis said.
The city has allocated $90,000 for the pilot program. The additional cost of including disabled adults has yet to be determined.
After conducting a recent transportation study that showed declining ridership, Council approved midday cuts in its weekday bus and trolley service. Also cut by half were city contributions to Sally’s Fund, which provided free ride service to seniors. Despite the cuts, Sally’s Fund Chairman Eric Jessen said the nonprofit has “a unique role to play” with respect to senior transportation.
Board member Johanna Ellis concurred, saying Sally’s Fund does not anticipate the Uber program cutting into its user base. There will not be “a huge overlap. There will be some, but we would rather focus our efforts on assisting the frail elderly,” Ellis said.
“We are prepared and confident in our ability to provide service to seniors for the next 45 years,” Jessen said.
Chris Quilter, president of Laguna Beach Seniors, agreed with Dupuis that the Uber program would only complement existing transportation for seniors. He mentioned Sally’s Fund, OCTA Access and Age Well Senior Services as options for those with limited mobility or fixed income. Quilter had words of assurance for seniors: “No one’s getting left behind.”
On Tuesday, discussion centered around access, the availability of Uber drivers and cost savings to the city. Council member Steve Dicterow asked to extend the program’s eligibility to disabled adults. Council member Bob Whalen asked that adults 55 and older to be eligible for rides to a medical facility, regardless of their ability to drive. The subject of passenger safety was absent from the discussion. Two Orange County Uber drivers have been arrested and charged in sexual assaults of passengers in recent months.
Uber spokeswoman Eva Behrend said, “All drivers must undergo a screening process before they can use the Uber app, which includes a driving and criminal history check.”
“However our approach to safety doesn’t begin and end with a background check,” she said. Behrend emphasized use of technology, including GPS tracking and app user two-way feedback.
The Uber pilot program will be the subject of a public workshop May 18 and June 7 at the Community and Susi Q Center.