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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter August 8, 2022

Accessibility of Nonprofit Services: Transportation Network Companies and Client Mobility

Dyana P. Mason ORCID logo EMAIL logo and Miranda Menard
From the journal Nonprofit Policy Forum

Abstract

Nonprofit organizations often partner with government agencies to deliver public services. As communities adapt to new transportation options and technologies, nonprofit organizations and the services they provide need to be kept accessible to their clients. This exploratory research note is among the first of its kind to consider the impact of transportation network companies – like Uber and Lyft – on the accessibility of human services provided by nonprofit organizations. Results raise key questions about accessibility, cost and nonprofit organizational capacity in the use of these services to support traditionally under-served and vulnerable communities. Policy implications and recommendations are also provided.

1 Introduction

Governments still largely rely upon and often fund nonprofit organizations to provide needed public services (Grønbjerg 2001; Lipsky and Smith 1989; Steven Rathgeb Smith and Lipsky 2011). The result is that government provides grants or contracts to nonprofit organizations to “buy” desired services from the nonprofit sector (Miltenberger and Sloan 2017; Salamon 1995; Steven R. Smith and Lipsky 1993). Nonprofits, therefore, not only provide the service, but can also be seen as engaged in policy implementation (Fyall 2016; Salamon 1995; Steven R. Smith and Lipsky 1993).

However, accessibility to those services should be a concern to both nonprofit and public managers. Following the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the rise of transportation network companies (TNCS, like Uber and Lyft) and other new technologies, many jurisdictions are cutting public transportation routes and, in some cases, starting to pilot the use of TNCs to improve community mobility (Deakin, Halpern, and Parker 2020). This study asks what those changes might mean to nonprofit organizations, and their clients, and how TNC use may or may not be successfully integrated into service accessibility. With these changes in mind, it is also important that nonprofit organizations engage with policy makers in ways that help to shape the public transit options that are available to their clients.

This exploratory research note is among the first to consider the impact of TNCs on nonprofit organizations and their clients, focusing on service accessibility. Using data from interviews with nonprofit executives and beneficiaries in Seattle, it explores how nonprofit organizations are or are not providing support for their clients’ transportation needs, including TNC use.

2 Literature Review

2.1 Accessibility of Nonprofit Services

Many nonprofit organizations serve lower-income and traditionally marginalized households and communities. Yet, research has found that these services are often not distributed equitably (Meier and Gilster 2019). Bolger (2020) found that faith-based organizations distributed their resources unequally – a pattern that perpetuated racial disparities. Similarly, Marwell and Gullickson (2013) found that while funding was often identified to serve vulnerable communities, the organizations providing the services were by and large located in wealthier neighborhoods. This is consistent with the fact that poorer neighborhoods with higher proportions of ethnic minorities tend to have fewer nonprofits (Garrow and Garrow 2014), and that those nonprofits are more likely to disband (Garrow 2015). Roth and Allard (2016) also found that while Latinx immigrants were more likely to find Latinx-serving organizations in their communities, the types of services offered were limited. In addition, Freeman Anderson (2017) found disparities between diverse communities and access to many health-related services, including food, civic organizations and social service agencies.

It’s also important to note that many nonprofit organizations are often headquartered in areas where operating costs may be lower, yet this may lead to increased transportation costs or inadequate mass transit options for clients (Kneebone and Berube 2013; Roth and Allard. 2016). Allard (2008, 2009 found that almost 40% of clients of the service providers in his sample lived more than three miles from the organization. Katz (2014) found that while Los Angeles nonprofit organizations did serve some areas with higher poverty, there were large swaths of high-poverty areas with little to no nonprofit organizations present. Many clients also may find themselves in “transit deserts”, or “areas where transit need is high but transit supply is low or non-existent” (Barajas and Brown 2021, 2), thus preventing them from accessing services.

Recently, scholars have become interested in the ways that transportation network companies (like Uber and Lyft) may be able to increase the mobility of under-served individuals and communities, particularly among those in transit deserts. For example, Powers, Scott, and Jain (2016) found that TNC use by hospitals can support increased attendance at doctor’s appointments. Brown et al. (2022) found that lower-income households use ride hail services primarily to access gaps left by mass transit and to access medical care and food. Some cities have also begun to pilot TNC use, subsidized by local government, as an alternative to traditional transportation options (Cecco 2019), including for paratransit services (www.mass.gov). Schwieterman, Livingston, and Van Der Slot (2018) studied 29 such partnerships across the United States, where public agencies worked with TNCs to supplement traditional transit options for residents. Deakin, Halpern, and Parker (2020) reviewed subsidized taxi programs and evaluated the use of TNCs to complement, or replace, the use of taxis for those with disabilities, seniors and low-income individuals.

While these efforts have identified potential advantages of TNC use to increase mobility, others have noted significant barriers to TNC use (Dillahunt et al. 2017), including uneven use across neighborhoods based on socio-economic status (Deakin, Halpern, and Parker 2020; Hall, Palsson, and Price 2018; Lefler and Castillo 2019). Others have found that TNCs and other new mobility technologies can exacerbate existing inequities, especially for the unbanked, those without a credit card, those with disabilities, are low-income, experience language barriers, or don’t have a smartphone (Brown et al. 2022; Cohen and Cabansagan 2017; Mitra, Bae, and Ritchie 2019). Indeed, Boston’s recent pilot program to extend paratransit services through TNCs was met with a discrimination lawsuit when wheelchair-accessible vehicles weren’t available, leading to long wait times (Associated Press 2022). While discrimination in TNC use tends to be lower than in traditional taxis (Brown 2018), continued patterns of inequities in TNC use persist – including in lower-income neighborhoods (Barajas and Brown 2021; Feigon and Murphy 2018; Jiao and Wang 2020).

2.2 Gap in the Literature

While scholars are starting to turn their attention to TNC use as one potential tool supporting improved community mobility, the impact of these new technologies on the accessibility of nonprofit services has not yet been studied. Since nonprofit organizations are often physically situated far from the clients they serve, any changes to transportation options that reduce bus routes, access shuttles or train schedules may negatively impact their clients’ abilities to access services. Through better understanding of these needs, nonprofit organizations are also better placed to advocate for accessibility.

3 Data and Methods

This exploratory study used semi-structured interviews with executives and program managers (n = 11) at nine organizations and clients (n = 10) in the Seattle metropolitan region during the summer and fall of 2020. Using a snowball method, lead statewide organizations were contacted, which identified other organization leaders with an interest in client transportation. Some groups also allowed communication with their client lists to recruit participants (clients were offered a $25 gift card for their time participating). Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, all interviews were conducted by Zoom or phone and lasted from 15 min to over an hour. Questions for organization leaders covered areas around their existing transportation support options for their clients, and the benefits and challenges associated with each – including TNCs, buses, shuttles, and volunteer driver programs. Client interviews asked participations to describe which transportation methods they used and for which activities, which were their favorites, and whether or not they used TNCs (and why or why not). Verbatim transcripts were coded manually by the authors following identified themes of the barriers and benefits of using various modes of transportation, including the cost and convenience of different transit options, the logistics required to use different modes of transportation, and the impact of Covid-19 on client mobility. For example, if a client stated that they weren’t able to use TNCs due to their use of a wheelchair, their comment was coded as “TNC” and “challenge”.

Metropolitan Seattle was selected due to the fact that it has been an early adopter of new transportation technologies and it also offers a comprehensive traditional transportation network. The U.S. Census Bureau defines metropolitan Seattle as including the cities of Seattle, Tacoma, and Bellevue, along with King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties. As the home of nearly four million people, the largest population groups are those who are white at 70%, 11.4% Asian, 9% Latino or Hispanic, and 5.6% African American. According to the City of Seattle, in 2014 18% of city residents were foreign born, with Washington State being the 8th largest refugee-receiving state in the country. The Seattle transportation system is led by Metro Seattle, the public transit agency of King County. It makes use of buses, commuter trains, the Central Link light rail, and the Seattle Streetcar lines. Some communities are also connected by public ferry service. Those outside of King County can take advantage of Sound Transit, covering parts of Snohomish and Pierce counties. For those with disabilities eligible for paratransit, King County runs an Access shuttle bus service which can be used with a reservation. Additionally, community organizations sometimes offer their own shuttles or volunteer-driver services to their clients, although the reach of these types of programs is limited. Volunteer drivers typically use their own cars to drive nonprofit clients. Finally, a number of the nonprofits in the sample had been awarded an Uber Community Impact Initiative Grant (https://www.uber.com/us/en/community/giving-back/), providing them with credits to use in supporting client needs.

4 Findings

4.1 Benefits of TNCs

The clients of nonprofits use TNCs, sometimes on their own, but more often when organized and paid for by the nonprofit. Clients discussed experiencing better and more friendly service with TNCs, compared to taxis. Many respondents discussed the quality of the service received from TNCs, and how they are able to come right to the location where they are needed. TNCs were also perceived to be more convenient than all other transportation options, with the exception of volunteer-driver programs offered by some groups. In those cases, clients often developed a relationship with regular volunteer drivers, which they appreciated. Those that didn’t drive, or didn’t have regular access to a car, used TNCs at times to supplement their needs.

One respondent, who has a disability, discussed in detail how other options for them were not ideal. They stated:

I was making what probably would be considered a low salary, the benefit of Uber was so, so important because I wouldn’t have to deal with the physical exhaustion of having stood up for the first hour of my day [on a train or bus]. You’re barely awake and it’s just not a good time. So, even though it was costing me and it’s an obscene amount, like $400 a month on an average month, I was more than happy to do that because of the benefits that it gave me physically to not have to use the train.

TNCs were also noted for the safety guidelines that have been recently implemented, including being informed of the model of the car and its license plate, along with the driver’s name and picture prior to the ride. These safety measures were noted to be critical for those who have cognitive disabilities. TNCs also provided a level of independence to clients.

For many clients, their TNC ride was often coordinated by the nonprofit organization supporting them. For example, a staff person at the organization would identify the need for a ride with the client, then arrange for the ride directly with the TNC. The organization was billed to their organization account or their TNC credits for the ride. One rider stated, “I did not ever call Uber myself. They [nonprofit] called them for me, gave them the appointment information about picking me up and take me where I was to go.”

Nonprofit leaders saw other benefits to using TNCs. They can help “fill the gaps” when other options weren’t adequate. One organization that used TNCs as a backup when their volunteer drivers weren’t available found that they were able to fill a much higher proportion of client rides once they added TNCs to their program. For example, if someone requested a ride, and a volunteer couldn’t be identified and scheduled, the organization would have to turn down the request. Once they started to use TNCs, rides were much less likely to be denied, particularly in communities that were harder to reach.

Some organizations also reported that TNCs were useful in helping their low-income clients, including families; those with vision impairments; and those accessing events and services at night. Another leader stated:

It was affordable when we were paying for rides for people when we had that support from [a TNC-funded grant]. We do some homelessness and housing instability work. And so, it was actually a fair number of people using it were people who already were strapped for money. And so, it was just helping them get to work and helping them go grocery shopping and not have to spend their own money out of pocket. And then it was also helping them engage with [our] activities. Like, if we have support groups or community activities or doing some sort of public advocacy, it would help people participate.

4.2 Challenges of TNCs

Unlike other forms of transportation (with the exception of taxis), the cost of using TNCs is often out of reach to many low-income individuals. Some clients stated that if the nonprofit wasn’t paying for the ride, they would not likely use a TNC very often, if at all. As one client simply said, “The main problem I have living on Social Security at the moment is I don’t have the type of funds to [use] Uber on a regular basis.” Others discussed challenges including confusion using the app and accidentally getting charged for a ride when it was the organization that was paying for it.

Organizations, on the other hand, not only were concerned about the cost of the rides compared to their budget but were also concerned about the capacity necessary to support the rides. As mentioned above, it is the organization that often books and manages the ride. In other words, the organization and their staff must identify the client’s needs and where they are located. They then have to book the ride for the client via the TNC. During this process, the staff member needs to stay in touch with the client – informing them of the ride information (car model, license, driver name), and occasionally has to contact the driver if there is confusion about the pickup location or drop-off point. One leader said, “Uber rides are much more time intensive for staff to do as they [the staff] serve essentially as a smart phone for [a] rider who does not have a smart phone.”

In addition, for those with disabilities, using TNCs come with additional obstacles. First, most TNCs are not appropriately outfitted to accommodate those who use a wheelchair. While some markets do have wheelchair-accessible vehicles, they are often few and far between, increasing the waits for rides. In addition, some clients do require support getting into and out of a car – which Uber and Lyft drivers don’t do. A couple of respondents also mentioned that for those with cognitive disabilities, using TNCs can be difficult or dangerous due to challenges using the app, being able to identify their scheduled driver, or giving instructions.

Other traditionally under-served communities, including immigrants and those in transit deserts, were particularly hard to support due to cost and language barriers. For one, using a TNC in an outlying suburb could be very expensive for an organization. In another example, while speaking about immigrant communities, one leader stated, “Language is also a barrier. [Clients] are unable to communicate what they’re needing or understand what others are trying to communicate to them.” Nonprofit leaders recognize they need to do a better job of reaching these communities. One potential solution is to partner with other community-based organizations that serve traditionally hard-to-reach communities. One leader stated that they are working to develop a “companion program with the focus of serving underserved communities, contacting and discussing with the community-based organizations who are already providing services to these folks, identifying volunteers and the clients from the community, from their own network and provide a service, which is not restricted to just medical needs.”

5 Conclusion

This study is among the first that considers the impact of new transportation technologies on nonprofit client mobility. Ultimately, findings suggest that while the nonprofit organizations in this sample used TNCs at times, they are only used in a supplementary fashion. Nonprofits also use TNCs to support clients when they need help being transported to places that aren’t accessible by traditional mass transit options. However, it is clear that without financial subsidies, TNCs would be too expensive to be used regularly by both organizations and clients. Organization-assisted TNC rides may also significantly overburden the staff when it is necessary for them to “act like a smartphone” for their clients. If an organization chooses to assist clients’ transportation needs, it is important that they consider the staff capacity and cost of various methods before developing their own program. For example, some organizations may choose to organize a volunteer-driver program over a TNC program. Or, they may opt to provide bus passes to their clients. Deakin, Halpern, and Parker (2020) also suggest that organizations may offer pre-paid debit cards and TNCs could use centralized billing systems for the organization as they sponsor rides. Other solutions, such as using TNCs for shared rides (not just one rider), may also cut costs. These findings suggest that these choices should be a strategic decision based on the location of both clients and services, client needs and the organization’s capacity.

In addition, TNCs may be useful for some clients, but not others, such as those with more severe cognitive disabilities, those who use a wheelchair, and those who need assistance getting in and out of a vehicle. One option would be to subsize TNC use for those able to use them, freeing up paratransit services for those with disabilities that make TNC use out of reach. However, some jurisdictions are starting to mandate the use of wheelchair -accessible vehicles among taxi and TNC providers (Deakin, Halpern, and Parker 2020). More training for Lyft/Uber drivers is also recommended, along with adding door-to-door assistance for those who need help getting themselves or their equipment in and out of cars. Shirgaokar et al. (2021) also called for TNC drivers to assist seniors and disabled passengers with their belongings.

However, this study does not come without limitations. First, it had to be conducted remotely due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which impaired the ability to recruit study participants that were members of hard-to-reach populations, including the unhoused, immigrants and those who did not speak English. Second, the small sample of this exploratory study indicates that it is not generalizable to a wider population of service providers. By broadening the sample to a broader group of nonprofit human service organizations and their clients, it would be possible to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the practices of nonprofits, the needs of their clients, and remaining gaps in services.

Finally, this research may have other implications for practice. Nonprofit leaders and policymakers should consider the accessibility and mobility for under-served communities as a primary concern. If nonprofit leaders haven’t considered how TNCs and other new technologies may change the transportation options of their clients, they should. Nonprofit leaders may also want to participate in public forums and decision-making processes regarding their community’s transportation plans and understand the impact of those plans on those they serve. They can also work with other organizations to identify and support individuals from harder-to-reach communities. Policymakers, on the other hand, should consider nonprofit service accessibility as an important feature of any long-term changes to transit services and should seek the input of nonprofit organizations in designing future plans. TNCs themselves can and should do a better job of making their smartphone interface easier to use for unbanked customers, and in working at streamlining the process with third party organizations assisting their clients by offering direct billing. What goes without saying, however, is that TNC use, and TNC-government partnerships will likely continue to grow. A critical question for the nonprofit sector is, who is taking the ride.


Corresponding author: Dyana P. Mason, School of Planning, Public Policy and Management, University of Oregon, 1209 University of Oregon, 119 Hendricks Hall, 97403-1209, Eugene, OR, USA, E-mail:

Award Identifier / Grant number: NITC-RR-1357

  1. Research funding: This work was supported by National Institute for Transportation and Communities under the grant NITC-RR-1357.

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Received: 2021-10-19
Accepted: 2022-07-18
Published Online: 2022-08-08

© 2022 the author(s), published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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