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Walnut Creek pilots free Lyft rides for seniors

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The city of Walnut Creek is testing a pilot program in which seniors can schedule a free Lyft ride when standard senior paratransit service is not available.

Walnut Creek’s is the first program in the Bay Area to provide free rides for people 60 and older to general locations using a ride-hailing company, said Adriane Lee Bird, manager of the city’s Recreation program, which operates the senior ride service.

Lyft is involved in similar programs in Menlo Park and Mountain View that emphasize senior visits specifically to and from medical appointments, according to Dave Kunst, Lyft Northern California’s market manager.

Walnut Creek’s new “Expanded Transportation Program” in Walnut Creek provides off-hour rides for any errands within the city. It is happening thanks to a $157,000, two-year grant funded by two Contra Costa County transportation agencies, Transportation Partnership and Cooperation (TRANSPAC) and the Contra Costa Transportation Authority.

Bird said the grant money pays for the Lyft drivers, and aids the city’s mission to keep more seniors mobile, and thus happier and healthier longer.

Walnut Creek’s senior transportation program has provided more than 3,000 rides a year to seniors within Walnut Creek, typically to doctors’ appointments, grocery store visits and other common errands. Bird said the program uses minivans and depends on volunteer dispatchers and drivers. It has been strictly a weekday, daytime operation until now.

With the new grant trial program, “We’re basically extending our service to go 24/7,” said Bird, noting that initial senior reaction has been good:

“We sat down with at least 30 people helping them install the app in their phones.”

Bess Klen of Walnut Creek doesn’t have a computer, but calls the city’s Recreation Department to schedule local rides. Three of them have been with a Lyft driver, and not all of them after-hours.

Klen, who at 94 no longer drives, said:

“If there is no opening for a regular (minivan) to give me a ride, the call goes over to Lyft.”

The Lyft drivers so far have been delightful, Klen said:

“It just lifts my spirits up; it’s like a new life for me.”

It’s good for Lyft drivers, too, Kunst said:

“Growing our business in suburban markets, like Walnut Creek, gives drivers more consistent earning opportunities and passengers a more reliable ride option.”

Could such grant programs provide help for existing paratransit service providers? It’s too soon to say, said Rick Ramacier, general manager of the County Connection agency that provides bus service to central Contra Costa County:

“These things are fairly new. It could be great if this project creates data that will help us get a better understanding of that.”

The city has held three informational meetings to explain the new Expanded Transportation Program. A fourth will be held today from 6-7 p.m. in the Civic Park Community Center at 1375 Civic Drive in downtown Walnut Creek.

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