When Sigrid Trombley needed rides to medical appointments, she posted an appeal on Facebook. Friends came through, but she’d like to find a reasonably priced, reliable transportation service so as not to burden others.
Diane McCartney was looking for the same thing when she sought an Uber reservation for a four-mile trip to the doctor. After learning it would cost nearly $45, she declined.
Trombley and McCartney are among older adults finding themselves in the role of transportation schedulers. Both live in Wichita, where transportation options have narrowed, swerved and sometimes vanished in recent years.
“So far I’ve been depending on friends, who have been very gracious,” Trombley said.
In 2016, the local chapter of American Red Cross, following the national organization’s lead, ended a program that provided curb-to-curb rides to medical appointments for older adults. At the time, news reports said the Red Cross program was providing about 15,300 one-way trips annually.
No single replacement emerged to duplicate the Red Cross and the pandemic caused some private independent transportation services to go out of business.
The area’s biggest provider of curb-to-curb rides is the city of Wichita’s paratransit van service, which provided 72,258 trips through mid-December of this year. To qualify, a person must be deemed not healthy enough to go to a stop on the city’s regular bus route. Rides are not limited to medical appointments, and riders are advised to schedule a week in advance.
Wichita Transit received 376 applications for the service this year, of which 21 were denied.
Dialysis treatment requires Trombley to spend three hours at a Fresenius Kidney Care Center three days a week. The one-way trip from home to dialysis for Trombley is about 12 miles.
One private transportation provider quoted her a price of $68 for a round trip, which seemed expensive for three round trips a week.
Trombley doesn’t believe a cab service would be dependable. She hadn’t checked Uber or Lyft as of early December and did not yet know if her application for Wichita paratransit service would be approved. She doesn’t live near a bus stop on Wichita Transit’s fixed-route system, which factors in her favor in qualifying for paratransit service.
When McCartney tried to reserve a ride in advance to travel four miles to the doctor, the price quoted was $43.45 instead of the expected $12. She contacted Uber and learned that reserving a time and date — the kind of planning that seemed wise for a doctor’s visit — raised the price.
McCartney said she shouldn’t complain because she has options, but “it causes me a lot of stress figuring out how I’m going to get somewhere.”
Medical appointments aren’t the only destinations that older residents need transportation for.
Janet Khoury, who is vision impaired, has never driven a car. She used to take the city’s regular bus service everywhere. Now, she usually relies on a transportation service offered by First Presbyterian Church to older adults or those with special needs. For non-members of the church, there’s a $30 membership fee annually ($22 for church members) for the service and a $3-per-ride charge. The operation consists of a large sedan and driver covering a weekday morning shift, 9 to 11:30 a.m., and afternoon shift, 1 to 4 p.m.
“I have to walk about five blocks to get to the bus, so it makes a super difference to have door-to-door service,” Khoury said.
Khoury still occasionally uses the city’s regular bus system and praises its drivers and punctuality. She received a six- or seven-page application for the paratransit service but has not completed it.
First Presbyterian’s service is not an option for dialysis patients like Trombley.
“We cannot be somebody’s permanent ride some place,” said Patty Cole of First Presbyterian. “We can be a backup for somebody on dialysis.”
“Because we only have one car and one driver, that would limit our ability to take other people,” she said.
Most people going to dialysis treatment at a Fresenius center in Wichita are transported by friends or family, said Fresenius social worker Anne Rothe.
If they live in Wichita, she helps them apply for Wichita Transit’s paratransit service, she said, but it “gets trickier” for those living outside Wichita. Sedgwick County has a transportation program that brings residents to Wichita, but can’t guarantee all round trips for dialysis.
Sedgwick County’s transportation program serves residents living outside the city and needing a ride to and from Wichita, or to another location outside Wichita, or for those in Wichita needing a ride to a destination outside the city. Rides cost $3.
Sedgwick County Transportation’s ridership numbers for 2022 as of Dec. 8 stood at 8,712. The peak year for ridership in recent years was 2019, with ridership of 11,016.
In the past, Sedgwick County enhanced its own vehicle fleet by contracting with multiple outside transportation providers. As of December, the county operation had only one contracted service, a startup company with a minivan.
As of Dec. 8, Sedgwick County Transportation showed 94 “denials” for ride requests this year that it could not carry out. In other cases, Sedgwick County Transportation was able to accommodate riders with alternative days or times.
Both the city and county transportation operations grapple with labor needs.
The city operation has been operating with a driver shortage, according to Wichita city communications manager Megan Lovely. It is hiring and has maintained scheduled services by utilizing overtime for current drivers, she said.
The biggest hurdle to finding drivers for Sedgwick County Transportation is the pay, said Dorsha Kirksey of the Sedgwick County Department on Aging. School bus drivers get more, plus a bonus, and Wichita Transit pays about $3 more an hour than the county, she said. “We pay just over $12 an hour, pretty low,” she said. It will increase in 2023, but still will be under $13 an hour.
The Derby Dash bus and Haysville Hustle bus offer low-cost rides to residents of those cities, as services operated by Butler and Harvey counties do in their areas.
Health care providers could offer another solution, at least for their patients. An award-winning Massachusetts program called CareRide takes patients to medical appointments, including dialysis, using start-up funds from Lowell General Hospital in Massachusetts.
Closing the information gap about options that are already available could also help. “I hear over and over again from older adults that they didn’t know there was public transportation available to them,” said Jessica Warren, mobility manager for the South-Central Coordinated Transit District that covers Sedgwick, Butler, Harvey and four other counties.
In 2021, Virginia announced a website, VirginiaNavigator.org, that won praise for linking people to their local resources and transportation options after they typed in their zip code.
Trombley is on a list to receive dialysis at a location closer to her home. “At some point,” she said, “I hope to get well enough that I can drive.”
This article was produced as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of seven news organizations.
These organizations may be able help if you need transportation:
Wichita Transit: 316-265-7221
Sedgwick County Transportation Program: 316-660-5150
Kansas Aging and Disability Resource Center: 855-200-2372
First Presbyterian Church Transportation & Services Program: 316-267-1675
Butler County Transit: 316-775-0500
Harvey County Interurban: 316-284-6802
Derby Dash: 316-788-7433
Haysville Hustle: 316-529-5903