About two years ago, semi-retired business executive Bob Carr thought he’d spend some time driving for Uber, the innovative company that allows individuals to use their own vehicles to transport paying passengers.
Little did Carr know that the journey would take him to a whole new career.
One rider told Carr that she had a doctor’s appointment and struggled with Parkinson’s disease. All she needed was to travel less than half a mile from her home, but she couldn’t manage the walk.
A regular taxi service had turned her down. “Too short a distance,” the dispatcher said.
The rider contacted Uber out of desperation. And Carr’s car happened to be close by.
That two-block trip confirmed Carr’s concerns about older adults who needed help. He thought there had to be thousands of people who required transportation in metro Atlanta, based on their desire to remain in their homes. Either medications or debilitating health conditions kept these people from driving, leaving them largely housebound.
Carr says he and his wife, Anne, had talked about the situation for years and became more and more determined to do something to help.
Today, the company they founded, Common Courtesy, is a grass-roots system, working in cooperation with Uber, that is helping many such people receive donated rides.
Yes, donated — either partially, or in full.
The need was obvious
One day a few years before Carr began working with Uber, he and his wife took a trip to the “Y” for exercise and noticed a woman leaving the parking lot.
The woman carefully placed her walker in the trunk of her car and, with some effort, was able to get into the driver’s seat. But unfortunately, her foot hit the gas hard while the gear was set in reverse, causing the car to lurch backward at a dangerous speed.
“She nearly took out a group of people,” Carr recalls. That group consisted of people on their way out of a driving class for seniors. Ironically, the woman had also attended the class.
“Somebody needs to do something to help seniors,” Carr said to his wife that day. “That woman shouldn’t have to drive.”
The image of that woman in reverse stayed with Carr and his wife. It represented many people with limited mobility who were desperate for basic transportation — some of them desperate enough to try to operate a vehicle when they no longer could do so safely.
In 2006, Carr started the couple’s dream company with the aid of volunteers. His enthusiastic workforce was more than eager to help local seniors with transportation needs.
But soon he realized the limitations of such a project. There were only so many people who were able to volunteer their time, and most of them had limited time to give. Too often, when a driver was needed, there was simply none available.
Sadly, Carr admitted to himself that Common Courtesy couldn’t keep up with the demand and therefore couldn’t guarantee rides to people who sought them. “The system simply wasn’t sustainable,” he says today.
Given that reality, his initial start-up company took a hiatus from 2009 to 2012. But he didn’t forget the plight of the people without transportation.
During the hiatus, Carr worked with a senior independent living home and went on to serve as director of a nonprofit that served older adults with dementia. He continued to think about the growing transport needs. With this exposure, he saw it firsthand.
“Those experiences reignited my desire to help,” said Carr.
He knew the initial concept was a good one — assisting people to get from Point A to Point B. He also knew it was only going to get worse with America’s aging population. He was concerned about those who had limited sight and other debilitating health issues.
Then, along came Uber.
Two great ideas
When Uber opened its Atlanta office, it was near a building the Carrs owned. And that’s how this semi-retired executive and entrepreneur became an Uber driver.
Uber, of course, is a paid transport service. But Carr and his wife saw it as a natural piece of what he and his wife wanted to accomplish — to help people who couldn’t normally afford to ride.
As Carr gained information on Uber’s operations, he returned to his initial ideas for a specialized transport company.
“I had months of re-engineering and re-imagining how my transport ideas, based on Uber, might work,” says Carr.
Eventually, he approached Jack Reed, Uber’s Atlanta marketing manager, with some initial thoughts about cooperation.
The big hurdle for Carr and Reed in allowing such an arrangement was the method of payment.
That was mostly because Carr’s targeted demographic included a high percentage of the population who were not using smartphones.
According to a 2015 Pew Research Center report, only 27 percent of older adults (over 65) actually use smartphones or own other types of cellphones. The Uber app is a critical component of Uber’s operating system.
“One of our goals at Uber is to help provide safe, reliable transportation to everyone, everywhere,” said Keith Radford, Uber’s general manager in Atlanta.
“When Jack Reed, our marketing manager, came to me with this innovative idea, it was an easy call,” says Radford. They just needed to figure out a way to get it done.
Parkinson Disease Association
Carr reached out to the American Parkinson Disease Association (APDA) chapter in Atlanta earlier this year.
Eric Burkard, who is president of the association’s Georgia chapter, says Carr wanted “to pitch his idea for a transportation program that would specifically benefit persons with Parkinson’s disease.”
According to Burkard, Carr found a sympathetic ear among the Georgia APDA’s board of directors, who fully appreciated the cost and complexities that patients with Parkinson’s disease face every day.
“They need help getting to their doctors, therapists, support groups, and exercise classes,” says Burkard. To get the program started, the Georgia Chapter issued a $3,000 grant to Common Courtesy.
“The money may reduce the cost of Uber rides by as much as 50 percent,” Burkard says. “We wanted to commend Common Courtesy for partnering with Uber, which looks like it will result in low-cost and reliable rides to those most in need,” says Burkard.
“Our riders complete a simple, one-time application form with Common Courtesy and then call a local number when they need a ride,” said Burkard. For the passenger, it’s that easy.
“We’re just getting started,” said Melissa LeBoeuf, who is on the all-volunteer Parkinson’s board. “And we hope this will be a positive step in the right direction.”
Carr readily admits, there were plenty of trial and error moments. “It hasn’t been a smooth ride.”
“After about 6 months of using the volunteer-driver format, we knew it wouldn’t work, says Carr. “But, once we connected with the Uber model, it still took another year of testing, vetting and implementing adaptive systems.”
A memorable ride for veterans
There are other ride services in the metro Atlanta area for older adults. Still, Common Courtesy is picking up more business.
In addition to working with the Parkinson Association, the company partnered with the Atlanta History Center to offer rides to military veterans on Veterans Day.
Through funding offered by an Atlanta resident’s generous donation, Common Courtesy’s Uber drivers picked up veterans and drove them to and from the History Center commemoration.
Here’s how the system works:
Funds are donated to Common Courtesy by various organizations. The funds are held in separate accounts for clients of that organization.
If the rider has a smartphone, Common Courtesy loads the Uber app with a special identity key. The key flags that rider as a Common Courtesy client. It also indicates which organization will pay for the use of the Uber service.
A rider who does not have a smartphone is given a toll-free number. The person can then call the number and request an Uber ride, which will be paid for through the rider’s specific organization, such as APDA.
Uber provides the service, using drivers in the area of the ride request. Uber then bills Common Courtesy directly.
Other donated funding, which is not restricted to ride fares, is applied to Common Courtesy’s operations,” says Carr.
“Our focus is making life more accommodating for seniors and others who may need a bit of transport help, especially those struggling with mobility-related problems,” says Carr. “We are looking at working with the Center for the Visually Impaired in Atlanta and a number of churches whose members need transport help.”
He and his wife have given countless hours and their own money to making this work for everyone concerned.
When asked if he knew how complicated forming his company would be — from obtaining a 501c3 nonprofit status, to working with the Uber brand and finally figuring out how to get “to” the people who needed help, his response was: “No, Nada, not at all, and never!”
“It’s the only answer that I can give,” shares Carr, as he races to his next meeting.
A lot of people with health problems need rides, and Carr’s a busy guy these days.
Judi Kanne, a registered nurse and freelance writer, combines her nursing and journalism backgrounds to write about public health. She lives in Atlanta.