Minyang Jiang–or MJ as she is known–wants you to know that her company does not conform to popular notions of what a startup is supposed to be.

“Everybody hears about the unicorns and everybody hears about super high valuations,” she says, perhaps referencing Uber’s recent initial public offering. “…And what we’re trying to do is to say there’s a space for different kind of startup.”

Jiang is chief executive officer of GoRide, a business housed within the Ford Motor Company, a startup with the specific aim to help senior citizens, people with disabilities, children and others access health care in a world that doesn’t always make this easy. The trust and reliability needed to do so means that a different standard for startup behavior is in order, rather than the “move fast and break things” attitude that was popular a few years ago.

“Pay the people that that work for you a living wage,” Jiang says of their model. “Create jobs, work within the boundaries of law. Do move fast, but don’t break things that are not yours to break.”

There seems to be a demand for Jiang’s way of doing business and the services that GoRide offers. Recently, they have grown their business to 50 vehicles from fewer than ten in 2017 and are operating in Michigan, and also Ohio, helping Dayton improve its paratransit services and meet its responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)–which requires all public transit to serve those with disabilities. Another company, the Bosch-owned SPLT–which provides ride-sharing services to seniors, people with disabilities and others–recently received a $990,000 grant as part of the Michigan Mobility Challenge to provide these services, specifically in rural areas where there is a large need.

The upshot is that Michigan is emerging as both a leader in the development of more accessible mobility and seeing benefits in its cities and counties as the region becomes a petri dish for experiments in helping underserved populations. The combination of resources like Ford and other automotive companies and suppliers, as well as researchers at Michigan State University–who are studying both the sociological and technological needs of an aging population–means that startups are able to work through iterations of their products with local communities, getting the results back to their research and development teams in the same day.

GoRide approaches mobility with a "design for all" perspective, putting patron's needs and experiences first, says Minyang Jiang.
GoRide approaches mobility with a “design for all” perspective, putting patron’s needs and experiences first, says Minyang Jiang.

Mobility for health and wellbeing

Shelia Cotten, a medical sociologist who studies aging at Michigan State University, says that we are on the cusp of a silver tsunami. “The number of people 65 and older is increasing more dramatically than at any point in history and will continue for the next few decades,” she says. “Unfortunately, our society isn’t prepared currently to help older adults in the ways that they need to be helped, particularly those that have mobility impairments.”

Although the number of transportation options have increased in many areas with ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft, this hasn’t necessarily helped senior citizens who may not use smartphones. Disabilities and other issues may also affect an individual’s ability to use certain technologies as does the digital divide more generally, which a person’s ability to utilize technology combined with economic factors and broadband access.

“You don’t have access to money to buy a smartphone or to buy a pay-as-you-go phone even,” Cotten says of the problem. “If you live in a rural area… then it just makes it that much worse.”

The transportation problem is perhaps most critical when it comes to healthcare. “One of the biggest challenges for healthcare organizations is patients who don’t show up for appointments,” Cotten says. “And part of the reason, particularly for older adults, is a lack of transportation to get to those appointments.” As Cotten says, 80 percent of older adults have some kind of chronic disease. Healthcare can be equally critical for people with disabilities and children. For this reason, companies like GoRide have initiated their work with healthcare providers like Beaumont Health System.

We are on the cusp of a silver tsunami, says Shelia Cotten, MSU foundation professor, Department of Media & Information, Michigan State University. Photo courtesy of S. Cotten.
We are on the cusp of a silver tsunami, says Shelia Cotten, MSU foundation professor, Department of Media & Information, Michigan State University. Photo courtesy of S. Cotten.

“Design for all”

However, providing access to transportation is not enough. Overcoming, the digital divide and serving customers means designing systems that meet their specific needs. Cotten refers to this as “design for all” and it’s something GoRide has tried to do with their back-end technology as well as the vehicles themselves. Jiang says they use very large vehicles that allow the driver to easily lock down those in wheelchairs in the center where they will have a good riding experience.

“We’re very used to vehicles where the wheelchair is buried in the back…” she says. “When we did our research that made them feel like second class citizens.” Among other factors GoRide is addressing is the level of window-tinting in their vehicles. Finding the sweet-spot where passengers can have good visibility, but don’t get too hot is very important. These sorts of details may seem small, but they can have a big effect on user experience.

Likewise, GoRide is committing to always having a call center, although their services can also be accessed online. This is important not only because of issues related to technological literacy, but also because, as Jiang says, “A lot of our aging adults are in isolation.” Having an actual human being to talk to can be an important part of the service.

Rural mobility

The problem of finding transportation for senior citizens, children and the disabled is especially acute in rural areas. Part of this is related to population loss in rural counties that has undermined some of the traditional support structures for marginalized citizens. Cotten says that the distances involved and the scarcity of customers make for-profit models difficult here.

However, SPLT is rolling out its ride-sharing program in rural counties around Traverse City and Saugatuck. They hope that by integrating their platform with existing public transport systems they can decrease no-shows and cancellations, thus providing value for regional transit authorities and improving service.

Working with partners like county governments and hospital systems is important for startups likes SPLT and GoRide, but there’s no reason it needs to stop there. GoRide, for example, is working with Gleaners Community Food Bank to help deliver groceries to clients who may have difficulty getting food home without a personal vehicle. Similar work could be done with clothing and medicine.

Still, other needs remain for these populations. Although it’s crucial to make sure people have access to health care and basic necessities, the isolation caused by lack of transportation can be profound. Cotten cites a study saying that 21 percent of older adults don’t drive. “That’s really problematic because it results in fewer doctor’s appointments, it results in fewer excursions for shopping or social engagement. It results in a lot fewer visits with family members… For older adults, there are much higher rates of loneliness, depression and isolation,” she says.

It’s important to enable isolated populations to access family and friends, along with other opportunities to get out into the world for its own sake. But depression and loneliness can become health problems in their own right, feeding into other negative health outcomes. In Michigan, programs like GoRide and SPLT are beginning to address these problems, yet it’s clear that more work needs to be done to help some of our most vulnerable citizens connect with what they need to enjoy a high quality of life.

Photos by Steve Koss, unless otherwise indicated.