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Tiny Transit for Seniors—Pilot Project

The Institute for Community MicroMobility is the organizer of this proposal, assisted by a UT College of Pharmacy student public health team

Photo of Susan Engelking
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The 250 low income seniors and disabled residents of Rebekah Baines Johnson Center (RBJ Center) in East Austin are in many ways isolated. Most lack independent mobility. Many are mobility impaired. Some use wheelchairs or scooters. Most do not have cars, and those who do don't feel safe driving after dark. Many depend on Capital Metro's demand-responsive Metro Access shuttle service to get to the grocery store, pharmacy, doctor's office, and simply go places to enjoy the many free and low cost amenities that Austin has to offer. While Metro Access provides a valuable and needed service, it requires advance planning and often long waits. As much as they appreciate the service, residents are anxious that they will have to wait a long time, or worse, be stranded after dark. For many destinations accessible by bus, residents must transfer twice. A short visit to the doctor can take half a day or more—waiting in the heat, cold or rain. In addition, they may have to walk, often with difficulty, several blocks to get to and from bus stops.

RBJ Center is currently undergoing an expansion. Current residents will move to a new residential tower, now under construction, while the existing tower will be entirely renovated and brought up to today's codes. By 2021 its resident population will grow to 750 residents. There will be three times as many residents needing better, healthier more flexible mobility solutions.

OUR SOLUTION: Protected infrastructure for all vulnerable low speed modes (under 25 mph).

We propose to demonstrate the ease, joy, flexibility, practicality, and sense of community of a low speed, low cost mobility alternative that we have developed to help people of all ages and means to live healthier, happier, more abundant and connected lives. 

We call it LEAN mobility (LEAN is Low Emission Alternative Network). The design is Zero Emissions, and Vision Zero (no traffic fatalities or life-altering injuries). LEAN mobility has two elements: 

1. Low cost infrastructure 

2. Low cost modes, which include Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs), pedicabs, scooters, pedal-assist modes, and active modes.

For the infrastructure, we propose moveable barriers and other low cost protective features that can be easily and inexpensively placed to create a dedicated a two-way multi-use path that is a total of 12 feet wide. It will extend from the RBJ Center, along East Avenue, underneath the I-35 bridge over Lady Bird Lake, along the Rainey Street area and ultimately connect with the Capital Metro Center hub at 4th Street. This route can be developed with the crumbs of major transportation projects. Moveable barriers allow us to adjust the route and enhance safety features as we observe how people use this mobility alternative.

For the residents of RBJ Center, we propose using Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs). With a range of 30 miles, NEVs are ideal for short distances. Unlike golf carts, they have three-point seatbelt harnesses and other safety features. NEVs are easy to get in and out. Over the life of the vehicle, an NEV is about 1/4 the cost of a conventional vehicle. They have virtually zero emissions, using about as much energy as a refrigerator. They recharge at any 110 outlet. Insurance is typically $200/year. NEVs cost far less than a fully equipped Metro Access van, they don't need a highly skilled driver, and they meet some of the day-to-day needs of many mobility-impaired residents.

NEVs can be equipped with heaters and fans to provide comfort regardless of the weather. That is a trade-off most would happily make not to have to wait for a bus or Metro Access in hot or inclement weather.

NEVs can be owned, rented, or shared—just like cars. There are local and national foundations that may help with the cost of acquiring NEVs since this initiative touches so many needs (climate crisis, public health, equity). Leading U.S. manufacturer Polaris GEM offers a Financial Grant Program to help buyers find grants to purchase NEVs.

Few Austinites know what a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle is, and why would they? They're rarely seen on city streets. We estimate that only 3 percent of Austinites know what an NEV is, so this pilot project will be their first introduction to this mobility alternative—and to an infrastructure that we project can quickly account for approximately 20 to 25 percent of all trips in Austin by 2026, eliminating a cumulative 500,000 metric tons of carbon emissions. This is the only rapid game changer on the table for Austin's mobility crisis.

ACCESS FOR EVERYONE. LEAN infrastructure is accessible to anyone using small low speed or active modes, not just RBJ Center residents. This can make all the difference for anyone in East Austin whose job is downtown, who needs to catch a bus or rail, or who wants to visit downtown amenities. Young people might use dockless scooters or bikes. As more young people use the pilot project infrastructure, there will be multi-generational opportunities to interact with a wave or a smile. If the infrastructure reaches its capacity, that's a problem we'd like to have. We have planned for this with easily moveable barriers.

BRIDGING I-35. Whether on foot or in a conventional vehicle, crossing I-35 is a hazardous course with chronic traffic congestion and distracted drivers in a rush. Further, I-35 is barrier that many believe divides our city. We propose an easy-to-implement Vision Zero solution to bridge the divide quickly, at a next-to-nothing low cost, providing safe passage for low speed and active modes. 

LOW SPEED SAFETY. Austin's traffic deaths and life-altering injuries are a public health crisis. An estimated 80 people will be killed on our roads in 2019. On October 18, two people were killed, one a wheelchair user hit by a truck. The #1 or #2 cause of injury deaths for nearly every age cohort is motor vehicle collisions. The cascading effects—medical costs, life-altering injuries and loss of wage earners—destroy lives. Consider that a pedestrian hit by a vehicle going 45 mph has a 5 percent chance of survival. At 20 mph, that pedestrian has a 95 percent chance of survival. Our executive director is a public safety advocate. She urges "safety as the prime directive" for LEAN mobility in her book, "Tiny Transit: Cut Carbon Emissions In Your City Before It's Too Late." Speed kills.

MICRO-ECONOMY. Micromobility can create a micro-economy. We are seeing this at Community First! Village, operated by Mobile Loaves & Fishes, in farthermost East Austin, where the Institute is developing a Mobility Plan that provides independent mobility (both within the Village and extending 1.2 miles to a grocery store). Village neighbors will be circulator and on-demand shuttle drivers, earning an income, serving their neighbors, and strengthening the sense of community. Similar opportunities can open up with the RBJ Center.

REPLICABLE LOW COST INFRASTRUCTURE. A key goal is to demonstrate how quickly and inexpensively this mobility alternative can be developed. It is important not to overcomplicate it, drag it out, or add bells-and-whistles. This demo cannot be not an expensive one-off. It must demonstrate low cost, fast implementation, and it should be operational well before May 1, 2020. It should demonstrate that we don't have to wait years for a bond election that will raise property taxes to implement a low speed mobility alternative that is too little, too late. 

At this moment, Austin has a building boom, with hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on design and construction of dozens of major developments, both public and private. LEAN infrastructure can be incorporated in each development at little or no additional cost to taxpayers. If it's done right, real estate developers will welcome this. This is possible only with a groundswell of public support. And the groundswell will happen only if people can experience the joy and efficiency of this paradigm change. This pilot project is crucial. See our pro forma example on how a disruptive financing approach can enable a $1 billion infrastructure by 2026 without a bond election or property tax increase.

The City could spend millions on this single pilot project—but why? We want to demonstrate that we can stretch grant and taxpayer money just as we do our own—very carefully. We believe taxpayers will appreciate the logic and low cost. 

We have identified 12 more possible demonstration routes all over Austin that become the next step when this demonstration is in place. The climate crisis coupled with Austin's mobility and equity crises leaves us no time to waste. 

With this pilot project, Austin can join the Innovators and Early Adopters that include:

Lincoln, CA, first city in the U.S to adopt an NEV plan

Peachtree City, CA, with 100 miles of multi-use off-road paths

Coachella Valley, CA, building CV Link, a 50-mile multi-use spine connecting thirteen cities and tribes 

LA Metro, which adopted its "Slow Speed Network Strategic Plan for The South Bay," in 2017 

Note:  With its expansion, RBJ Center will have an increasing number of wheelchair and scooter users who are residents. This pilot project is an ideal site for  new wheelchair mobility innovations. Austinite Stacy Zoern Goad founded Kenguru, which prototyped a low speed vehicle in which the wheelchair can become the driver's seat. In Europe, there are devices that can attach to a wheelchair; again, with the wheelchair as the driver's seat.  With this LEAN initiative, Austin can seek to become the testbed for new wheelchair mobility innovations that we can expect to be introduced by manufacturers. To that end, we have attached a summary of wheelchair and scooter use in the U.S. The 85,000 U.S. veterans who are wheelchair users is a viable market. Our veterans deserve no less. The LEAN infrastructure is an ideal platform for wheelchair mobility innovations. There are several proposals that address the needs of wheelchair users with which we could collaborate.

Describe who will use your solution (1,000 characters)

1. RESIDENTS OF RBJ CENTER. On October 25, a focus group of residents was conducted by the UT College of Pharmacy Public Health Student Team. Participants described their mobility needs and challenges, articulating the need for independent mobility. The 250 low income seniors and disabled residents will grow to 750 by 2021. 2. EAST AUSTIN NEARBY NEIGHBORS. Imagine residing close to downtown yet having no easy way to cross I-35, or afford parking. Or venturing across I-35 on foot or by bicycle to get to a job. This pilot project benefits surrounding neighbors by removing I-35 as an obstacle south of Cesar Chavez St. Imagine how much richer life can be for neighbors who can use low speed modes the to cross seamlessly beneath I-35 to get to jobs, parks, free activities, and the 4th Street Metro Center hub. 3. Employers, health providers, climate activists, mobility disrupters, students—anyone with a desire to experience this practical mobility alternative.

Describe your solution's stage of development

  • Pilot - you have implemented your solution in a real-world scenario

Insights from previous testing (500 characters)

On October 18, 2019 we conducted a test-ride at Community First! Village, where 75% are over age 50. Many have chronic health issues. The feedback was all smiles: "This is ideal for me!" "A dream come true!" 'I need this!" A former teacher is ecstatic about driving a shuttle; she needs "something to do." In 2018, we conducted a test-drive at Dallas City Hall Plaza to an enthusiastic response. The key is engaging people hands-on with NEVs so they can imagine it as part of their lives.

Tell us about your team or organization (500 characters)

The Institute for Community MicroMobility is a nonprofit change agent based in Austin. Our mission to foster the use of climate-conscious transportation modes to improve mobility, public health and safety, equity, economic opportunities, and economic resilience. The Institute is focused on educating the public and policy makers on LEAN mobility as a viable low cost mobility alternative that can help our car-centric city leapfrog to a low carbon emission future.

Size of your team or organization

  • 2-10

Team or Organization URL

Funding Request

  • $50,000

Rough budget (500 characters)

We will use the $50,000 in grant funds to pay for test-ride events, outreach, social media, measurement, resident surveys, and project management. We will seek assistance from ATD and TxDOT in securing and protecting the route. We will seek funding from Austin-based foundations and support from the Polaris Grant program to purchase several NEVs.

Describe how you would pilot your idea (1000 characters)

We design mobility around people, not cars. We prefer an experiential approach and the "choice paths" observed, that is, letting people make choices and observing their preferences over time as they settle in on what works for them. We propose piloting a circulator (a six seat NEV shuttle with a regular route, ADA accessible), and an on-demand NEV shuttle, tracking usage data and qualitative feedback from residents and drivers. Either of these (circulator and on-demand shuttle) could be driven by residents or by East Austin neighbors, or Capital Metro could operate it, or it could be operated by Electric Cab of Austin. We need to stay flexible until the choice paths are evident. For example, today a resident might think that the circular is what they need. But once this concept is piloted, we may find that a neighbor who has access to a two seat NEV is often happy to shuttle them.

Describe how you would measure the success of your pilot (1000 characters)

Being metrics and research driven, we will begin by benchmarking RBJ Center mobility. We expect to spend a lot of time at RBJ Center in the pilot phase. Perhaps the most important facet of the pilot phase is our ability to modify it as we monitor use and learn more about how RBJ residents and East Austin neighbors actually use the LEAN infrastructure. We will consider this project successful if it is 1) sustainable, 2) replicable, and 3) captures the community's affection and imagination. The first two are obvious. The third requires that we outreach, listen, welcome, and encourage residents to engage with us. How does this pilot meet their needs? What are its shortcomings and how might they be addressed? What is the difference this makes in their lives, if any? Where else do they want to go? Would they use a shuttle to go to the H-E-B store a mile away on East 7th Street? To what degree does it matter to them that LEAN mobility is climate conscious?

Sustainability Plan (500 characters)

Through the pilot, we will pin down costs and develop a revenue model that will include payment by RBJ residents. Several in our focus group said they would expect to pay. We will examine whether offering LEAN mobility would reduce the per user expense for Capital Metro to provide Metro Access service. If so, the shuttle/on-demand service this could be a model that can be extended. With Movability we will enlist employers' support to extend LEAN route to the Austin Public Library.

Social Media

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Attachments (5)

Institute for Community MicroMobility Overview.pdf

About Us - Institute for Community MicroMobility

UT College of Pharmacy Plan.pdf

This is the project plan for the UT College of Pharmacy student team that is bringing their public health / population health focus and expertise to this pilot project.

Wheelchair & Scooter Users - ICM.pdf

Quick facts about Wheelchair & Scooter users.

Map connecting MetroRail Center.pdf

Potential route for LEAN mobility connecting residents of RBJ center to MetroRail station.

RBJ Center Site Map.pdf

Map of Rebekah Baines Johnson Center


Join the conversation:

Photo of David Knipp

Hi Susan,

Great work! Precision Pedicab is a local Austin based manufacturing company that designs & deploys tricycles for a variety of market need-purposes (people moving, cargo, billboard cabs, etc). While we've moved countless #'s of elders & ADA across a variety of markets over the years... You & this have been a great inspiration for me/us to consider how we can mfg. a vehicle most ADA accessible & compliant... beyond what's currently available in todays mobility market.

The cost of a pedicab is affordable to purchase &/or maintain. We tend to fall greater into biclcye language in & around city & state regs. We're electric too!

All Food for thought.

Best of luck in this pursuit & please keep us in mind as plans develop!


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