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Planning, developing, and sustaining Volunteer Driver Programs (VDPs) as an effective mode for rural transportation


Volunteer driver programs (VDP) can be an effective means to accommodate the unmet mobility needs of older adults and other transportation-disadvantaged people in rural communities where transit, paratransit and taxi services are limited or cost prohibitive. There is considerable potential for these programs to be implemented or expanded on a coordinated basis to provide low-cost and accessible transportation in underserved or unserved rural communities; however, there is limited understanding of what makes a successful, sustainable and replicable VDP.

The collective body of knowledge surrounding VDPs is case-study or anecdotal in nature, with little, if any, research-based exploration of the operational, organizational and human factors which differentiate them from transit, paratransit or taxi voucher program. There is no authoritative body of work from a U.S. federal transportation agency providing technical guidance in the assessment, development, demand forecasting and deployment of car-based VDPs as a mobility option in meeting transportation needs, in particular for older adults or in rural areas.

This has led to a lack of understanding of the potential for success and the scalability and replicability of VDPs to meet the growing demand for specialized transportation services, along with successful recruiting and retention of volunteer drivers. Without a clear systematic understanding of VDPs as a mode of transportation, it is difficult for state DOTs, public transit and human services agencies, or regional transportation authorities to estimate the programs’ potential, determine prospective costs and benefits, and identify where and when VDP models will be successful and sustainable. This limits the ability of rural public transit agency staff, mobility managers, and transportation planners to consider, plan, implement, and sustain VDPs among a continuum of transportation services (ranging from transit and paratransit to on-demand services) where planning metrics and demand estimation may be better defined.

Given that many prospective rural VDP would fall under the purview of organizations with limited resources for surveys and research, a forecasting tool would be an efficient means for rural transit agencies and other entities to evaluate the potential of the service. Recent research suggests that such guidance is both possible and of considerable interest for delivering transportation services in rural areas.

In addition, the extension of car-based VDP into more rural and low-density areas is limited by the understanding of how VDP develop and evolve (a bottom-up, community-driven approach vs. a top-down planning approach), funded and sustained, and how to assess the demand for such services and supply of volunteers.

A research project is therefore needed to assemble detailed VDP data (similar to that in Freund, et al (2020)) at a national level, viewed through a transportation engineering and planning lens (as described by Hanson and Goudreau (2019)) and aligned with quantifying organizational practices associated with stages of VDP development (or maturity, as described in Goudreau and Hanson (2018)). A resulting TCRP publication that combines these elements with accompanying an forecasting tool would provide critical planning resources for mobility development by agencies engaged in rural public transportation and other organizations looking to complement public transportation with VDPs


The objectives of a national research effort are to support the elaboration of a seminal publication that would review, summarize, and build on the following dimensions:

● Identify existing VDPs in North America, particularly in rural areas, and available resources on these programs, including tools for planning services or monitoring and dispatching volunteers

● Identify the types of metrics and methods for monitoring performance that would be valuable for transportation planning and aligned with the VDPs capacity to provide service and improve equity of available mobility options

● Create an organizational complexity model (also known as maturity model) tool that quantity success factors and best practices of VDPs in rural areas

● Identify criteria/factors for program success based on population and geography size to identify ideal places for VDPs and appropriate sizing of programs based on local suitability

●Create a tool based on organizational complexity and operational metrics that transportation agencies and existing or prospective VDPs can use to help them assess or self-assess potential areas for improvement

●Identify sustainable funding sources and mechanisms for VDPs in rural areas based on agency size and trip types

●Quantify the potential for VDPs into a viable transportation resource in rural areas (which may include areas of less density, long distances, or otherwise difficult and expensive to serve) to provide additional transportation options for seniors, persons with disabilities, and other travelers as well as improve the equity of available mobility options


The expected payoff of this research lies with its potential:

·To help transit agencies, human services agencies, and mobility managers serving rural communities implement and sustain VDPs as a cost-effective solution to meeting unserved and underserved populations.

·To improve the potential for organizing and delivering transportation in low-density or hard to serve environments that would otherwise not be possible due to cost or level of service.

·To provide replicable VDP templates for specific applications in hard to serve communities, and to provide the tools needed to understand such programs, thereby increasing sustainability, success rates and mode viability.

·To enhance the societal benefits of enhancing mobility options for non-drivers and drivers in transition.

This project can lead to improved safety by helping to provide the environment for the development of mobility solutions that facilitate a transition of driver to non-driver at a point where the health effects of aging may make driving difficult or impossible. The project can make better use of existing infrastructure by leveraging an existing pool of drivers and vehicles to support meeting the transportation needs of older adults. The study outcome contributes to the development of innovative practices and accountability by making planning and forecasting data a central theme.

The growing population of older and more diverse drivers in rural communities in particular, including notable difference in licensing rates among older women and men, presents challenges and opportunities that require immediate action. The largest challenge is that the health effects of aging can make driving difficult or impossible over time, yet few alternatives exist in rural communities where older individuals who want to age in place tend to hold on to their driver’s licenses longer than their urban counterparts. VDPs appear to have many elements which can appeal to older adults and the potential to be a feasible provision of special transportation services in an aging society. However, extensive and systematic research on what makes VDPs successful has been limited. The proposed study will produce a critical reference and tools for the development and enhancement of VDPs.

VDPs have many elements which can appeal to older adults that transition from driving (and that currently rely on friends and family for mobility), while replicating the friends and family experience. There is considerable potential for VDP to be a systematically deployed asset of special transportation services in an aging society, though such deployment requires a better technical understanding of the elements that make VDP successful. While older adults are not the exclusive clientele of VDP, they can be expected to be a major beneficiary of expanded VDP operations.

VDP research is needed as the widespread adoption of Autonomous Vehicles still remains a long-term goal and primarily urban pursuit. It also remains unclear whether these technologies can be as effective in addressing the types of assistance required by non-driving older adults, and the degree to which the “human connection” contributes to program success. Nevertheless, new technologies and operational models are emerging that are serving and supporting rural and low-density areas, such as ITN Country (extension of the ITN America model to rural areas) (ITN Country, 2020) and Feonix-Mobility Rising and its “Freedom Driver” concept (Feonix - Mobility Rising, 2020) which are bringing the Mobiltiy-as-a-Service (MaaS) concept to these areas.

Related Research:

Existing research on VDPs shows a need for improvement of mobility in rural and underserved areas. Many people in North America are facing a future where the health effects of aging may compromise their ability to independently meet their needs as a driver with a personal automobile. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the population of adults aged 65 years and older will nearly double from 49 million in 2016 to 95 million in 2060, representing 25% of the population (Vespa, Armstrong, & Medina, 2020). The projections are also pronounced for Canada, where the senior population is expected to rise from 6 million in 2014 to 9.5 million 2030, representing 23% of the population (Wong, 2014). While aging itself does not compromise driving ability, the health effects of aging can make driving difficult or impossible over time, and for an automobile-dependent society (which typifies much of rural North America), this will leave many without an alternative to driving themselves.

The data already demonstrate a move away from maintaining a driver’s license with age; in 2018, approximately 90% of Americans aged 65-74 years maintained a driver’s license, while 62% of those 85 years and older maintained a While licensing rates are relatively the same between men and women younger than 50 years, a higher proportion of men than women maintain their licenses with age; by the time they are 85 years and older, 78.5% of men and only 50% of women maintain a license (U.S. Department of Transportation, 2019)[1]. It is not clear to what degree this is a gender-effect or a cohort-effect, but suggests the importance of maintaining a gender lens in the consideration of driving alternatives.

When it comes to alternatives to driving, older adults tend to seek it from friends and family first (Coughlin, 2009), (Donorfio, Mohyde, Coughlin, & D'Ambrosio, 2008) (Hanson and Hildebrand 2011), (Taylor & Tripodes, 2001). A confluence of demographic and other factors in North America, which includes smaller family sizes, dispersed families, centralizing essential services, are likely to make it more difficult for older adults to rely exclusively on friends and family, and by extension, a society that implicitly relies on the ability of older adults to secure their own transportation to access services such as healthcare.

Existing research reports from the National Academy of Sciences address practices in rural transportation, though none have an explicit focus on VDPs. TCRP Research Report 223 (2021) focuses on non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT) and cites VDPs as a mobility option for reimbursement for Medicaid NEMT service and a resource for community 211 services to connect riders to drivers. This report cites case studies of health organizations and consortiums in rural areas of Colorado, Oregon, Missouri, New York, Kentucky, and Vermont utilizing volunteer drivers as part of their mobility options for riders. NCHRP Research Report 861 (2017) alludes to VDPs as a subtype of specialized transportation services which provide scheduled rides in rural areas where distances will not adequately support fixed routes. This report mentiones Cental Community Transit in Minnesota as an example of a transit agency providing service volunteer drivers through support from a state grant. TCRP Report 136 (2009) includes some discussion of VDP in rural areas and smaller countiies as demand-response transportation and discusses impacts of VDPs on performance data. TCRP Report 101 (2004) includes an entire chapter on the use of volunteers in rural transportation and case studies in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho (including as drivers for demand response transportation), also citing previous work from The Bevely Foundation on the subject. TCRP Report 99 (2004) also includes a similar case study on Washington and Idaho.

As outlined in the TRB “Critical Issues in Transportation 2019 Policy Snapshot”, providing mobility for populations with limited transportation options is a growing need in North America, compounded by the aging demographics and limited accessible, on-demand transportation programs (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018).

VDPs are featured prominently within the suite of topics within the National Center for Mobility Management (https://nationalcenterformobilitymanagement.org/by-topic/), (NCMM), National Aging & Disability Transportation Center (NADTC) and research would be consistent with the NADTC and NCMM national technical assistance role.

[1] https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2019/

  1. Identify existing and proposed VDP data sources, including car-based VDPs from among the National Volunteer Transportation Center national inventory and other searchable databases (including those described in Freund, et al. (2020)) and catalogue the types of transportation, technology and demographic data, user preference data, equity data, and cost data that programs maintain (as well as in which formats they are maintained).
  2. Establish the framework for an operational model to forecast the potential success and ridership of a VDP in rural areas at a local or regional level
  3. Identify and secure VDP research partners to contribute data to a national volunteer transportation metric database
  4. Complete an application of an “organizational complexity model” assessment on a sample of car-based VDPs to test the method as a means to quantify success factors and best practices of VDPs in rural areas.
  5. Organize results of the transportation metrics and organizational maturity into an initial sketch planning tool for estimating volunteer supply, program demand, and assessment of organization maturity for program development, primarily focused on rural areas transportation development.

The basis for this problem statement was developed from a Research Needs Statement developed and originally endorsed by the Transportation Research Board’s AP060 in 2008 and ABE60 (now AME50) Standing Committee on Accessible Transportation and Mobility in 2015. This statement was updated by Dr. Trevor Hanson (Committee Research Coordinator, AME50) and endorsed by AME50 in June 2020 as part of its 2020 workplan approved at the 2020 TRB Annual Meeting, then submitted to NCHRP. The problem statement is also applicable to TCRP research priorities and was resubmitted there with support from AP055 in 2021.

Leadership in developing this problem statement included Dr. Trevor R. Hanson, Associate Professor, University of New Brunswick, Canada, Committee Research Coordinator, Transportation Research Board Standing Committee on Accessible Transportation and Mobility. Support from this problem statement includes the following group: Carrie Diamond, Assistant Director of the National Aging & Disability Transportation Center at Easterseals, Inc., Todd Hansen, Associate Research Scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute; Dimitra Pyrialakou, Assistant Professor, West Virginia University.


This study is in line with 2008 TCRP strategic research goals of increasing ridership (complementary or sole provision of volunteer services creates ride opportunities to meet needs) and capital and operating efficiency (volunteer programs cost less to operate). It also supports the TCRP strategic priorities of placing the customer first (directing volunteer transportation to meet targeted needs) and flourishing in a multimodal environment (volunteer operations are another mode which can complement public and private services). Volunteer driver programs have become a key component in many coordinated community transportation plans and services that have resulted from the FTA’s United We Ride initiatives, SAFETEA-LU requirements, and policy statements from the Federal Inter-Agency Coordinating Council on Access and Mobility. Volunteer driver programs are also key to the mobility of older adults, and sometimes are the only viable means of public/agency transportation in rural America.

Sponsoring Committee:AME50, Accessible Transportation and Mobility
Research Period:24 - 36 months
Research Priority:High
RNS Developer:Trevor R. Hanson, PhD, P.Eng Associate Professor Department of Civil Engineering P.O. Box 4400 University of New Brunswick Fredericton, Canada, E3B 5A3 Ph: 506-453-4521 Fx: 506-453-3568 https://www.unb.ca/faculty-staff/directory/engineering-civil/hanson-trevor.html
Source Info:Copp, D., & Hanson, T. R. (2019). Learning from rural innovation: what can volunteer driver programs teach us about planning for autonomous vehicles? https://www.unb.ca/research/transportation-group/_resources/pdf/research-papers/copp-and-hanson.pdf: CTRF Conference 2019.

Coughlin, J. F. (2009). Longevity, Lifestyle, and Anticipating the New Demands of Aging on the Transportation System. https://doi.org/10.1177/1087724X09335609: Public Works Management & Policy, 13(4), 301–311.

Donorfio, L. K., Mohyde, M. M., Coughlin, J. P., & D'Ambrosio, L. P. (2008). A Qualitative Exploration of Self-Regulation Behaviors Among Older Drivers. https://doi.org/10.1080/08959420802050975: Journal of Aging & Social Policy, 20:3, 323-339.

Feonix - Mobility Rising. (2020, 06 05). About Us - Mission. Retrieved from Feonix - Mobility Rising: https://feonixmobilityrising.org/our-mission

Freund, K., Bayne, A., Beck, L., Siegfried, A., Warren, J., Nadel, T., & Natarajan, A. (2019). Characteristics of ride share services for older adults in the United States. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsr.2019.12.008: Journal of Safety Research Volume 72: 9-19.

Hanson, T. R. (2017). Understanding the supply of and demand for volunteer driving in Canada: Knowledge sources, gaps, and proposed framework for future research to support transportation planning for older adults. https://www.unb.ca/research/transportation-group/_resources/papers/18-01474.pdf: University of New Brunswick.

Hanson, T. R., & Goudreau, M. (2018). The Development and Application of a Maturity Model to Understand Volunteer Driver Program Practices. https://ctrf.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/CTRF_2018_Goudreau_Hanson_12_1.pdf: CTRF Conference 2018.

Hanson, T. R., & Goudreau, M. (2019). Developing Transportation Engineering and Planning Metrics for Rural Volunteer Driver Programs. https://scholar.google.ca/scholar?oi=bibs&cluster=14096473461803596140&btnI=1&hl=en: Transportation Research Board, Volume: 2673 issue: 10, page(s): 852-861.

Hanson, T. R., & Hildebrand, E. D. (2011). Can rural older drivers meet their needs without a car? doi.org/10.1007/s11116-011-9323-3: Stated adaptation responses from a GPS travel diary survey. Transportation 38, 975–992.

Hanson, T. R., Goudreau, M., & Copp, D. (2018). Community-Based Approach to Addressing Transportation Needs for Rural Older Adults in Canada. http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/circulars/ec262.pdf#page=118: TR Circular E-C262: TRANSED 2018 ,113-119.

ITN Country. (2020, 06 05). Program Features. Retrieved from ITN Country: http://www.itncountry.org/

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2004). Toolkit for

Rural Community Coordinated Transportation Services. Washington, DC: The

National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/13751.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2004). Embracing

Change in a Changing World -- Case Studies Applying New Paradigms for Rural and_ Small Urban Transit Service Delivery_. Washington, DC: The National Academies

Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/13722.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2005). Cost-Benefit Analysis of Providing Non-Emergency Medical Transportation. Retrieved from The National Academies Pres: https://doi.org/10.17226/22055

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2009). TCRP Report 136: Guidebook for Rural Demand-Response Transportation: Measuring, Assessing, and Improving Performance. The National Academies Press. Washington, DC: https://doi.org/10.17226/14330.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). Critical Issues in Transportation 2019. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press_._ Retrieved from National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: https://doi.org/10.17226/25314

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017_). Best Practices_

in Rural Regional Mobility. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.


National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2021). Guidebook and

Research Plan to Help Communities Improve Transportation to Health Care

Services. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.


Sherman, A. (2019). _Rural Mobility for Older Adults: Matching Georgia’s Future Needs with Potential Capacity for Volunteer Driver _
Date Posted:06/15/2015
Date Modified:08/30/2021
Index Terms:Paratransit services, Drivers, Volunteers, Mobility, Accessibility, Sustainable transportation, Persons with disabilities, Transportation disadvantaged persons, Aged, Taxi services,
Cosponsoring Committees:AP055, Rural, Intercity Bus, and Specialized Transportation
Public Transportation
Planning and Forecasting
Transportation (General)
Passenger Transportation

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