Katherine Freund
Ashoka Fellow since 2012   |   United States

Katherine Freund

Independent Transportation Network
Katherine Freund is changing norms about driving and creating a shared-ride transportation approach that allows older Americans to transition from driving to being driven through a whole-community…
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This description of Katherine Freund's work was prepared when Katherine Freund was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012.


Katherine Freund is changing norms about driving and creating a shared-ride transportation approach that allows older Americans to transition from driving to being driven through a whole-community solution that keeps them mobile and active while staying in their homes.

The New Idea

Katherine has developed a consumer-oriented, economically sustainable approach that allows a dignified and viable transition for older Americans from driving to being driven, at or before the point, where it is unsafe to operate a car. She has created a national system with a unified database, and shared brand and business rules in the cities in which it now operates. She is recreating the comfort and convenience of private automobile ownership by harnessing automobiles and both paid and volunteer drivers to provide rides 24/7, for any purpose through her organization, the Independent Transportation Network (ITN). Participants in ITN become dues-paying members of the non-profit organization and open personal transportation accounts to pay for their rides. ITN keeps fares reasonable by charging roughly half the true cost of rides and covering the balance through a diversified base of voluntary local community support. Through innovative payment plans, ITN integrates previously inaccessible private resources to help pay for rides, storing the resources in Personal Transportation Accounts and sending members monthly statements.

Having launched the national initiative in 2005—from a pilot in Portland, Maine—Katherine is exploring significantly extending the model to address need in more sparsely populated areas. The extension—called ITN Everywhere—is piloting in communities in Maine and New York.

The Problem

Most older Americans depend on the automobile for transportation. This dependence poses serious safety and mobility problems for diminished capacity older drivers, who rely on their private automobile for access to the necessities of life. The problem is compounded by where older people choose to live. More than two-thirds of seniors live in rural or suburban communities that lack the density for traditional mass transit. Older people who stop driving become dependent on favors from family and friends. This state of dependence can last a decade or more. Women who stop driving outlive their decision by ten years; men by six. Those who continue to drive face limited mobility (driving only in daylight hours, fair weather conditions, familiar neighborhoods, at non-rush hours) and the highest fatal crash rate per mile driven of any group except teenagers. By the year 2020, the fatal crash rate for seniors will exceed 18,000 annually. That is more than the annual number of people dying from alcohol related crashes now. The projected cost to solve this problem is not small. Four round trips per week for 25 percent of the over 75 population will exceed $50 billion annually by 2030.

The traditional solution to this problem, public transportation, will not meet the need—and indeed, only $1 of every $5 dollars spent in the U.S. on transportation is public money. Small, community-based organizations and groups like faith-based communities that rely on volunteer drivers and philanthropic support have sprung up across the country to fill the market void, but the unmet transportation need so far outstrips the availability of service. Most of these small community efforts suffer from volunteer and philanthropic burnout, and many even hide from demand. While they provide the high-quality options older people require, they are plagued by insufficient human and financial capital and they lack the information technology, policy models and marketing savvy necessary to improve their outcomes.

Changing norms around transportation are afoot, especially among city dwellers and younger people. The American notion of “you are what you drive” is dissolving, giving rise to successful and emerging models like Zipcar and various bike share efforts that are popping up in major cities. These offer options for people to enjoy freedom of mobility without having to privately own the mode of transit. And of course plain-old carpooling continues—for coworkers and families with children in the same school. Tech-enabled ways of connecting—Craigslist, mobile aps like Avego and so on—increasingly allow people to find each other either because they are going to the same place (i.e. music festival or event) or because they are in the same vicinity and want to share a ride and costs. For some kinds of drivers and riders—especially younger urbanites—new notions of how you get from point A to point B are emerging that meld aspects of what has been a strongly dichotomous approach: public transportation vs. private ownership.

The Strategy

Katherine is introducing a creative approach to public transit that helps members plan for and navigate the transition from driving to riding. She mobilizes volunteer drivers and their vehicles and redirects private money that is already getting spent on transportation (car ownership, insurance, and fuel) for use in a shared solution.

Katherine set up and tested the approach in Portland, ME, where she lives, and in 2005 began extending it to a national network of affiliates—now active in 20 cities, with 5 more raising local funding and ramping up. (ITN America is the national organization, of which Katherine is the president.) The affiliate locations are cities of roughly 200,000 or more to ensure a threshold population size and density. Affiliates co-select (with ITN America) a leader for the city effort, who typically works full-time raising awareness and bringing on board riders, drivers, local board members, and funders of various stripes. Affiliates or chapters often end up integrating the various local players in aging and transportation, and transportation cross-cuts other issues. They mobilize doctors—45 percent of rides are to and from doctors’ offices and health centers—and local businesses such as hair stylists and food stores, which of course don’t want to lose customers as they age. Some of these outreach efforts offer a natural opportunity for a revenue stream—for example, Affiliate leaders may build relationships with 20 or so local businesses that agree to pay, per ITN ride that arrives at their door, $1 to the customer (the rider) and $1 to ITN. The rider of course always selects the destination based on what they want and like—choice is an important principle—but many choose to shop at businesses that effectively offer them a ride discount and express a commitment to the issue. It’s good for riders and good for business, an important extension of full economic citizenship.

Affiliates are in touch with one another and able to share best practices on creative and pragmatic matters—how to change local policy, recruit volunteers and members, integrate with other aging initiatives in their community, support awareness of the issue overall, use the sharing technology platform and optimize their system. ITN America hosts a national annual meeting where a variety of issues are addressed. The last conference focused on storytelling; how to talk about the issue locally, engage media and others, and tell stories that compel action.

ITN relies on volunteer drivers, with occasional paid drivers stepping in when there are gaps. The large portion of drivers are in their fifties and sixties. Each rider has a personal transportation account, and money does not change hands in the car. The rides cost about half a taxi fare and are subsidized by local funding from philanthropic organizations, occasional public monies, and various other sources, like businesses. Each ride draws down the rider’s account, which ITN tracks through a database and payment system shared by all ITN Affiliates.

ITN respects that the rider is a client and member; the approach tends to need/demand while respecting boundaries. Riders cannot request specific drivers and are asked not to make arrangements outside the system for voluntary rides with ITN drivers. Riders arrange their rides by calling ITN (using the phone) and a dispatcher organizes the rides as efficiently as possible, typically with at least one day advance notice. Same day rides are also possible.

ITN’s payment options allow older Americans and their families to contribute to future rides for themselves and their family members or friends. Older Americans who can drive have the opportunity to participate as ITN drivers while building (financially) for their future as riders. This helps them become comfortable with the notion of giving up driving when they approach the moment of no longer being able to safely operate a car—and they enter a new phase of mobility in which they draw on their credits, feeling that they have legitimately earned it through previously driving for others. The system allows family members who live City A that offers ITN to drive members there and by doing so, contribute credit to the account of their family member living in City B.

There are nearly 500,000 total rides to date with this year’s ride volume projected at 75,000. The most established affiliate is Portland, ME, and it’s sustainable without taxpayer support at 12,000 trips a year. The smallest affiliate is Chicago, which ran into public policy issues, that have been resolved by passing legislation to protect volunteers. They are now raising the funds to get going again. Affiliates that are ramping up nicely include Orlando, Charleston, Cincinnati, Lexington, and North Central Connecticut. Overall, the network has 450 active volunteer drivers.

Revenue from the affiliates supports almost half the budget of the national entity, ITN America, which is responsible for evolving the network’s software, stoking growth and visibility for ITN and for the issue, and working on the policy and research fronts to embed principles of ITN more broadly and explore expansion. Looking ahead, Katherine and her Board are exploring partnerships with companies that are in natural alignment. One example is Liberty Mutual, a national insurance company that shares an interest in fewer accidents and has recently come on board.

Moving forward, Katherine sees that the ITN city network offers a partial solution. For the past few years, she has been developing and is now testing ITN Everywhere, which seeks to integrate with public transit and car-sharing efforts in towns and rural areas. She is piloting ITN Everywhere in communities in Maine and New York, building on research of the past few years and feedback from focus groups. This effort involves an integrative approach with other actors in transportation and a blended resourcing strategy that draws some public and private resources. It also involves aligning her effort with organizations that address mobility as it relates to people with disabilities, visual impairments, and so on.

The Person

In the 1980s, Katherine’s young son survived a life-threatening brain injury after having been hit by a car that was operated by an older driver who was no longer able to capably drive. Katherine’s response wasn’t to shame or fault the 84-year-old driver but to consider the various factors that caused him and millions like him to keep driving past the point of being able to safely operate an automobile.

As Katherine probed further—and looked into the policy and societal context during her public policy graduate study—she came to see that mobility was an issue squarely at the nexus of several key issues linked to America’s fastest growing demographic: independence, dignity, and overall health and health costs. Through research and focus groups, she discovered that the options available in most communities for senior transportation did not allow anywhere close to a seamless transition from driving to not driving.

Katherine created the first ITN Affiliate in 1995 and tested it in Portland, ME, where she lives. From 2004 to 2006, she began to build the national franchise. Katherine’s current work to develop ITN Everywhere offers an extension of this national network and looks to integrate other transit solutions with the network, and extend the principles that she has put into action. She envisions an America where driving is widely understood to be something you do while you’re able—you put in your time behind the wheel—and then you transition to riding while remaining an integrated part of civic and economic life.

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