Driving to the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore was always a pleasant outing for Eleanor Jose and Ann Hiban, longtime friends and former Columbia neighbors. But after surgery last year, Hiban, a 69-year-old retired special education teacher, had trouble turning her head and lost her confidence about merging into traffic at 60 mph. Hiban figured she would have to give up the season tickets she'd had for 20 years.
But on a recent breezy Sunday, Hiban and Jose sat on the porch of the Clarksville house where Jose, 75, lives with her daughter. A tan Camry pulled up, a man got out and introduced himself, and Hiban and Jose got into the car. Soon, they were heading to a Mozart concert at the Meyerhoff.
Hiban and Jose are among a growing number of senior citizens taking advantage of a new transportation service, known as Neighbor Ride, that uses volunteers to provide door-to-door trips for residents 65 and older. Round-trip fees are $6 to $30.
In December, Neighbor Ride's first full month of operation, the nonprofit service made 17 round trips. By May, the number was up to 93. Altogether, Neighbor Ride has provided more than 450 round trips since it was established.
"As word gets out, people are coming up with very creative and exciting ways to use our services," said Colleen Konstanzer, the program's executive director.
Neighbor Ride is among alternative transportation services emerging around the country to keep seniors moving. In suburban communities, where driving is the key to independence, seniors can become isolated as they grow older and more frail -- a concern repeatedly expressed by seniors in county Office on Aging surveys.
Judy Pittman, a longtime local transportation activist, remembered a phone call she received from an elderly woman several years ago. The widow, in declining health, wanted to surprise her granddaughter with a birthday present, but during the day she had no transportation from the River Hill home she shared with her daughter.
" 'I'm a prisoner in a pink palace,' " Pittman recalled the woman saying. "The tone in her voice has stayed with me all those years."
Neighbor Ride has tapped into a niche market that can't be efficiently served by the county's bus service, said Ray Ambrose, transit administrator of Corridor Transportation in Laurel, which operates Howard Transit under a contract with the county.
"This is something new in the industry," Ambrose said. "That need is starting to be met that just wasn't before."
That need is guaranteed to grow. The front ranks of Howard's baby boomers are just a few years away from turning 65, and most will stay put rather than move, government officials say. Baby boomers, people born between 1946 and 1964, constitute 32 percent of Howard's residents, according to the Maryland Department of Planning.
"As they have done in nearly every part of their lives, this generation is making a dramatic impact on this type of transportation," said Cheron Wicker, a spokeswoman with the Maryland Transit Administration. "The baby boomers want to age in place and maintain their lifestyle as much as they can."
When organizers started to create Neighbor Ride 21/2 years ago, they wanted a nonprofit service that would use volunteers with a strong sense of commitment instead of paid drivers.
"It really is better," said Dick Kirchner, a member of Transportation Advocates, a local consortium that lobbies the state and county for more modes of transportation.
Making sure the service was covered by insurance initially seemed like an obstacle. But organizers learned that volunteer drivers' personal liability insurance provided primary coverage in case of an accident and that the nonprofit group could purchase supplemental coverage.
"We found out it wasn't the bugaboo we thought it was," Kirchner said.
Organizers also try to limit Neighbor Ride's liability in other ways. Volunteer drivers, who use their own cars, are not permitted to enter a passenger's home or to assist a passenger getting into and out of the vehicle. The service conducts a criminal background check and verifies the driving history of its volunteers.
Neighbor Ride's first-year budget of $58,000 was funded by grants from local institutions, including the Horizon Foundation, Columbia Foundation and Howard County General Hospital. The budget pays for Konstanzer's part-time salary as executive director, a bookkeeper and office supplies. Neighbor Ride pays no rent or utilities for its small office in East Columbia, which is the county's sole contribution to its budget. Susan Rosenbaum, director of the Department of Citizens Services, said future county funding is "open to discussion."
Passengers must call Neighbor Ride's office at least three days in advance to schedule trips. Office volunteers obtain information about destinations and pickup and return times.
Because drivers don't handle money, passengers prepay by establishing deposit accounts with Neighbor Ride. With in-county round trips costing $6 to $10 and round trips outside the county costing $20 to $30, the program is more expensive than public bus service but considerably cheaper than taxi use. In addition, the program is appealing because it takes riders door to door and typically offers service from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Helen Tucker, 86, started using Neighbor Ride soon after it began. She learned to drive at 65, after her husband died while the two were living in Florida. Nine years later, she moved back to Maryland to live with her son and his family in the Marriottsville area. Three years ago, she gave up her car.
"I miss it, miss it, miss it," Tucker said.
For her medical appointments, Tucker has used HT Ride, the county's curb-to-curb bus service, which operates from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays and provides transportation to senior centers, social services and doctors' offices. She pays $2.50 each way. To go to the hairdresser, she used taxis, only to be frustrated by drivers who never showed up or arrived hours late.
Neighbor Ride "gives you a different feeling inside. You know you have someone you can call," she said.
Organizers, however, worry about keeping up with the demand. On its busiest days, the service handles eight to 10 rides. But the number of volunteers has grown more slowly than the number of calls for help. There are 54 drivers and office volunteers, up from 31 in mid-December.
"I would love to see jumps [in volunteer numbers] because we're at the point where the balance is tilting to not enough volunteers for the number of requests we're getting," Konstanzer said.
Neighbor Ride is getting help from Volunteer Maryland, a state branch of the national community service group AmeriCorps, which is providing a part-time coordinator of volunteers. The program has applied for a $25,000 state grant to expand its database and develop marketing techniques as a pilot program.
"We'd be in a position to help spread this, to really share what we know," Konstanzer said.
In the meantime, the calls keep coming in from people such as Vera Bastin, who said the service is a godsend. Bastin and her husband of 58 years moved to Columbia from North Carolina last year. A few months later, he died.
"My life is pretty empty now, so I am reaching out," Bastin said. "I don't think you should sit back and just watch TV."
With Neighbor Ride's help, Bastin traveled to downtown Baltimore last week for a meeting with other older women. In August, she'll display her artwork and sing "Precious Memories" onstage as a contestant in the Ms. Maryland Senior America Pageant.