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Sonke Dornblut on Community Transportation

By Carrie Sherman, Health and Human Services Report
January 31, 2007

Sonke Dornblut

When Sönke Dornblut takes on a problem, he thinks outside of the box, engages lots of people, and generates enthusiasm. Consequently, a problem that initially may have seemed insurmountable—e.g., rural public transportation—with Dornblut’s input and leadership, can become manageable.

This year, Dornblut is one of 10 Discovery Authors for the University Dialogue: Power to the People. For first-year students, one of their required textbooks is a packet of essays written by the Discovery Authors, all UNH faculty or staff members. The essays explore a common theme from the vantage point of different disciplines. Throughout the year panel discussions, films, and other events are held as well.

Energy is the topic for this year’s dialogue. And, of course, it encompasses climate change, CO2 emissions, and the coming oil shortage. Dornblut’s essay is entitled “Hop on the Bus Gus: The Power of Community Transportation.”

Just as Dornblut’s essay for students has a funny, colloquial tone—e.g., “Our transportation system needs to be jazzed up”—in person, Dornblut is easy to talk to. One can easily see him working in small, rural New Hampshire communities, putting folks at ease, and listening as they begin to talk about some tough issues, namely their own vulnerability and the need for public transportation.

As a staff member for the Institute on Disability, that’s just what Dornblut does.

“I’ve been working with people in Peterborough, New Hampshire, on a regional transportation effort in the Contoocook river valley” says Dornblut. “There’s a group of women from Francestown in their late 60s, 70s, and 80s. And they’re participating because they are losing their ability to drive and with that they will lose their homes and independence.”

Dornblut knows that their situation is far from unusual. He helped write the report on New Hampshire’s first statewide survey on resident perspectives on the use, availability, and need for public transportation. Published in 2005, the report is startling. Here are some of its findings:

* An estimated 95,000 New Hampshire residents are worried about losing their ability to drive in the next few years. The majority of this group is elderly and has limited income.

* About half of New Hampshire’s residents do not currently have access to an accessible transportation system.

* Use of and access to public transportation is particularly difficult for individuals with disabilities and elders with limited mobility.

* About 34,000 state residents are estimated to have lost or turned down a job because they didn’t have a reliable ride.

* About 62,000 have missed a medical appointment because they couldn’t get a ride; with approximately 11,000 of this group having missed four or more appointments in the last 12 months alone.

The report’s conclusion: Most of New Hampshire’s residents want public transportation.

“We found that a majority of residents would support paying an extra five dollars on their car registration to support public transportation,” says Dornblut, noting that this sum could probably be increased given the availability of 80/20 and 50/50 funding matches through federal programs.

“In Peterborough, we’re approaching the problem with an asset-based approach,” says Dornblut. “What do we have that works? And how might we build on those assets?”

Those assets are a sense of community, the informal care networks that exist, and the various van networks that serve different populations who need health care.

One asset that this group discovered was Peterborough’s Generation XY Committee. This committee is designed to engage younger community members in town government, thereby strengthening that sense of community. Furthermore, a lot of young people don’t have cars, and their voice was seen as important.

Another strategy under discussion is setting up more formal ways to ride-share.

Finally, there are the vans. Dornblut might well have entitled his dialogue essay—“Get on the Van, Stan!”

There is, throughout the state an extensive network of specialized health care vans. Dornblut notes that the Department of Health and Human Services spends about six million dollars on transportation services, primarily on van transportation. Surprisingly, the state spending administered by the Department of Transportation for public transportation is quite low, well under a million, notes Dornblut. How could these van networks be utilized more broadly for rural public transportation?

It’s already beginning to work, according to Dornblut. In the Concord area the establishment of the first regional brokerage of affordable, on-demand transportation services, Central New Hampshire Transportation (CNHT), has met with success. There is now increased ridership per van. CNHT is run by Concord Area Transit, which operates the call center that records ride requests and assigns rides to vehicles operated by participating transportation providers. A second transportation brokerage effort is taking place in the Derry-Salem region of the state. Perhaps Peterborough will be next.

For Dornblut, the key to rural public transportation is inclusion and participation, in short, highly democratic communities. This spring he will teach a course in the Thompson School’s Community Leadership program that addresses working with communities to solve questions such as rural public transportation or preferably, community transportation.

As his dialogue essay begins: “Change is in the air and we don’t have to go much further than the next gas station to get a whiff of it.”

Article link : http://iod.unh.edu/projects/transportation.html

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