Liberty, a new ridehailing startup based in Lincoln, Nebraska, has been called the “Uber” for rural America. The company, which launched out of a U.S. DOT Small Business Innovation Research program, is focused on helping to improve mobility in areas with low population density by increasing access to transportation and connecting various types of public transit. As Liberty prepares to debut this coming November, its team has also brokered an extensive array of partnerships with public and private organizations such as planning agencies, medical centers and services that care for people with special needs.
Liberty President & CEO Valerie Lefler will discuss her organization’s latest developments and the implications of “grassroots” ridehailing services at the 2016 National Shared Mobility Summit, taking place October 17-19 in Chicago. For more information, or to register, click here.
The following is a lightly edited version of the Shared-Use Mobility Center’s conversation with Ms. Lefler.
Where did the idea for Liberty come from?
Liberty CTO Shashank Gajjala and I used to work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha providing technical support to the Nebraska Department of Roads. We noticed that there was a lot of demand for transportation services that wasn’t being met.
For instance, only 14 percent of rural households have access to public transit. One of every three veterans over 65 who lives in a rural community faces major challenges getting transportation to the VA for medical care. In some rural counties, one of every two children lives in poverty. There are people dying alone or getting institutionalized because they don’t have a car.
We thought, what can we do to help fix this? We sat down and started banging out ideas based on what was going on in the market. Eventually we came up with the idea for Liberty.
How does the service work?
People can request rides in a variety of ways. We have a call center for people who don’t have access to a smart phone. We also offer enterprise solutions, so that organizations like nursing homes can hail rides and pay part of the cost for residents.
We think that type of service might also be of interest to employers, such as a manufacturers that have workers who don’t have drivers licenses. The company could be losing $20,000 or $30,000 a day because they can’t get people there to fill a shift, so we think they would be happy to help pay for those rides.
What is your plan for launch?
We plan to cover about 60 square miles for the first 30 days, then expand 60 miles every 30 days after that. We don’t need to have the same density of drivers as an urban market, because we don’t have the same population density. Our goal is to have a maximum wait time of 30 minutes. But you can also schedule rides in advance, such as for folks who have medical appointments. So it doesn’t always have to be on demand.
We think our drivers will also be quite a bit different [than other ridehailing services]. They are going to be predominantly female and range in age from 40 to 65. Right now they are the type of person who may give their relative or fellow parishioner a ride to the doctor. But they can’t do it for everyone, so that’s where Liberty comes in.
How will Liberty work with public transit and other partners?
We plan to refer clients to transit, and have them refer rides to us. The key is providing more choices. Basically we’re saying, if you want a $2 ride and to socialize, then use transit. If you want to take your kid to the doctor at six o’clock at night and the bus is not running, you can hail a Liberty ride.
In a lot of rural communities, transit is demand response. It’s a vital service, but the downside is you might have to leave your house by 8 a.m. to get to Walmart and get groceries by noon and get home by 3 p.m. Some small systems may only have one bus, so their service is limited.
We’ve also talked with the state DOT and local providers about partnering directly on some rides. For instance, if someone needs to get the hospital for a critical medical appointment, an agency could purchase service from us for the cost of trip. We see ourselves as a hybrid between a TNC (Transportation Network Company), an open class carrier, and a transportation broker.
What have your biggest challenges been in getting this concept off the ground?
The biggest challenge has actually been the demand. The sheer number of folks who have reached out, it’s overwhelming. We’re doing our best to launch as quickly as possible, but also need to make sure we are launching as robust a platform as possible, before we scale.
We’re also working through issues such as how to ensure our app works in remote areas with low cell reception. We realize that our users may have one bar, or no bar at all, in some areas. To address that, we are trying to build our app with a low data exchange rate, so the user’s phone won’t have to be in constant communication with the server during use.
What are you looking forward to at the National Shared Mobility Summit?
I’d really like to learn about some of the latest marketing and public engagement strategies that other companies are using. It would also be great to find some more national partners who are interested in this rural space, as well as to just catch some the internationally-sought-after speakers to learn, get motivated and get the tone for the industry is going.