Women in MaaS Interview Series – Valerie Lefler

Rural MaaS comes with its own unique characteristics and challenges, something which international mobility expert Valerie Lefler understands first hand. With more than 17 years of experience in transport, Valerie has played an important role in championing mobility for all, particularly in low-density populations. In our latest Women in MaaS article, she discusses her work with underserved populations.

Valerie Lefler, Executive Director & Founder, Feonix – Mobility Rising

How did you first become involved in MaaS?

I worked at a transportation research centre at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln before moving to the University’s College of Public Affairs and Community Service in Omaha. In that role, I wrote a grant to work with the Nebraska Department of Transportation on enhancing access to the state’s public transportation. That’s when I fell in love with transit as I could see its impact in a more meaningful way. When I started reading about mobility as a service (MaaS) it was a light bulb moment. We need to look at transportation, not as a mode, but as an ecosystem. That’s really what MaaS offers. As we explore policy or technology in this space, we need something flexible and consumer friendly.

Tell us a little more about your work in rural MaaS.

I started my own consulting company around 2015 and then spun off a tech startup a year later. It was known as a ‘rural Uber’. Speaking to city councils and departments of public health, I found they had a public transit agency or taxi system, but nothing to fill the gap to meet the needs of patients and clients. That’s when we knew it had to be more than a ‘rural Uber’. It needed to be mobility as a service, bringing in drivers to cover services at night, weekends, and for cross-county trips. We needed to work together with public transit and small businesses versus being a service that was put in a space competing with transit for not only rides, but funding. The biggest red flag was when county or city officials would want to defund or reduce funding for public transit to support the ride share service.

Switching gears from a for-profit tech startup to a nonprofit with Feonix – Mobility Rising enabled us to access grants and be truly more government-friendly in this space. With a for-profit entity you’re beholden to bringing in as much revenue as possible for your investors, whereas with a nonprofit your oath is for the public good. Our role is that of a MaaS integrator; we’re pro transit, small business, volunteering, and other non-profits. We’re the glue that brings the transportation ecosystem together to find creative mobility solutions that serve those most in need. That’s Feonix’ calling. It takes every provider in the ecosystem to bring success and to support a community.

How easy has it been to get stakeholders working together?

We’ve been pretty fortunate. We pride ourselves on using the concept of starting with our ‘Why’. Simon Sinek produced an incredible book and Ted Talk about this. We don’t limit our engagement to the transportation providers but start with the hospitals, schools, senior centres, homeless shelters and the departments of public health. We look at the community as a whole and work collaboratively as a team.

We have this concept called mobility leadership circles. These are multidisciplinary stakeholder groups that include not only our transportation partners, but also community leaders who need the mobility ecosystem. The ‘Why’ is powerful when you hear the stories. It’s the reason we’re there. We start from that point and work our way back rather than starting with policy, finance or regulation. You have to look at it from the consumer perspective first otherwise you become wound up in red tape and progress stalls quickly.

When you’re talking about finding transportation options for a mother who’s homeless with three small children, it’s a lot easier to get to the purpose and the mission. It’s more meaningful and you’re more emotionally tied to the outcome. I know if I’m helping individuals who are struggling with food insecurity or who aren’t able to get their prescriptions, I’m being an active leader in my community. If a community leader is getting overwhelmed by talk of insurance and liability questions – before I’m motivated by the why, it quickly becomes a project that gets put at the bottom of the pile.

What action is being taken to better support underserved communities?

In the US, all publicly funded nonprofit hospitals have to carry out a community needs assessment or a human services coordination plan. Across the US, almost without exception, transportation is one of the top three barriers for rural health facilities. Many times, underserved communities are studied to death but then the dollars aren’t there when it comes to implementation and action. That’s the missing piece and where Feonix comes in.

We focus on implementation to serve those needs. That’s really where MaaS shines: it’s the coordination of service and establishing an ecosystem of providers that’s accessible.

It’s another reason why we love working with SkedGo because their technology is really accessible. It’s designed to support not only major transit systems but also small businesses and nonprofits. SkedGo takes accessibility seriously.

How are you using SkedGo’s technology?

We’re working on several different projects with SkedGo right now. One is in Southeast Michigan, where we’re bringing multiple transit agencies together. It enables individuals to book rides on the paratransit system through the app. Previously, people were calling in and were often waiting on hold for over 20 minutes during peak times. It created a lot of anxiety for passengers hoping to get through to schedule their rides. It’s having that freedom to book a ride, whatever the time of day (or night). During the pandemic, a hospital nurse was also a caregiver for her aunt who needed to get to healthcare appointments. The nurse wouldn’t have been able to provide the same level of support for her aunt, without incredible additional stress, if she didn’t have access to technology with that functionality.

We’re also implementing a statewide deployment of SkedGo’s technology in Nevada, bringing together all the rural and urban transit agencies in a ‘one stop shop’. In many cases, we’re working with a lot of rural senior centres that provide a variety of services in addition to transportation. The app’s interface will allow individuals in the community, case managers, caregivers, and social workers to know what services are available, when they’re available and the rates, without having to make lots of phone calls. As a case manager, you spend a decent amount of time getting people places to follow up appointments or treatment. That ride in many cases is missing: this will enable that resource from a case management and care coordination perspective.

How are other organisations helping you and in what capacity?

A big part of the mobility ecosystems we launch are small businesses. For example, in Columbia, South Carolina, healthcare providers highlighted the need for more accessible services outside of paratransit to support patients. We talked to various small businesses in the home care space and found a husband and wife run business. After visiting with them about the need and setting pricing, they started offering transportation as a stand alone product and joined the AARP Ride@50+ MaaS platform.

It’s about empowering small businesses and opening up the mobility ecosystem to better serve communities.

We work with a lot of specialty providers and small businesses, especially to support individuals who need more assistance. This might be door-to-door support, door-through-door support or wheelchair accessible services. Small businesses in the home care space often have accessible vehicles. For them, this is another client opportunity. They may help that person with a ride and then be asked for support in the home or with daily living. It becomes a different and deeper conversation.

We believe small businesses and nonprofits that operate smaller fleets of vehicles are a big part of the solution. We rely on APIs in some cases while in other cases we use a different interface that allows for them to receive and accept trips via email. We have to operate in a way that fits how the small business works without any complicated technical back end. They just want to be able to accept the ride and communicate with the passenger.

What are some of the ways that Feonix supports the community?

One of our first MaaS deployments was in Wisconsin, which specifically focused on employment and supporting access to jobs. In rural communities, it’s not unusual to commute 40 miles in some cases. In this program, we’ve got two public transit agencies, two taxi agencies, Lyft, volunteers, and even recruited a security company for an industrial manufacturing facility to provide late night rides between 1 – 5 AM. We needed to help shift workers get to work during early morning hours. The security firm already had drivers and cars on the road in the area doing patrol, so they provided the rides for the same rate as the taxi company. It was a win all round. We talk about social determinants of health. That’s where Feonix wants to make sure people can get to doctor’s appointments, the grocery store, social activities like church or having a glass of wine with their sister to unwind and work through a problem. Whether or not you have a disability or can drive, you still need that connection to the resources and support that enables us to thrive and be well – physically, mentally, and spiritually.

One of the first trips I did while running the tech startup was to a husband and wife. Both were unable to drive and lived in a small rural town, so they couldn’t leave their house after five o’clock independently because that’s when the transit agency service stopped. We took them to Pizza Hut and a movie but it was like we’d shown up with a black limo and took them to luxurious places. It was transformative for them to have that time as a couple. We also helped another family whose children were visually impaired and needed to get to soccer and other activities but the bus didn’t operate on the weekend. In rural, low-density communities there are generally a small percentage of individuals who need support and it’s a manageable number to serve with a web of small businesses or nonprofits to fill the gaps. The ripple effect of supporting those individuals is extremely rewarding and lifts up a community.

What are some of the unique challenges for rural MaaS?

When you’re deploying MaaS, you often have to create an ecosystem in rural communities. For example, we worked with a community in Mississippi and when we scoured websites and public information, we couldn’t find any active public transit agencies. We called the state department of transport to learn that three public transit agencies were serving that county. These services were hidden in plain sight – from us and the community. Even the hospital said they had to often use services in neighbouring counties as there was nothing local.

Many times local services operate in a very small area. When I worked at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, there was a small rural county with a public transit agency that served the same handful of people, 90% of the time. The person running the transit agency was also the bus driver, along with director of the senior centre nutrition program and activities for all the residents. They didn’t have the time or expertise to publicise the service as well and fulfil all their other duties. These types of resources can be included in a MaaS ecosystem. That’s what we look to do.

Many people focus on cities when it comes to MaaS. How do you feel about that?

We have to take rural mobility seriously. People say it’s too hard – but as the old saying goes “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” How do you deploy MaaS in rural areas? One provider at a time. This includes not requiring them to change the way they do business to fit the technology. In the past, I’ve seen consultants try to sell their expensive tech to the state and rural transit agencies and then expect them to change how they operate. It’s not possible to only accept rides, for example, by noon the day before. Life doesn’t work like that.

We also have to be respectful of the needs of the transportation agencies, whether they be urban, rural, small businesses, or small nonprofits. They don’t have sophisticated APIs so if there’s a small business, nonprofit or church that can offer support, don’t ask for the moon. Meet them where they’re at and start there with the technology. There’s the equivalent of spaceship technology out there and sometimes we just need a standard calculator. We just need the basics.

What does the future hold for Feonix?

Feonix is only three years old so from an implementation perspective, we’re pretty new. We’ve learned a lot during that time, focusing on employment, senior and healthcare transportation. In October, we’re going to be launching a new program that will be available that has an even bigger focus on implementing MaaS for social impact. We’ll focus on building not just the technology and mobility ecosystems, but building coalitions and action teams around addressing social determinants of health and delivering on these human service coordination plans – because a plan is no use unless it’s implemented. Feonix is there to fill that gap. We’re really excited about this. It’s based on all the incredible learnings from our pilot activities the past three years, so watch this space!

About Valerie Lefler

Valerie is a renowned international expert in MaaS and rural transportation. Prior to Feonix, she led a top mobility startup Liberty Mobility Now, the first rural-focused MaaS provider in the US. Valerie was also a Principal Investigator at the University of Nebraska Omaha, on a $1m grant to improve rural public transportation for the Nebraska Department of Transportation.

Before being involved in public transportation, she served as Program Coordinator for the University of Nebraska. Valerie has also worked extensively with program sponsors at the state and federal levels. She’s appeared in publications such as the New York Times, NPR, and the Christian Science Monitor as well as being named in the Top 9 Innovators to Watch in 2018 (Smithsonian Magazine). When Valerie’s not championing rural transportation, she loves spending time with her children and learning to play golf.

You can connect with Valerie on LinkedIn.