Green is good: long-term care transportation choices that save money and the environment

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Green is good: long-term care transportation choices that save money and the environment
Green is good: long-term care transportation choices that save money and the environment
Transportation has become one area particularly ripe for an eco-friendly overhaul as more senior care providers aim to reduce their carbon footprints and gain a competitive advantage by driving operational and environmental efficiencies.

And for good reason.

While transportation service plays a critical role in allowing residents to maintain their independence and stay connected to the community, the fiscal and environmental costs of operating and maintaining vehicles can be more than some facilities bargained for.

As much as 95% of carbon monoxide in typical U.S. cities comes from motor vehicles, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports. What's more, each gallon of gasoline burned by a car or truck emits roughly 24 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That makes vehicle emissions the No. 1 source of air pollution in many states.

“Transportation directly intersects with the whole energy and pollution piece, so it's a great place to focus your attention if you're a facility looking to become more eco-friendly,” said Ronald Schaefer, executive director of Valle Verde Retirement Community, a continuing care retirement community in Santa Barbara, CA, which includes an 80-bed skilled nursing facility. “Even small changes can have a big impact.”

Driving more flexibility

Whether new vehicles are in the budget or a facility's looking to extend the life of its existing fleet, one of the best ways to build a greener transportation program is to pick the best vehicle for the job. Such an approach is an afterthought in many facilities.

Examine options

“You really need to take a closer look at your transportation needs and [evaluate] whether your vehicles are being used to their best advantage—and in a way that's better for the environment,” Schaefer said. If a larger bus or motor coach is being used for several short trips and is running half empty, that's a sign some changes may be in order, he noted.

While wheelchair-accessible vehicles are a necessity for most senior housing operators, the type of bus or van a facility will require is anything but one-size-fits-all.

“Because every facility has both ambulatory and non-ambulatory residents, you need to think in terms of flexibility and [efficiency],” explained Sheldon Walle, president and general manager of Salina, KS-based ElDorado National Inc., a manufacturer of small- to mid-size transit buses.

One example, he said, might be choosing a smaller, less expensive drop-floor vehicle that can accommodate two wheelchair-bound passengers (particularly suitable for off-site doctor visits), and then a 16-passenger bus for larger group outings.

The slumping economy could allow operators to buy a 2009 model vehicle at 2006 prices, according to Walle: “A 2009 model vehicle also will be more efficient than one built in 2004, so you'll benefit there, as well.”

Patience pays

If green initiatives have providers yearning for alternative-fuel buses, however, they may want to hold out a while longer. Hybrid electric chassis will raise the cost of a bus by $35,000 to $50,000, Walle said. While the new administration's environmental focus likely will help drive down hybrid technology costs, “it's a process that could take several years,” he noted.

In the meantime, another eco-friendly option is a dedicated low-floor vehicle that cuts idle time by one-third, Walle said. He acknowledged it's an option that will add another $20,000 to $30,000 to the purchase price.

Converting buses that were built on mass-produced chassis to alternative fuel vehicles is another option, but it is still considered a somewhat unrealistic one for the average senior housing operator.

“A small bus can be converted to run on compressed natural gas, but I would not do that if I operated a senior care facility,” stressed Nick England, president of Lasseter Bus & Mobility, Lewisville, TX. He reasoned that beyond the cost of conversion, knowing where to fuel up would be another challenge. “Plus, not just anyone can work on alternative fuel vehicles,” he reminded.

As for converting a vehicle to hybrid electric, that might not be necessary either. He pointed out that the benefits are derived from reduced fuel consumption. “Most senior care facilities could never run up enough miles on a hybrid vehicle to realize the payback,” England said.

That's not to say hybrids don't have a place in senior housing. Valle Verde, which won the Santa Barbara Green Award in 2007, has a mix of vehicles on hand, including a hybrid Toyota Camry that's used to transport individual ambulatory residents to appointments and other destinations that are ill-suited to public transit.

Electric vehicles are used for on-campus transportation of residents and staff, and this year, the community will invest in an on-campus “electric people-moving service” (essentially, a multipod electric railway) to safely move independent and assisted living residents about the sprawling 65-acre community.

Even a traditional fuel shuttle bus, which takes residents anywhere in Santa Barbara six days a week, is considered a more eco-friendly option because it keeps individual car trips to a minimum.

“The first several minutes an engine runs produces the most pollutants, so our goal was to limit the number of these shorter errand trips. A coach service that's operating more often and with a warm engine is more efficient than starting and stopping individual vehicles for brief trips,” Schaefer reasoned.

Within the next year or two, the community intends to replace the traditional fuel shuttle with one that operates on natural gas or liquid propane.

While some of Valle Verde's eco-friendly transportation services may be out of reach for the average senior housing operator, Schaefer is quick to point out that some of the community's simpler approaches—such as a staff ride-sharing/public transit incentive program—can be readily adopted by other facilities, regardless of their size and budget.

“Giving employees an incentive to carpool, bike or walk to work, or take the bus is a good way to promote green [transportation initiatives],” he said, noting that a city bus stop outside Valle Verde's front door makes it easy for staff to leave their cars at home. It also encourages visitors and independent living and (some) assisted living residents to embrace public transit. Valle Verde employees who participate in the ride-sharing/public transit program get an extra dollar a day, and they're also eligible for a drawing for T-shirts, movie tickets and other freebies.

The long haul

Perhaps the simplest, most effective way to make transportation programs greener is to keep vehicles properly maintained and drivers well-trained. Unfortunately, it's an often-overlooked approach that winds up costing facilities a bundle, and needlessly increasing their carbon footprint.

“The easiest way to minimize pollution and keep a vehicle running ‘green' is to keep it well-maintained. But many times that doesn't happen,” England emphasized. “Most of our customers aren't in the transportation business, so the vehicles that sit in front of the facility often don't have someone dedicated to keeping records and making sure they're properly maintained. Instead of maximizing the vehicle's life, they just fix them when they break.”

Driver education also tends to take a backseat, which further contributes to excessive pollution and fuel consumption. It also increases vehicle wear and tear. Jackrabbit starts, delayed braking and excessive idling are just several common practices that drain fuel tanks faster and boost pollution output.

ElDorado National's Walle recommends drivers follow a simple 25-point checklist daily to keep vehicles running at peak performance.

“Simple things like replacing filters regularly and keeping tires inflated really pay off,” he said.

Both Walle and England stressed that any time a dealer delivers a vehicle, he or she should train administrative staff and drivers on safe and proper operation, as well as maintenance basics. The dealer should also provide videos and other training materials so staff can refer back to them as needed.

Because driver turnover is high in many communities, England said, it's essential that each new hire be properly trained.

“We'll provide that training any time we're asked. Unfortunately, we're not asked that often,”
England said.
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