This social enterprise spares people with limited mobility from the woes of public transport.
By JOANNE LIM 

School-goers like Kelvin Sim require such dedicated transport services on a daily basis.

For most of us, it’s hard to think of commuting as an extraordinarily stressful task. But 19-year-old Temasek Polytechnic student Kelvin Sim is daunted by the experience everyday. Struck with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy — a condition characterised by gradual muscle degeneration — at the age of five, he found himself increasingly wheelchair-dependent through his teenage years. And as a result, public transport eventually became an unreliable bane.

“During my first year of polytechnic, I had to wake up at 4am to 5am everyday to take the bus and train. If my lessons ended around peak hour, I would have to wait around until 8 pm for a bus, which is really horrible, so in that period of time, I fell sick a lot more,” Kelvin recalls.

Although alternative transportation like London Cab services gave Kelvin temporary relief from the inconvenience of public transport, they quickly became expensive. It was not until the Asian Women’s Welfare Association (AWWA) recommended Kelvin for the Be-With-Me Scholarship, that he was first introduced to Caring Fleet Services (CFS).

An important lifeline

CFS vans come with high headrooms and spacious interiors capable of fitting three regular-sized wheelchairs at any one time.

Launched in 2010, CFS is an independent social enterprise providing dedicated transport services for the wheelchair-bound and mobility-impaired. CFS vans are equipped with wheelchair lifts, safety-restraint systems and higher headroom, ensuring a safe yet comfortable ride.

The service regularly shuttles its beneficiaries to work, school, medical appointments and the occasional recreational activity. For school-goers like Kelvin, the service is required five days a week. “It’s really very important for people who have the same needs as myself, because even though public transportation has become more accessible, there are still a lot of limitations. It’s hard to fight the peak hour crowd; I’m always the last to board,” Kelvin explained. Moreover, the shortage of wheelchair-friendly buses mean longer waiting times – and that’s not even considering that the buses might be packed.

“People take mobility for granted. We do not really understand what it feels like to have our freedom constrained,” said David Chan, general manager of CFS. Eight percent of users are students and working individuals, while the other 92 percent are seniors employing the service for medical appointments and rehabilitation services. And with Singapore’s ageing population, the lifeline CFS provides is more important than ever.

Mounting demands

CFS currently has 10 vehicles in its fleet, average 100 users per month, with each vehicle making about eight trips a day. As it is, CFS already faces a “high demand” in contrast to available resources. Eight of its vehicles are contracted to VWOs like Rainbow Centre, Society for Physically Disabled, People’s Dialysis Centre and Bright Vision Hospital. The remaining two vehicles are open to bookings by members of the public. In both situations, demand exceeds supply. “We have had to turn down 10 bookings per week. We simply do not have not enough vans to go around,” said David. 

Even regular patrons are feeling the squeeze, including 60-year-old Regina Ko. Having lived with fibromyalgia (a chronic disease that causes musculoskeletal pains) for over 20 years, she has to use a wheelchair whenever she leaves home as an accidental fall could lead to permanent disability. Living alone, this has greatly impeded her travels, especially since she is unable to wheel herself down her flat. “I have to stay at home, I only go out for hospital appointments,” she said. That itself requires leaving home four to five times weekly.

Needing assistance from her doorstep to the vehicle, ambulances were the next best viable option, but they were costly; each round trip would set her back by up to $100. “I’m so glad that Caring Fleet really goes all the way,” she said beaming. “I’m really thankful they can bring me up and down. If not I will still have to use the ambulance until I owe them money,” she chuckled. But with CFS’ climbing demand, they have become Regina’s last resort. “I used to be able to make bookings a year in advance. It’s not possible anymore,” she laments.

David recognises that mounting pressure on CFS’ resources can only be diffused by a larger fleet size. But as social enterprises go, funds do not come easy. “We need to find the right balance between expanding our fleet and the financial sustainability of CFS. On top of that, transportation is getting more expensive in Singapore. We’re struggling to keep operation costs low, because the last thing we want is to raise our prices,” he said. 

In need of a financial lift

CFS drivers go the extra mile to ferry clients like Regina Ko in and out of her flat.

Singapore’s rising transport costs comes at loggerheads with the growing need for such dedicated services by a community already bogged down by other expenses.

“Think about the people who use this service. Think about the medical expenses they’re incurring on top of their transport cost, our expenses are a lot different,” explained Kelvin. Regina understands this all too well. Unable to work, she found herself steeped in utility bills, medical bills and town council fees, let alone transport expenditures.

Having retired from her full-time job at age 28 due to her condition, finances are her main concern. Like Regina, 90 percent of CFS’ beneficiaries require some form of financial assistance. In addition to transport vouchers administered by Community Development Councils (CDC), CFS also provides financial support for those who cannot afford its full rates. Tote Board’s current funding suffices in maintaining day-to-day operations, but taking into account beneficiaries’ growing financial concerns, CFS understands the need for more sources. They have looked to the support of fundraising events like “Football with a Heart”. 

Living up to its name

But CFS’ mission goes beyond providing affordable transportation. Regina had nothing but praises for CFS’ drivers, who would go the extra mile to wheel her out the hospital, and on several occasions, have lunch with her before she heads home.

“They are all really friendly,” agrees Kelvin, “I think of them helping our cause, and how as a social enterprise they aren’t really in it for the money – that’s when I really feel that these social services really deserve better support.”

For now, David is hopeful about getting more vans, adding that it would function much more comfortably and most importantly, more efficiently. He said: “We need to raise awareness for the public to understand that mobility means freedom.” CFS will continue to play an integral part in availing one such avenue.

(This article is taken from  NVPC - National Volunteer & Philantropic Centre ).