United Way and Lyft team up to offer free rides to those in need

It’s no secret that hundreds of low-income families in Cleveland struggle to find reliable transportation. Enter a new partnership between Lyft and United Way, which aims to “close the transportation gap”—helping Cuyahoga County veterans, families, and individuals access free transportation for non-emergency healthcare, employment, and social service-related needs.

Cleveland is one of 12 cities involved in the pilot program, which is a new collaboration between United Way 2-1-1 and Lyft. “Transportation is one of the largest unmet needs” in many communities, explains Christine McEwen, Navigation Services Manager at United Way 2-1-1.

As a community resource navigation specialist, McEwen fields calls from locals about their transit needs, drawing from an extensive database of resources to help them. This way, says McEwen, people aren’t “just calling different agencies getting the runaround, but actually getting all the necessary information in one place.”

After a conversation and assessment about their specific requirements, McEwen gets in touch with the proper program to coordinate free transportation.

This particular Lyft-United Way partnership is focused on transportation assistance for healthcare, such as medical appointments and picking up prescriptions. “We get a lot of calls from hospital staff saying they’re releasing a patient who doesn’t have a way to get home,” explains McEwen.

The program also aims to promote self-sufficiency and empowerment by transporting locals in need to job interviews, routine pre-employment screenings (such as fingerprinting and drug tests), or resource fairs.

Cuyahoga County veterans can get even more mileage out of the program by using the service for transportation to any social service program, to meet their healthcare needs, or for accessing community resources such as food pantries.

There are a few restrictions in place to keep the program scalable and sustainable. “The rides aren’t restricted to one-time use per person, but it has to be a short-term, temporary need,” says McEwen. The free Lyft rides are not meant as a primary mode of transportation, but rather to help people get back on their feet. The rides also don’t cross county lines, and must start and end in Cuyahoga County.

Relevant circumstances might include a low-income family whose car broke down and can’t afford to fix it, or “say you’ve just started a new job, and you haven’t previously been working,” McEwen offers as an example. “You can’t afford a bus pass yet, or gas for your car. We’ll get you to work for those two weeks until you get your first paycheck.”

The program started in June and ends in November. McEwen and her staff hope it will continue, as they’re already seeing lives changed by the help. “We got a call from a single mom who wasn’t going to be able to pay July’s rent,” McEwen shares. “We got her to a job interview in June, and she got the job. She called back, and she’s so excited. We get calls like that almost every day.”

McEwen believes that examples like these demonstrate the need for transportation assistance in Cleveland. Lyft Cleveland agrees about the need for and the significance of the program. "We're proud to partner with an organization that is dedicated to helping Cleveland's communities," says Jay Dumaswala, Market Manager for Lyft Cleveland. "United Way's ability to reach individuals in need through 2-1-1 makes them an ideal partner for Lyft Relief Rides."

To ensure the program’s future, McEwen issues reports on its progress every month, tracking who the program served and how often. “Our hope is that by looking at our monthly reports and hearing these stories,” says McEwen, “it turns into a consistent program after the pilot.”