The retiree who stepped up to drive an entire town

Sarah Conlisk - Apr 23, 2024

If you request a Lyft ride in the small city of Macomb, Illinois, odds are Janine Cavicchia will be your driver. (The odds are 62%, to be exact.) For the past four and a half years, Cavicchia, a retired university administrator, has woken up at 6 a.m., seven days a week, to drive 12 hours a day. Her regular passengers have included Leverl Dixon, who had been walking four miles every morning before he found out Lyft was available in Macomb; Chelsea Jones, fresh from working the overnight shift at Walmart; and Tahoney Shaw, who was waking up at 5:30 a.m. to walk across town until Cavicchia left a note on her door letting her know about Lyft. Shaw has since ridden with Cavicchia over 200 times. 

“Every day, Janine gets out of her warm bed and into the cold to get us where we need to go,” Shaw says. 

Cavicchia’s intentions were modest when she began driving in 2019. “I thought it would be fun to do a couple of hours a day, a couple of days a week,” she says, “and reconnect with students and community members.” 

The small city of Macomb, Illinois, where, according to Mayor Michael Inman, “People care about people.”

But so many people needed rides! There were the folks who needed to catch the early Chicago-bound train, which leaves an hour before the local buses start running. There were the students at Western Illinois University, many of whom didn’t know how to drive. There were the residents of Macomb’s affordable housing communities, who often didn’t have access to a vehicle. And there were employees who worked at factories –– like Pella (windows) and NTN Bower Corporation (ball bearings) –– that were inaccessible by bus. Sure, there were a few other Lyft drivers, but families and day jobs meant they weren’t always available. Many Macomb riders had no way to get where they needed to go. 

So now, Cavicchia not only provides a majority of Macomb’s Lyft rides, but she also has become an integral part of Macomb’s transportation infrastructure. Most rideshare drivers who live and operate in larger cities provide a vital service without ever understanding their impact. But in this small town, Cavicchia sees every day how important her role is — she knows her passengers and why they need her. “People care about people in Macomb,” says Mayor Michael Inman. “Janine epitomizes that.” (Inman says he is considering driving with Lyft when he retires too.)

That point was driven home two years ago when Cavicchia returned from a two-week vacation to find that one of her regular passengers was let go after he was unable to get to work while she was gone. “Everybody reassured me that it wasn’t my fault,” she says. “But I still feel so bad.” 

So Cavicchia, along with a few other drivers, formed a Facebook group to let riders know when they’re available. In a separate group, Cavicchia helps coordinate the town’s other rideshare drivers: “Can anybody Lyft Alexis home from work tonight at 11:05? My 12 hours will be up if I’m still the only driver on between now and then.” or “Can anyone go on soon? I have a flat tire, and Jamelia needs a ride. If another driver is active, Cavicchia logs off. “They need the money,” she says. “I don’t.”

Cavicchia coordinates with the town’s other rideshare drivers on a Facebook group to help riders get where they need to go.

When she’s not driving, Cavicchia travels (a recent trip took her to Costa Rica), tends to her cats, and follows women’s basketball. (“Everyone keeps telling me they finished their March Madness bracket. Which bracket? There are TWO.”) Cavicchia also plays Wordle religiously, starting with the first five-letter word that comes to mind. Most recently, Cavicchia had started with “FIELD.” The day before, “TEACH.” 

Cavicchia seems to maintain a meticulous mental database of her riders. She follows up with WIU students about their classes and reminds them to make appointments with their advisers. She asks others about the status of their broken heater or how their new job is going. When Cavicchia learned a regular passenger was saving to get a slow cooker, she brought her one on their next ride. Other passengers have received her help paying for rent and essential groceries. And Cavicchia quickly made a new WIU professor, William Gblerkpor, feel at home on his first night in Macomb, advising him on where to buy groceries and furniture and which community events to attend. “Her passion and investment in helping newcomers is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Gblerkpor says. 

Lyft driver Janine Cavicchia shows off the Macomb-related literature she keeps in her car for passengers.

Cavicchia’s commitment to her community extends beyond providing rides. She’s a fierce advocate of local businesses –– often wearing an “EAT DRINK SHOP LOCAL” T-shirt and reliably stocking Explore Macomb magazines in the pocket behind her seat –– and has given gift cards for locally owned businesses to her riders. She’s also involved in numerous community organizations –– serving on the board of the local League of Women Voters, the Equal Opportunity and Fair Housing Commission, and as a Ruling Elder of the First Presbyterian Church. A community-oriented spirit seems to run in her family: Cavicchia’s mother and grandmothers were teachers; her father and grandfather were ministers. 

Cavicchia’s knowledge of her community gives her the insight to triage passengers, saving time, and sometimes jobs, along the way. “If you are more than two minutes late at the Pella Factory, you have to go in a separate door,” she says. “But you can be up to seven minutes late to a Walmart shift.” She asks regulars to avoid requesting rides between 5:15 and 6:15 p.m., so she can be free to get passengers to the 6:20 train. 

Macomb’s Chicago-bound Amtrak trains leave an hour before the local buses start running.

Although Cavicchia prefers to be available for those who need her in Macomb, she will go out of town for emergencies, like driving the four hours to Chicago to bring people to medical appointments. She once bided her time while a passenger went through outpatient surgery. Cavicchia has even waited through an entire court hearing before taking the defendant back. “It was just cigarette smuggling,” she shrugs.

Once Cavicchia picked up a passenger who was stumbling, with alcohol on his breath, holding just one little bag with a T-shirt and toothbrush in it. He was headed to the St. Louis Airport, three hours out of town. When Cavicchia hesitated, he told her his psychiatrist had purchased the plane ticket for him so he could go to rehab in Florida for 90 days; he had no other way of getting to the airport, and if he didn’t catch the flight, he would likely drink himself to death. Of course, Cavicchia drove him. Two years later, she recognized the same passenger. “Did I take you to the St. Louis Airport a couple of years ago?” she asked. “Yes, you did,” he said. “And you saved my life.”

As with other community heroes, it can be difficult to conceive of a world without Cavicchia. But recently, she posted the following note to her Facebook group:

I was going to wait till I hit another big milestone number of rides, but today I realized I’m getting burned out … and it’s time to turn on Last Ride for the last time. 

20,699 Lyfts in 4 years and 7 months.  


There were more than a hundred reactions and comments thanking Cavicchia for her service to the community and wishing her well. Presumably, none of them had noticed the date. It was April 1. 

In fact, Cavicchia has no plans to hang up her car keys. “As long as there’s a need in our community,” she says, “I’m happy doing it.”