How Lyft’s Racial Justice Alliance is helping to fill the transportation equity gap

Charley Locke - Mar 20, 2024

On October 6, 2023, a driver in Kent, Washington, found himself dropping off several Lyft riders at the same single-story office complex. After the third passenger disembarked, he was curious. So he parked the car, went inside, and approached a woman: Risho Sapano, founder and executive director of Mother Africa. Sapano explained that Mother Africa was a nonprofit that supports African refugees and immigrant women. They were hosting a health and wellness fair, helping over 700 people apply for public benefits, collect food vouchers, and enroll in health insurance.

It seemed an odd event to draw so many Lyft riders until Sapano explained that Lyft had donated discounted ride codes to distribute. What’s more, Sapano invited the driver to stay: “He was an immigrant himself from Africa, so I told him to feel free to join us.”

Since 2021, Lyft’s Racial Justice Alliance has awarded cash and ride-credit grants to 84 local organizations in communities of color in the states of New York and Washington. (Overall, Lyft provides access to 50,000 discounted rides annually for community events and volunteer opportunities.) For Mother Africa, they’ve been a game changer. On any given week, staff could be running a class for parents with newborns, a summer camp for school-age kids, or a field trip to a local museum for community elders. “Before the vouchers,” says Sapano, “we would try to get them to activities, but they wouldn’t have transportation.”

Image Credit: Mother Africa

Rideshare is a part of what experts often refer to as a transportation safety net. “Public transit isn’t perfect: There are gaps in terms of service, in terms of frequency, in terms of reliability,” says Madeline Brozen, deputy director of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. Ride credits, along with biking and walking, can help fill those gaps. “If you give people the ability to access a variety of different modes of transportation and you help overcome the affordability barrier, then you can enable people to have universal basic mobility,” says Brozen.

The staff at Mother Africa have found the credits particularly helpful for their elder clients, who are more likely to face language barriers around public transportation. “Taking the bus is a big challenge for these elders,” says Barbra Sibanda, who leads the organization’s Resilient Elders Program. “Door-to-door is the best option.”

The Kent-based nonprofit Open Doors, which supports people with intellectual or developmental disabilities and their families, many from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds, has received Lyft ride credits since 2022. “The public transportation options for those with disabilities aren’t as dependable,” says Alison Ponder, director of development at Open Doors. Riding a crowded, loud bus or train may not be possible for those with special needs. Sometimes, paratransit rides require booking a day in advance; riders may be given a window of time for arrival, which poses problems for time-bound appointments, like a doctor’s visit.

Image Credit: Open Doors

Discounted rideshare helps Open Doors clients not only with these daily tasks but also with the interactions that make life worth living. “For the community we serve, especially young people at the intersection of race and disability, isolation is a huge issue,” says Ponder. “Lyft credits let people get past the public transportation challenges and connect more in person.”

That’s certainly the case for Ros Damm, an Open Doors client (and emeritus board member) who often uses Lyft ride credits to get home when the organization’s events run late. “At night, I get scared and don’t ride the bus,” says Damm. “With the rideshare credit, I can go from events to home and feel that I’m safe and sound.”

If you’re a community organization in Washington or New York state, consider applying to be part of the 2024 cohort of the Racial Justice Alliance. Applications are now open.