In February of this year, a transgender woman was beaten and thrown down the stairs at a Minneapolis light-rail station. She suffered a broken rib, a collapsed lung, and internal cranial bleeding. The incident was part of a larger pattern, says U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose district covers the area where the woman was attacked.
“We know that the trans community — and trans women in particular — are regularly the targets of hate, conspiracy theories, and violence,” she said in a press release.
Last year, at least 38 trans people were killed in the United States, the vast majority of them trans women of color. Though that’s slightly fewer than the year before, the climate against queer, nonbinary, and trans people in many parts of the country is becoming increasingly hostile. In the last few years, politicians have openly discussed “eradicating transgenderism,” passed bills banning trans athletes from participating in female sports, and established prohibitions on gender-affirming healthcare.
Public transportation can be a place where trans people feel especially vulnerable, says Lindsey Clark, deputy director of the Trans Justice Initiative at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Especially during the height of the pandemic, when the initiative was first launched, a bus or train was one of the few places where trans people would interact with strangers, who may already be frustrated with the inconveniences of commuting.
“Unfortunately, so often folks who are marginalized can end up the target of someone’s aggression or anger about something completely different,” Clark says. “Particularly when it really felt like we were being put in the crosshairs nationally as part of a really violent, dangerous conversation about our bodies and our worth.”
In 2020, HRC approached Lyft about partnering with the rideshare company to award credits to local nonprofits, who could allocate them however and to whomever they want. A pilot officially launched at the beginning of 2021, but Clark was initially nervous that the rides wouldn’t end up being significantly safer than public transportation.
“Just based on my own experiences in rideshares or in cabs, and the experiences of other people that I’ve worked with, I’ll be the first to admit that I was skeptical,” they say. “But I was so pleasantly surprised.”
Over the past three years, HRC has granted $120,000 in credits to 36 community-based organizations in 30 cities, adding up to more than 4,000 rides and nearly 40,000 miles traveled. In all that time, no client has ever reported a problem. “That’s kind of unheard of,” says Clark.
Part of the reason why is because Lyft has prioritized rider safety by screening drivers, enabling location sharing, and providing live support for those who feel unsafe. But, also importantly, it has been working with the LGBTQIA+ community for years.
In 2020, a representative from HRC joined Lyft’s Safety Advisory Council and helped build on the inclusion policies the company had already implemented, such as its LGBTQIA+ employee resource group, antidiscrimination policies, and trans-inclusive healthcare. Since then, the company has rolled out software changes that allow users and drivers to change their names, pronouns, and photos. All these efforts prepared them for a successful rollout, says Clark. “Lyft has a certain level of understanding and dedication to our community, which has come to bear in this program.”
Nearly two-thirds of the program’s riders are between 18 and 34. The most recent batch of grantees are in Chicago, Colorado Springs, Detroit, Houston, Miami, Milwaukee, and Jacksonville, all places where two or more trans people were killed in 2022.
Roughly 300 riders have used the credits for crisis management, according to the data compiled from HRC’s partner nonprofits. Oftentimes, they’re fleeing interpersonal violence. “Getting a safe ride out of a situation where maybe you share a car or maybe you don’t have full control over your transportation, that’s also a big part of why this has felt successful for us,” says Clark. However, riders use the credits for a number of other reasons as well, like commuting to work, buying groceries, and accessing healthcare or legal services.
Whether someone is fleeing an unsafe situation or going to the doctor, having access to safer transportation is critical, says Tyrell Brown, executive director of Galaei, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit enrolled in the program that provides services, support, and advocacy for queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, and people-of-color communities.
Because Galaei serves the entire city, “there’s times when we have to facilitate resources in communities that aren’t necessarily hospitable to brown and Black queer and trans people,” Brown says. “So it’s not always safe for us to take public transportation around the city.”
Lyft’s track record so far is an encouraging sign, especially compared to the alternatives. For its part, Galaei has already used its credits for the year and would love more, according to Brown.
As Brown says, “If I say on a flyer that we’re affording people transportation, there’s not a butt that doesn’t end up in a seat.”