RubyRide Pilot Provides New Transportation Options in the South Hills
STEPHANIE HACKE | TRIB LIVE Dec 17, 2019
For South Hills residents living without a car, simple tasks like getting to the grocery store or doctor’s office can be a challenge.
Access to transportation in the area is a steady problem, local leaders say, and they’re hoping a new pilot program will help chip away at the issue.
Pittsburgh-based startup RubyRide recently launched a pilot program in the South Hills area in October, offering rides on a membership basis to residents in the Clairton area. The company also has partnered with Community College of Allegheny County South, Jefferson Hospital and Squirrel Hill Health Center.
A $120,000 grant from the Jefferson Regional Foundation made the pilot possible. Economic Development South is helping with the pilot.
“This is really to help them get up and going, offer some support, planning and allow them some flexibility to build some ridership initially and where there might be some real needs for vulnerable populations,” said Mary Phan-Gruber, executive director of the Jefferson Regional Foundation.
The idea for RubyRide started six or seven years ago, when founder Jeff Ericson worked as an urban designer in Phoenix.
He saw how “dysfunctional and inefficient” transportation can be, as oftentimes the same solutions are presented to solve issues in suburban, low-density areas, as they are in areas like New York City.
“The beauty of having a car is that it fits the person and takes care of all of their needs and helps them get around,” he said. “But having a car is expensive. For a lot of people, it just doesn’t work. Environmentally, it’s got some challenges.”
Ericson sought to answer the question: “How do you take all of the benefits of having a car and deliver that to a mass market?”
He’s spent the last several years testing various models.
What he came up with was membership transportation, with a set area that you travel.
“Instead of having a car, you pay us a fixed monthly amount of money and we take you to all the local places that you need to go on an on-demand or pre-scheduled basis,” he said.
Instead of paying on a per-trip basis, RubyRide is one flat fee for however many rides you want to take in a given month in your area.
“We’ve been talking to 100s and 100s of people. When you get down to it, you have to have a car to get groceries, but not necessarily to get to work,” Ericson said.
While he tested the model in Phoenix and other parts of the country, Ericson moved to Pittsburgh in 2016 and got involved in the startup community.
“I’d hear what I hear in every major city across the country — and that’s that transportation is a major issue for a lot of people,” he said. “Every place we go, we run into the same thing.”
In October, RubyRide launched a pilot in the South Hills.
While the monthly membership fee typically is around $69, residents in the Clairton area paid $20 a month for the service during its initial pilot phase. The foundation money helps offset the cost.
The goal is for the company to get to know the area and the needs of the residents.
“We’re taking a lot of people to community centers, to Walmart, to Giant Eagle. We’re taking people to the hospital, facilities around the hospital. There’s a lot of health care trips,” Ericson said.
Joey-Linn Ulrich, executive director of Economic Development South, said it was a grassroots effort to spread the word about the pilot. The need in the area is evident, she said.
Several years ago, EDS commissioned Delta Development Group to look into the transportation challenges in the South Hills.
“It’s hard demographically. There’s a low population density. It’s a hilly terrain, few sidewalks, not a lot of transit amenities,” she said. “And there’s not a lot of things that are at a core and centralized, so that does make it a challenge for transportation in the region.”
When the Jefferson Regional Foundation hosted “Around the Table South” in 2018, transportation was identified as one of the eight major issues in the region, Phan-Gruber said. And transportation has a trickle effect because when people can’t get to things like health care, it also impacts those services.
At Community College of Allegheny County’s South Campus, leaders are working on numerous ways to make life easier for their students to focus on education, said Charlene Newkirk, president of the Southeast region.
Transportation is a major issue for students. In Clairton, which is about six miles from CCAC’s South Campus, it’s easier for some students to catch a bus to the college’s Allegheny Campus, going through downtown Pittsburgh, than it is to get public transportation to their local college.
RubyRide was enticing for the college because it’s another way their students will have easier access getting to class and their basic needs, like groceries and to the doctors, Newkirk said.
RubyRide is providing services for five CCAC South Campus students, who pay on their own for the membership. About 30 more students were interested.
RubyRide also stands out to local leaders because it hires local residents as drivers.
The goal is that the drivers will get to know the people they serve.
RubyRide is launching another pilot in the McKees Rocks area in 2020.
The goal is for the company to offer services throughout all of Pittsburgh in the next year.
“We’re trying to be very methodical about how we do this and how we fund it,” Ericson said.