Columbus Stand Up offers free rides to vaccination sites
Since February, a grassroots group of dispatchers and drivers has provided 250 rides to citizens who need help getting to Central Ohio vaccination sites
Toward the end of last summer, Morgan Harper began reflecting on everything she had learned during the early stages of the pandemic, which also coincided with her 2020 campaign to unseat Democratic incumbent Joyce Beatty in Ohio’s Third Congressional district. Those reflections motivated Harper to launch Columbus Stand Up, which focuses on three things: direct service, grassroots organizing and accountability in the political system.
As the pandemic raged on, Stand Up distributed more than 20,000 masks to help protect the community against the spread of COVID-19. Leading up to the November election, Harper and others also initiated a ride-share program to get voters to the polls. “We knew one of the biggest needs at that point was for people to vote, and we knew that there are a lot of transit challenges,” Harper said in a recent Zoom call with others from Columbus Stand Up. “It was very ad hoc, but it worked.”
Looking ahead to 2021, the group hit the reset button and again asked itself similar questions: “What are we hearing in the community? What are the biggest needs? How can we be of service?”
They knew that vaccines were on the way, but the same transportation challenges still existed for many local residents. What if Columbus Stand Up could use its ride-share program to help people get vaccinated? To do so, though, they’d have to figure out how to scale and refine the initiative. The complexity would require more than a spreadsheet.
Martin Davis, a tech-savvy volunteer who participated in the fall ride-share program, got to work on the issue, eventually creating an open-source version of a program similar to those used by Uber and Lyft, which enables a group of volunteer dispatchers to coordinate between riders and volunteer drivers. “As a dispatcher, it's really hard to figure out which drivers are available on a Tuesday at 10 a.m. to be able to take this ride, and which one is the best driver to take,” Davis said. “But we can pull the data ... and see the 20 drivers that are available during this time window, then sort them by the shortest driving time.”
Columbus Stand Up now has a team of six dispatchers and about 60 drivers who have coordinated around 250 free rides to roughly 25 Central Ohio vaccine sites since mid-February (the Schottenstein Center and the Celeste Center are the most popular sites). Each time, a volunteer driver picks up the rider, takes them to the site, waits with them, then drives the person back home. If a driver isn’t available, Columbus Stand Up has partnered with COTA to provide backup rides with a free taxi-style service. (Click here if you need a ride.)
The group has also been collecting demographic data on community members requesting rides. “Fifty percent of our rides requested are from folks that are 55 and older, 40 percent identify as Black or African American and a quarter have special mobility needs,” said dispatch coordinator Maria Vrcek. (COTA provides all of the rides that require the use of a wheelchair.)
“Most important to me is that demographic data — who we're actually able to reach,” Harper said. “There’s been a lot of commentary about how we have access issues for people getting vaccinated. So the fact, for example, that 40 percent of the people who have used our program identify as Black or African American, when we have a [Black] population that's at 20 percent in Franklin County, and when we have 5 percent statewide of Black folks who have gotten their first dose of the vaccine, to me that is proof of concept, an absolute success and why we need grassroots programs like this.”
In addition to the rides, dispatchers like Vrcek can become a personal point of connection for those who may have anxieties about getting vaccinated. “I speak to these folks all day long, and sometimes I speak to folks who are really emotional. They're really excited to get the vaccine, or sometimes they're really nervous to get the vaccine,” Vrcek said. “I've had a couple of calls where someone is calling in to check that their ride is scheduled, but they're actually just calling in because they want me to tell them that they're going to be OK and that they're doing the right thing. ... I'm not a medical professional, so I didn't provide any medical advice, but I spoke from my own experience and said that I had had both of the vaccinations, and that it’s really just about keeping people safe and showing people that you care.”
“When people have even a small barrier to doing any task, it can be derailing in terms of the completion of that task,” Harper said. “Being a live human resource in this tech-dominated world can help guide people through this process.”
Columbus Stand Up’s biggest need is for volunteer drivers who are available on weekdays during regular business hours. The group also plans to provide its ramped-up ride-share program in future elections.
"We're stepping up to fill this gap because we have to. But in an ideal world, we'd have public policy that is also striving to meet the needs of people in our community,” Harper said. “We can only accomplish so much. The way to totally scale this is by having a functioning and robust public transportation system across the state and across the country.”