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Youth Transit Alliance: Pilot program gets kids where they need to go


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On an early July morning, a school bus festooned with bright green painted dinosaurs rumbles through the quiet streets of Southwest Detroit. Youth conductor Gene Evans is on his cell phone, updating the route on-the-fly for driver Darron Benton, who relies on his encyclopaedic knowledge of Detroit geography to steer the bus though neighborhoods dotted with vacant lots and burned-out structures. Periodically, the bus makes a stop at designated "safe places" -- coffee shops, non-profit agencies, police stations -- where children await transportation to summer programs.

This is the Youth Transit Alliance, a pilot program funded by the Skillman Foundation to help kids in Southwest Detroit get safely to and from extracurricular development programs. The program operates as a public-private partnership between the private Detroit Bus Company and area youth development nonprofits, including Congress for CommunitiesChadsey-Condon Community Organization, and the Skillman-funded Partnerships for Youth Initiative, which fosters collaboration among a network of over 90 youth service organizations in six neighborhoods across the city. Southwest Solutions serves as fiduciary for a $100,000 Skillman grant to the the Detroit Bus Company to pilot the program for six months.

The lack of an adequate transportation system in Detroit is a major impediment on kids' ability to participate in youth development programs, says Terry Whitfield, Assistant Project Coordinator for the PYI.

"Only 40 percent of our youth in Southwest Detroit are involved in out-of-school activities," says Whitfield. "Transportation is a major issue."

Often, says Whitfield, program staff take on the burden of providing transportation for the kids, draining resources that could be better spent on developing and delivering programming.

"In the youth worker community, you do what you have to do to get young people to the program," he says. "Now, a youth director doesn't have to worry about 60-90 minutes of pick-up and drop-off when they could be back at the agency doing programming."

Past attempts to solve the problem relied either on getting vans donated to individual programs or running a fixed-route bus system in the neighborhoods. The first solution created liability and maintenance burdens for the programs, while the latter ended up being cost-prohibitive, says Chris Uhl, Director of Changemaking at the Skillman Foundation.

"Getting kids to and from these programs, and getting kids to and from field trips (is a major challenge), so we decided we would try to solve the problem in a different way than its been solved for in the past," says Uhl.

In searching for new approaches to solve the problem, Uhl reached out to DBC. The transportation startup has made headlines since launching in 2011 for implementing innovative solutions to transportation problems in the city.

DBC founder and owner Andy Didorosi and Director of Transit Planning Daniel Brooks came up with a novel idea: instead of operating an expensive fixed-route system, requiring kids and programs to adapt to a rigid route and schedule, what if they let the programs and kids dictate the route?

"Nothing like this has been done before" says Brooks.

"DBC routes where the demand is," says Uhl. "In doing that, they brought the operations cost down to $16,000 per month."  

A fixed-route system, according to Brooks' estimates, would cost approximately $2 million to operate annually in Southwest Detroit.

"It's taking a different look at a problem, and trying to solve for it in a way that actually makes financial sense and gets these kids where they are going," says Uhl.

DBC set up a website, that provides a way for parents to locate programs that offer transportation through DBC and allows youth program staff to communicate transportation needs to DBC each day. Based on this crowdsourced information, DBC creates the most efficient route that serves the needs of the community.

"What makes this different from previous attempts is the system and model the DBC uses to crowdsource routes," says Whitfield. "It puts the onus on the program agencies to know their youth, know who needs transportation, and make sure those people get connected within the system."

"This is something I've dreamed about for along time," says Alexandria Ballard, Program Manager for buildOn, a youth service organization focused on breaking the cycle of poverty through service and education programming.

Ballard was utilizing the DBC bus to transport a group of high school students to participate in Summer in The City, a program that engages youth to paint bright, durable murals in blighted areas.

"We wouldn't be able to do this today if it weren't for the bus," she says. "This is a dream come true for our type of program."

DBC engaged a community advisory group composed of youth program staff, neighborhood residents, parents and kids to help design the program. The group helped identify a map of safe places in the neighborhoods where children can wait to be picked up and dropped off. DBC maintains contact with an adult at every safe place location throughout the route.

The summer pilot wrapped up on Aug. 16, with over 700 children boarding the bus over six weeks, according to Brooks.

Brooks says program directors have praised the YTI  pilot for freeing up their resources, allowing staff to focus more on programming and less on transportation. In the future, DBC will report on the impact of the YTI on youth program staff time in terms of hours and miles saved on shuttling kids to and from programs.

A second pilot will run during the fall semester. After that, DBC, Skillman and partners will evaluate how to continue the program into the future, and how to fund it.

"By funding the pilot, I was proving there was a demand for the system and that it could work," says Uhl. "From there we will layer in the other funding."

Uhl sees funding coming from a variety of sources: from other foundations, the youth development programs, neighborhood businesses, and parents.

"This has been a really good example of how dynamic public-private partnerships are supposed to work at the ground level," says Uhl.  

"We always talk about these things at a high level but the Detroit Bus Company, the folks in Southwest Detroit and the Youth Development Alliance have partnered to do great things to get this thing launched."

Nina Ignazak is project editor for Model D's transportation series. Our partner for the series is the Michigan Environmental Council.
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