January 24, 2022

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‘You give me a call, I’ll come get you’: When they need a ride, they call Mr. Steve

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Personalized transportation comes with Midtown Get-Around

Stephen Woods never thought he’d be a driver. Now he drives people from door to door and back with Midtown Get-Around, inexpensive transportation option.

Kelly Wilkinson, Indianapolis Star

Residents of Indianapolis’ mid-north neighborhoods have their own personal chauffeur , and his name is Mr. Steve.

Kids at a Martin Luther King Community Center after-school program at IPS 43 shout “Mr. Steve!” when they see his white van pull up to take them home. Residents sitting outside Mt. Zion senior apartments on Boulevard Place occasionally chant “Midtown-Get-Around!” when he picks up one of their neighbors for a doctor appointment.

Around the corner on a recent Thursday, a 76-year-old client recognized him while crossing the street at a track-star pace. She flashed him a smile and a wave, and he honked lightly in return.

“She could outrun this van,” Steve Woods laughs.

Pulling into Tarkington Park between scheduled rides, he dials up the MLK Center.

“If anybody calls, I’m available,” he tells the receptionist.

Woods is one of two drivers for the nonprofit’s growing neighborhood rideshare program called Midtown-Get-Around, which was born out of a 2019 contest, piloted at the onset of the pandemic and is now in expansion mode.

The MLK Center was a finalist in Ford Mobility’s City:One Challenge in 2019, which called for ideas to address mobility needs in the city. The community center’s idea was to create a cheap van shuttle service for residents of the Butler-Tarkington, Crown Hill, Mapleton-Fall Creek and Meridian-Kessler neighborhoods to get to school, job interviews, medical appointments, the grocery store — any essential need within the I-465 loop.

IndyGo leased the center four wheelchair-accessible vans for the endeavor, which got off the ground in the spring of 2020.

Today, nearly 100 residents are registered for the $2-a-ride service, which is looking for two more drivers.

“Our program has taken off by word of mouth,” office manager Jillian Atkerson said.

When Woods isn’t driving, he’s at bus stations or coffee shops handing out flyers or just talking about the program. But it also spreads from client to client.

Tamra Dunlap was one of Woods’ first clients at Mt. Zion. Others quickly followed.

“Everybody knows him,” she said on her way to IU Methodist for a check-up. “I only ride with him. He cares about us. When I get out, he’s right there, waiting, right on the dot.”

Timeliness is important to Woods — being late throws him off schedule and off balance.

“You give me a call, I’ll come get you,” he tells Dunlap at the hospital entrance.

“It’ll be 12:30,” she said.

“I’ll be here at 12:30 then.”

The lifelong resident almost never uses a GPS, and starts at 7 a.m. driving residents to the library or Target for job interviews, to temp services on Zionsville Road, to the bank or grocery stores, particularly on the first or 15th of the month, when food stamps get disbursed.

More than half of the program’s clients are seniors, for whom both walking to a bus line and navigating rideshare apps is cumbersome. A handful use wheelchairs or walkers.

“This new age of tech and rideshare has not really been formatted for them,” Atkerson said. “I know my grandmother would probably need a couple of training sessions to use an app.”

But plenty others just need an affordable and comfortable way to get to jobs. Every morning, Woods takes Paula Kincade to work at Dove Recovery House for Women, where she’s the kitchen manager. For the first couple months working there, she spent $30 a day using Lyft to and from work. Being in recovery, taking the bus is uncomfortable — the two times she tried, she said, men who appeared inebriated sat next to her.

Some days, she hails Midtown-Get-Around for grocery store trips. Woods waits for her at the store, takes her home, and helps her bring in groceries — a lot of them, since she also shops for the recovery house.

“They say I’m their favorite passenger,” Kincade said. “They might be lying to me.”

But in a show of devotion, Woods will still show up to pick her up for work in the morning even if she forgets to call the MLK Center ahead of time, as is the protocol.

He might bend protocol for a few other reasons, too — to take an 89-year-old client to a doctor’s appointment half an hour early so the patient can flirt with the nurses, and maybe stop to grab him a hamburger if it’s on their way home.

The MLK Center is in the process of taking ownership of the vans, hiring new drivers and talking about expanding its hours later into the evenings and weekends, Atkerson said. Right now, the program runs Monday through Friday and stops around 5:30 p.m.

Woods previously worked in machine shops, until he was laid off due to the pandemic. He never pictured himself a driver, but now that he is, he can’t picture his life without it.

He meets different people of all backgrounds every week, in addition to his regulars; he discovers new things about his city, like the fact that Geico has a corporate office just outside the 465 loop.

“It was just, I grown to like it, that’s what it was,” he said. And now all he notices is reckless driving around him.

“Zoom, zoom, zoom,” he pantomimed.

Contact IndyStar transportation reporter Kayla Dwyer at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @kayla_dwyer17

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