Innovating the small-city commute

Name: Aaron Steiner

Title: Director, Commuters Trust

City: South Bend, Ind.

Aaron Steiner is in charge of implementing an idea that won South Bend $1 million in the last Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge. The idea is to work with employers to co-create a transportation benefits program to help part-time and shift workers or those without a car get to work. That’s no small feat in a spread-out, auto-centric city like South Bend. The task has turned Steiner’s Commuters Trust team into something of a laboratory for exploring new models of commuting in small- to medium-sized cities with spotty public transit service.

Before COVID-19 hit, they found success with offering commuters discounted Lyft rides and unlimited bus passes, and were getting ready to pilot a paid carpooling service called Hytch. Then, the pandemic shut some employers down and changed the calculus around commuting. “Sharing a car or getting on a bus with other people is not going to be anyone’s first choice in a pandemic,” Steiner said. Nevertheless, about 250 people, many of them essential workers, remain active users of the program.

As a potential pivot, Steiner is considering ways to support commuters in car ownership. That was something some customers expressed interest in even before the pandemic. The idea is still coming together, but it might be to help drivers buy their own car, upgrade to a more reliable one, or handle the cost of repairs and maintenance. He hopes to have an offering ready to pilot in 2021.

At the same time, Steiner’s three-person team has been retooling their earlier offerings. A new ridesharing partnership with Uber has gone live; mobile ticketing for bus passes is now an option; and sign-up processes have now been automated in a way that allows small employers to participate, in addition to larger partners like the University of Notre Dame. “We’re listening to the needs of the community and to our customers,” Steiner said. “Even after things start to go back to ‘normal,’ we’re so dependent on these partners helping us roll out the program. So we’re really intent on continuing to stay focused on what they need.”

Pro tip: “Know your customer, and always be listening to them — to what their needs are, and how their needs are changing.”