You wouldn’t really expect a victim of sexual assault to behave this way. But then the idea of RightRides is as unique as the young woman who thought of it early in 2004. RightRides is a free taxi service that offers women and LGBTQ individuals a safe late night ride home in New York city. It operates only on weekends from 11:59 PM – 3 AM, (early Saturday or Sunday morning) and serves up to 45 neighbourhoods across four boroughs in the city with volunteer driven cars donated by Zipcar. In short, it’s an idea every state in every country can and should replicate.
Today, it is about six years old but founder Oraia Reid, 34, isn’t resting on her laurels yet. Growing up in Seattle, Washington state, taught Reid about neighbourly ties. “The sense of community was amazing. I have lived in many places around the world but what was instrumental was this strong population of women looking out for and after each other. This idea that women can look after themselves was ingrained in me,” she explains.
This was what helped her get back on her feet when she was sexually abused as a young woman. Even after 16 years, Reid isn’t able to really talk about it. “Recovering from it has been a long and painful journey,” she says, “Forming RightRides gave me strength.”
RightRides was a direct response to the assault she and the other women in her community had faced and were facing. “I am a survivor and didn’t want to live in fear any more. I was outraged that women couldn’t walk safely on the street. A newspaper story about a woman being abducted when leaving a bar was the final incident that compelled me to start RightRides. Talking to my partner at that time, I said I just wanted to drive everyone home safely. We were operational within four weeks. We used our own car and we just made it happen. We posted flyers and started driving women home in three neighbourhoods,” she says.
They operated like this for the first 18 months. “So many volunteers came to help. We didn’t have cars to offer them all. We had more callers than resources. We approached Zipcar to ask that they donate vehicles for volunteers. Thanks to them we were able to expand to 19 neighbourhoods in 2006. Today, 200 volunteers work in 45 neighbourhoods,” says Reid proudly.
Things weren’t always smooth. It was difficult to get word out that they were a legitimate organisation. People couldn’t believe that they actually offered free rides. “We did our best to let the community know that it was a real project and not a joke. Overcoming that misconception was helped by a ‘New York Times’ article that featured RightRides when we were three months into operations. That article went a long way to prove we were a viable project,” she says.
What keeps her going is the fact that she knows she is making a difference in her customers’ lives. “Many single mothers call us, who cannot afford a taxi and have to go home after working a late-night shift. Before RightRides, their only transportation option was to take the train. They felt unsafe in the subway and on the walks to their houses,” she says.
It’s this that kept her going during her darkest moments on the project. “Volunteering was easy. Learning how to write grants wasn’t. After years of struggling, I was ready to give up. I needed to take RightRides beyond the start-up level and we were only financed by modest individual contributions. I gave myself a deadline of six more months but thankfully, within five months we got our first foundation grant. It was amazing to finally receive increased funding for this work,” she says.
Young people, people entering the workforce, retired people; in fact, anyone who can drive and doesn’t have a criminal background can volunteer. RightRides conducts security and criminal background checks because sex offenders or those with poor driving records can’t drive people home. For the volunteers, giving time to this project is special. Travellers often share stories of attacks they have faced or have heard their neighbours deal with.
Candace Bollinger, 30, says, “My paid work is in retail. My unpaid work is far more exciting. As a queer woman, and sexual assault survivor, I knew it would be an empowering experience. Shifts typically have me getting home around 5 AM. If folks can stay out until 5 AM at a party or a bar, they can do so volunteering for a good cause.”
Jessica Gomez, 23, echoes this. She says, “Even if it means I have to be out during the weekend at nights I feel that sacrificing at least one weekend a month is worth it when I am involved in providing safe rides for people.”
Volunteers are paired up with other volunteers to ensure driver safety. “We encourage men to get involved because addressing sexual assault isn’t just a women’s issue. We provide two hours training that involves diversity and defence training. It’s 3000 rides home and counting, we haven’t had problems,” says a proud and happy Reid.
Melanie Zuckerman, 22, frequently ends up sleeping very late the next morning, but it is important to her and so she arranges her schedule around. Her favourite incident as driver? “A girl had forgotten her cell phone in the car. She was very upset, so at the end of our shift, we drove back to her house to drop it off for her. I felt like we had really made her day.” Jen NG, 29, loves being able to get a “driving tour” of the city late at night as she is usually stuck underground in a dirty subway mostly!”
Reid plans for RightRides to go national one day. Besides this, her organisation is also the founding member of New Yorkers for Safe Transit (NYFST), a collection of organisations and advocates dedicated to eliminating harassment and assaults, particularly gender or discrimination based, on public transportation in New York City. For now she is busy trying to build safer communities in New York and also expand RightRides to Washington DC.
Many wish RightRides luck, for as Candice puts it, “Your right to safety as a human being should not cost a dime. Period.”