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The program was established to help residents access food and health services.

(Somerville Wire) – The City of Somerville is a Metropolitan Area Planning Council taxi grant recipient. Through the grant, the City provides Somerville residents with free taxi transportation to various services. Shape Up Somerville, a program that supports the community around the areas of food services and active living, and the Somerville Council on Aging independently received grants through MAPC in 2020 and then collaborated in a second round of grants, awarded in spring 2021. The grants were created to “meet vulnerable populations’ transportation and delivery needs during the COVID-19 emergency,” according to the MAPC website.

“[MAPC’s Josh Eichen] did a lot of research around the taxi industry and found out that the taxi industry needed support from both a business development standpoint, as well as needing to be able to access contracts with public entities and nonprofits, to be able to sustain their businesses,” said MAPC’s Transportation Planner Marah Holland. “These grants came out of that research that MAPC did. We designed the nuts and bolts of the operational subsidy program and Mass Development took those recommendations and designed the business support program.”

Currently, rides can be used for grocery shopping in Somerville, pharmacy pickup in Somerville, and medical and vaccine appointments in Somerville, Cambridge, Medford, or the VA Medical Center in Jamaica Plain or West Roxbury. The service is run through Green and Yellow Cab of Somerville. Residents who are interested in using the service can book a ride by calling the City, or they can use a cab voucher on their own, rather than paying cash. Shape Up Somerville has primarily been interested in addressing food access in Somerville, while the Council on Aging aims to support elderly residents who may have difficulty getting from one place to another.

“Thinking way back, in 2017 and 2018, our office was working on a food system assessment. We were looking at trying to understand where are Somerville residents getting food, what are their barriers to getting food, and then how does that guide our work moving forward,” said Erica Satin-Hernandez, a coordinator for Shape Up Somerville. “Through that, we definitely heard that transportation is a really key barrier to getting food. That became a core focus for us. As we were trying to understand that further… hearing about the different options—is it delivery that people want? Is it rides to the store? Is it that small retailers and bodegas are carrying more healthy items? We were in the middle of that study when the pandemic hit. A lot of the ways that people get to the food that they need and their transportation needs changed really dramatically. … We were also hearing that people are less comfortable on the bus, perhaps, or a lot of constituents were carpooling to the grocery store. … Cabs seemed like a really interesting alternative.”

Ashley Speliotis, director of the Council on Aging, said that the necessity of having senior residents able to safely and conveniently access transportation was a motivation behind the grant. During the pandemic, there was a strong need for a service to help the vulnerable population.

“The needs were clearly shown with the folks who were going to Mass Eye and Ear and Mass General Hospital for their appointments. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback regarding those Boston area hospitals, because of the parking, and when they chose to drive themselves, it was hard for them to drive and park … Sometimes they felt like it was their only option, even though it was difficult to navigate changing buses or getting to the subway, [if] they’re not living close by to a subway station,” said Speliotis. “During the pandemic, there was the big push to social distance. Mass transit was a little bit tentative for them to access.” She explained that before the grant took effect, some seniors may have only been able to purchase a limited amount of groceries, because they could not carry everything, “This really was a game changer, that they could do their grocery shopping for a week at a time, maybe even a little bit longer.”

Satin-Hernandez said that the program has been an important part of the City’s response to the coronavirus.

“In the broadest sense, we want to serve anyone who is having trouble getting to where they need to go in a timely fashion,” said Satin-Hernandez. “If you’re taking the bus from Winter Hill to Market Basket, you’re going all the way out to come back in, and it’s a really long journey, especially once you’re carrying bags back, if you have a physical disability, or are elderly. If you’re traveling with children, it could be even more arduous that way. Those are some of the populations that might be most interested in the vouchers.” She added, “This is a core element of the pandemic response. The ways that we normally travel have been changing. The way that we are feeling safe in travel has changed, as well. … We can use the new connections that we’re making with constituents and the information that we’re getting on where people want to travel … we can keep thinking of ways to improve transportation to those key needs.”

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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.

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