Mary Davitt, 62, still feels a wave of dread every time she has to take the bus. Public transportation can be risky business for older passengers like Davitt, especially ones with disabilities.

“It’s a little scary,” said Davitt, who considers her wheelchair a part of her body after living with polymyositis, a rare form of muscular dystrophy, for more than 40 years. “There’s almost no stability, and you’re left at the mercy of the driver.” She can even recall a couple times when a bus driver braked so hard that her chair went flying.

Fortunately for Davitt and others, the Roseville City Council approved a pilot bus service for seniors and people with disabilities. Davitt has been working with the Roseville Community Health Awareness Team (CHAT) to start the bus loop. Earlier this April, the council voted to fund the six-month bus loop. Two 12-person buses will run every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., connecting eight senior facilities in south Roseville to local community hubs and grocery stores.

This pilot bus loop stands out from other transportation services because it caters to seniors and passengers with disabilities. Newtrax, the White Bear Lake nonprofit operating the buses, has traditionally driven groups of adults with disabilities to and from work or daytime care sites.

With so many vehicles and drivers left idle in the middle of the day, starting a bus service only seemed natural, Community Transportation Coordinator Scott Olson said. Their first loop was up and running in the southern part of the White Bear Lake area by last October, thanks to financial help from local businesses and community organizations. Newtrax Executive Director Mike Greenbaum said approval from the city, as well as guidance from DARTS in Dakota County also contributed.

As of Tuesday, Olson counted 21 passengers from the eight facilities that had used the buses. Numbers have been coming back to him steadily, floating between 16 and 18 for the first month. Considering all the pickups and drop-offs, Olson said he imagines 50 to 60 passengers being the cutoff, and reaching 25 to 40 would be a real success.

The CHAT reached out to Newtrax earlier this year after researching gaps in their own public transportation. “We knew there were transportation deserts in Roseville,” co-organizer Sara Barsel said. “But we didn’t realize how dry some of those spots were.”

One problem Barsel noticed was getting access to the Fairview Community Center, a hub owned by the Roseville Area School District and offering the community an alternative high school, an adult learning center and recreational activities. Unequal access to this building due to public transportation is a huge threat to public health, Barsel said, because it excludes groups that would benefit from these programs the most, such as seniors and people with disabilities, as well as low-income residents and refugees.

In hopes of maximizing the service that two smaller buses can provide, Barsel said the team spent a lot of time driving around the city and writing drafts of potential bus routes. “What does the territory look like?” she said. “Where do we think there are needs? And what do we do about any of it?”

In the end, CHAT and Newtrax agreed on bus stops based on whom Barsel could get in touch with and which facilities seemed interested. Some places already had their own transportation service, and some people said they preferred services like Metro Mobility, which requires passengers to schedule rides at least one day in advance.

The loop is flexible, Olson said, and Newtrax is willing to add and subtract stops based on the city’s request. Right now, Barsel said she’s communicating with community leaders in southeast Roseville.

They argued at the April 2 City Council meeting that the proposed loop excluded their low-income and immigrant and refugee neighborhoods.

As for changes she’d like to see, Davitt said she had heard talks of getting a north loop, which Newtrax is trying to add to the White Bear Lake area by June. Maybe one day they’ll start a loop that will take passengers to St. Paul or Minneapolis for more adventurous excursions than grocery shopping and visiting the library.

But for now, Davitt said she’s glad she has access to a regular service that will keep her and her wheelchair safe the whole ride.

“This just opens up a Roseville area,” Davitt said. “I think it’s offering another solution, and I hope other people will start to use it.”

 

Emily Allen is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.