Co-founder Aslyne Rodriguez laments the untimely demise of a service that mobilized the community but could not withstand the coronavirus crisis.

EmpowerBus was a star of Columbus’ new mobility scene, which has sprung up since Smart Columbus was launched amid a reckoning in transportation. It transported people to work, school, or health care. But April 7, it idled its vehicles for good. 

Before COVID-19 hit, “We were going in the right direction,” said CEO Aslyne Rodriguez. “We were looking at partnering with another transport company to be able to have a bigger impact.” 

The business brought together Columbus’ low-to-moderate income communities and companies in need of a reliable workforce—Worthington Industries was its biggest client. Along with its 15-passenger vans, EmpowerBus, through Smart Columbus, also operated an autonomous shuttle in Linden. 

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When the coronavirus crisis began to unfold, Rodriguez couldn’t find masks for employees or find a way to keep passengers 6 feet apart. “That’s impossible in a 15-passenger van,” she says. The company lost contracts, and “ridership started to dip as [people] were either not going to work or didn’t want to get on the vehicle.” 

Rodriguez first laid off her 19-person staff, most of them drivers. She then made the decision to close permanently because she couldn’t see how to keep vans sterilized to ensure safety. 

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EmpowerBus helped a wide array of people: formerly incarcerated men living in halfway houses; people who’d lost driving privileges; and immigrants without driver’s licenses. It worked primarily with manufacturers and logistics companies, serving all three shifts and charging companies $150,000 for a year of service. Employees would pay between $3 and $5 per round-trip to get to work. “Our selling point [to companies] was that the cost of turnover is way more expensive than the cost of our service.” 

The company owned three vans and rented or leased others as needed. Until it became profitable, it received support from the Wells Foundation, Columbus Foundation and United Way, among others. 

After Rodriguez told employees EmpowerBus was closing, a driver who was formerly incarcerated called her. He thanked her for seeing him as a human and not a criminal, saying he’d never forget it. 

Rodriguez speaks both of grief and of overwhelming support. “I’m going to be OK, and so are the people we served and the people who worked for us,” she says. “I’m a person of faith, and I believe I was meant to do this work. And that the small ripples we started will hopefully go beyond me.” 

Amy Braunschweiger is a freelance writer.