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Will Big City Transportation Trends Translate to Small Town USA?

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

In cities around the world, on-demand companies like Uber, TaskRabbit, GrubHub and many others are reshaping the way people get around, shop and do business and, in the process, reshaping the service sector economy. The companies have largely been the purview of the young-urban set cloistered in hip neighborhoods in booming cities. But a couple in Forsyth, Georgia, a town of fewer than 4,000 residents sitting between Atlanta and Macon, has turned to on-demand transit and delivery as a way of fulfilling their small business dreams.

When Jessee Dixon and Erin White moved from Atlanta back to Forsyth where Dixon had previously worked, they did so to get away from the dissatisfaction of busy corporate jobs and start their own business.

“We wanted to start a coffee shop,” says Dixon. “We talked to people at the merchants’ association and Chamber of Commerce who told us coffee shops always failed. Everybody kept saying ‘we need transportation.’”

Dixon and White took their advice, bought an old DeKalb County school bus, painted it white and launched Forsythia Transit Company in June. They established a route around town, put up bus stop signs, set hours and began driving. The couple hoped they’d find patrons in Forsyth’s restaurants and bars and among low-income residents who couldn’t afford a car. And they did make a difference.

Bonnie Barker, who owns a pizza shop downtown, told Atlanta public radio that she and other restaurant owners were thinking about how transit could help them stay open later without worrying about drunk drivers. She says, “They’ve given us a whole new way of looking at our business plan.”

Forsythia Transit has also given a few regulars like Dorathy Reynolds a whole new way of looking at getting around. Reynolds started taking the bus instead of walking to her job at a hotel. But she was the exception, not the rule. As is typical in small-town America, Forsyth has never had public transit and it was incredibly difficult to get people on board (literally).

“We were going broke driving our route [in an empty bus],” says Dixon. “Maybe transit will catch on eventually, but the people want taxis. They don’t want to stand at a bus stop or be there at a certain time.”

Decades of car-centric planning have left small-town America ill suited for and unwilling to try transit. But as the Chamber and business owners like Barker pointed out, there is a need and a potential customer base. Given the subsidies required to operate most urban transportation networks, one potential lesson to draw from Forsythia Transit’s struggles is that the private sector is unlikely to blaze the trail for a transit revolution in rural towns. Carless residents can’t support Forsythia on their own, and Forsythia can’t operate in the red long enough to get those would-be customers acquainted with their service.

After about a month, Dixon and White stopped driving the set route and switched to a for-hire model for special events like Barker’s monthly whiskey and wine tasting night and shuttling cadets to and from nearby Tift College, which houses the Georgia Department of Corrections (DOC) training facility.

The DOC buses cadets in from around the state for multi-week training sessions. With no transportation at their disposal, the cadets would just walk everywhere they needed to go. Dixon thought he’d found a solution in his low-tech private shuttle (a la Bridj or Leap). They would pick up cadets at 5 p.m., shuttle them around town, and return them before curfew in the evening.

Unfortunately, this turned out to be no silver bullet. The cadets were too often barred from leaving to really make the shuttles financially viable on their own.

“The first week they’re here they’re on lockdown and can’t leave campus. The last week they’re here they’re on lockdown. Sometimes they’re on lockdown in the middle because someone didn’t iron their uniform, or that sort of thing,” explains Dixon.

But, it was one of those unexpected lockdowns that gave Dixon the idea for Forsythia Transit’s current iteration. He showed up on campus for his evening pickup and was met by a hungry and desperate cadet.

“He came to the door and asked if he could pay us to go get him a burger or some pizza. He said the food on campus is terrible,” Dixon says.

Dixon ran with the delivery idea. Around the same time, a few restaurants approached him about doing delivery in town.

Dixon and White haven’t given up on the bus, but the bulk of their business now stems from moving food, not people. Dixon says they’re retooling their website so that people can go online, order dinner through them, pay ahead of time through PayPal and have food delivered.

“We want to be a low-tech GrubHub,” Dixon says. “We certainly didn’t see that coming, but we’re just going with it. We never planned to do anything in transportation either.”

Dixon has hired a part-time school bus driver to help with the bus shuttle services. He’s taking on most of the food deliveries (in a Prius, not their bus) and hopes to hire more school bus drivers in the future to help with delivery.

Echoing the flexibility rhetoric of on-demand companies, Dixon says, “Local bus drivers don’t make a lot of money and have a tough time getting part-time jobs because of bus schedules. We want to hire some on for lunch delivery shifts once we get going.”

Dixon’s wife has had enough of the experience, however. White has gone back to her law firm job and left Forsythia Transit’s operations up to Dixon. But it’s not all bad he says.

“The cadets are really appreciative. The bus driver is making a little money, and she’s very appreciative. We like that. Things haven’t evolved yet here. It’ll take time, but whether we hang around to see it happen, that’s anybody’s guess.”