"The DART opportunity was brought to us based on conversations we've been having for over a year really trying to get a lay of the land," said Jaycie Chitwood, sustainable mobility manager at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. "It really fit within our social innovation character, which is to bring mobility to everyone, not just people who can buy a car."
DART took over the service in February from a private provider that had run into financial problems. But it had only enough funds to keep it going for 90 days, said Todd Plesko, the agency's vice president of planning and development.
Toyota responded with a $1 million grant to not only keep the service going, but study ways to make it sustainable in the long term.
Plesko said that the solution turned out to be subsidizing taxis for the rides rather than a dedicated bus, which was more expensive and less flexible for the roughly 250 people expected to use the service. For a $50 payment, they get $200 in taxi vouchers for trips to the doctor or other errands.
"That financial help makes it much easier for those people who are modest-income to fund their transportation needs," Plesko said.
Toyota's vision for supporting transportation in the Dallas region goes beyond charitable giving, said Chitwood. The company is looking at a whole toolbox of solutions, she said, but she declined to discuss specifics until the study is complete and the programs have been developed.
The process under way in Dallas is an example of the company's cautious approach to tackling problems: First get on the ground and find out what's going on, and then work with the locals to find what Toyota can bring to the table.
Two years ago, Toyota created the Toyota Mobility Foundation to collaborate with nonprofit organizations around the world, governments and academics on urban transportation challenges and personal mobility for all people.
Latondra Newton, chief program officer for the foundation, said that there are good reasons why an automaker such as Toyota might be interested in advancing mobility options that don't involve cars. One is helping those in society who cannot afford one or who are unable to drive one. Another is to focus on product development.
"The philosophy that we have is really all about this idea of shared value," said Newton. "We can actually do great things with others in society and make a significant impact, but also bring value back into our business."
Chitwood pointed to projects the automaker has set up in Tokyo and in Grenoble, France, that involve so-called last-mile solutions that get commuters from public transit hubs to the door of their home or office.
In both cities, that last-mile trip is taken in ultracompact electric vehicles that can be picked up at one location and dropped off at another. One of the vehicles is a three-wheel Toyota i-Road, which carries one person and some minimal belongings.
Such options may be impractical for a place such as Dallas, but Toyota sees a need even there for innovative last-mile transportation.
"We know that there are really smart ways to utilize your personal vehicle. It's really about making sure they're used in harmony with other mobility solutions in cities," said Newton. "We don't want cars to become the enemy."