University of Minnesota

Taking them home

The U’s Gopher Chauffeur service helps keep students safe at night.

November 20, 2013

It’s 10 p.m. on a Friday night, and the weekly routine starts anew. Calls stream in to the dispatcher for the Gopher Chauffeur program, the pertinent details go out to navigators and drivers, and students needing a ride across campus—or to or from a neighborhood nearby—are on their way to getting from Point A to Point B at night, safely and for free.

The program that began with a different name six years ago is now enjoying a surge, in part due to greater awareness by students. Gopher Chauffeur provided about 11,000 rides in the 2012–13 academic year and is already on pace to surpass that number this year.

“I think it’s a great value to the campus,” says Julie Sanem, director of health promotion at Boynton Health Service and adviser for the program. “The Gopher Chauffeur is all about promoting safety, and we are making sure that students have a safe way to get home at night.”

From the Express to the Chauffeur

The service originated in fall 2007, when the Minnesota Student Association established the “MSA Express,” with one van, as a way for students to get home safely at night.

The MSA then sought a department to take over and sustain the program, and Boynton, with its focus on health promotion, answered the call.

“It may seem strange for a health service to be operating a safe ride program, but we felt we had the same mission—promoting health and safety on campus,” Sanem says.

Boynton took over in 2008, students voted to change its name to Gopher Chauffeur in 2010, and ridership has grown every year—significantly.

The program operates on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., picking up and dropping off students at the West Bank, East Bank, St. Paul campus, Dinkytown, Stadium Village, neighborhoods like Marcy Park and Southeast Como, and Uptown. The Thursday service is a new feature announced just this week.

Gopher Chauffeur has most recently been using two 12-passenger vans and a 6-passenger Tahoe, but the two larger vans are soon to be replaced by three minivans. The work is handled by about three dozen students, all hired by Boynton Health Service and all CPR certified and trained in first aid. 

“These students are pretty connected to Boynton and have a good understanding and appreciation of student health and promoting safety and wellness,” says Sanem.

One of those “chauffeurs” is sophomore Lydie Smith. She used the service as a freshman when her sister was a driver/navigator, and decided to be part of the program herself this year.

While “it’s basically just nonstop” for four hours or more, she says the job is fun and interesting. The students using Gopher Chauffeur are always so appreciative, she says, even though some have to wait an hour or more for their ride since the service has become so popular.

Third-year student Tim Garay is in his second year with the program, and he also considers his Friday night gig to be fun. “And it works into your schedule,” he says, “whereas a lot of jobs might come into conflict with your classes.”

Gopher Chauffeur is now serving between 300 and 500 students each weekend, and Garay has noticed the upward tick in both ridership and new users, which will likely grow further with the advent of Thursday night service.

“We used to get a lot of return riders, but we’re starting to get a lot of people now who haven’t used the program before,” Garay says. “There’s been a lot more publicity for the Gopher Chauffeur as a safe ride home.”

A shift is almost over, and shortly before 2 a.m. on a Saturday, somewhere in Dinkytown or Uptown, a chorus from a popular song is running through a student’s head:

I know who I want to take me home
I know who I want to take me home
I know who I want to take me home
Take me home

And so the call goes in to 612-388-6911, keeping Smith, Garay, and friends busy looking out for their fellow students in the wee hours of the morning.

“It seems like every weekend we get more people,” Garay says. “And they seem appreciative that they don’t have to walk in the cold, or if they have a long ways to go, [knowing] they’ll be safe.”

Twin Cities Campus: