South Side graduate and entrepreneur John Thomas Benson is the owner and driver of the Downtown Courtesy Shuttle, an inexpensive and clean-energy alternative of zipping around the center city. He’s working to make it the new Uber for downtown commuting.
His electric vehicle can hold six people, including a driver, and only costs, on average, a staggering $5 to charge, good for roughly 50 miles and about eight hours of juice. And he’s installed solar panels, for additional charging support. Benson rents a parking space from a friend, who lives downtown so he’s already there.
Handicapped and disabled individuals ride for free; he charges $3 for one passenger, $5 for two, and $8 for three to five. He’s also installed a rolling billboard on the top of vehicle to solicit advertisers, so he can keep his costs low. By 2020, he hopes to expand with a second vehicle.
You’re on a lunch break from Lincoln Financial and you want to grab something from the parked food truck convoy over by Jimmie Johns, call Benson at 260.222.4144. This is his full-time job now…it’s all on this, so, barring any emergencies, he will be downtown and ready to bounce from around 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and after 5 p.m., for the after-work crowd. And, most especially, for downtown events and baseball games.
It took Benson just over two decades to get to this well-earned place.
After high school, he worked that factory life until he couldn’t any longer. “I decided that being in factories is not me,” Benson said, because his identity, like a lot of folks reading this, is defined by what he does.
Wanting a change, he ventured into real estate and purchased a couple of homes. It allowed him to concentrate on his family more, sure, but as he said, repeating the sentiment from his factory experience, “it didn’t balance out.” Some other side jobs, like car detailing didn’t pan out either.
Benson really wanted to leave a legacy for his children while having an impact on the city. And his crazy ideas were starting to crystalize and become marketable and fundable…for other people. Benson and his friend came up with the idea for a bicycle sharing program, the one that’s currently in use downtown right now, but never jumped on it. They saw it on the news. Someone else’s realized ambition.
Sometime after that, he was at the Three Rivers Festival with his nephew, who is handicapped, and was encumbered with the responsibility of pushing a wheelchair while carrying his one-year-old. Then he had to park about five blocks from where he wanted to be.
When he visited bigger cities, though, there was always a shuttle service that traversed the downtown area, to alleviate those situations, that Fort Wayne was without. Benson found his one big thing.
He first looked into getting a low-speed golf cart, because whatever legacy he was leaving his children, he wanted it to be fueled by clean energy, anything to make the earth less polluted. Golf carts were out (the city didn’t allow them) so, through more research, he found a company in Florida that sold low-speed electric vehicles.
The model he bought in June 2017 goes (and only needs to go) 30 miles per hour, the perfect and law-abiding downtown speed. He got his LLC and created a business plan, with the help of business consultant Cozey Baker (after a referral from FWIS publisher John Dortch), before his electric bus arrived, which was originally going to be that September.
It would have been right on time for Fort for Fitness; Benson had begun talks for a collaboration. But Hurricane Irma hit the Atlantic Basin hard, including the company that produced the electric vehicles. “I went into depression mode,” for about a month. It was a big investment, about the price of a new Harley, Benson figured, who described his model as the Lexus version. It arrived about a month later.
There was still some hesitancy. Benson was still full-time at his previous job and could only come out after work, which meant no lunchtime shuttles. It took the advice from Downtown Improvement District’s Bill Brown to give him that last, needed push. “It was constructive criticism,” he said. “He said that it was a great idea, but, if I don’t quit my job, this is a just hobby.” He quit that job.
Downtown Courtesy Shuttle