Mar 4, 2020 - Technology

Schools turn to ride-hailing services to transport students

Jalen Walker heads to football practice using service from the company HopSkipDrive with driver Jacqueline Bouknight in Springfield, Virginia

Jalen Walker heads to football practice using service HopSkipDrive with driver Jacqueline Bouknight in Springfield, Virginia last April. Photo: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

When startups set out to become the “Uber for kids” several years ago, they predicted parents would use them to ferry children to and from school and activities — but they’ve since found a much bigger customer: schools.

The big picture: Companies like HopSkipDrive and Zum are getting much of their business from schools using their services to replace or supplement the traditional school buses, especially for students with special needs or for trips outside of existing routes.

How it works: These services typically employ contractors as drivers, but with a twist: They’re required to have child-care experience and pass rigorous background checks, including fingerprinting. In short: they’re babysitters with cars.

  • Parents and schools can book and track rides through apps and dashboards. While parents pay per ride or via monthly subscriptions, some companies sign longer contracts with schools and districts.
  • Schools make up 80% of Zum’s business today, according to co-founder and CEO Ritu Narayan, and 70% of HopSkipDrive’s revenue, the company recently told TechCrunch.
  • Narayan adds that the two main issues with school buses is that they're either underutilized, or when they're full, children end up spending quite a lot of time en route.

What they’re saying: Garvey School District chief business officer Grace Garner told the Washington Post last year that her school district in Rosemead, California, saved more than half a million dollars in the first year of switching from buses to Zum, and cut down the commute of many special education students from 45 minutes to 15.

Between the lines: The success of these companies underscores the undeniable gap in transportation suitable for kids, especially in suburbs and other less dense areas where public transit may not be accessible or safe.

Yes, but: As with other ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, questions remain about how environmentally friendly it is to have private cars shuttling kids to and from school rather than a large bus.

  • Zum argues that it’s actually more sustainable because it offers a range of vehicle sizes including vans, replaces many instances where a parent would drive their child when school buses aren’t available or convenient, and that on average, each ride transports 2.8 kids.
  • “That distribution is built-in because kids are going to the same school,” says Narayan.

Be smart: These companies don't solve for the needs of teenagers, who want independence to get around, but may not be old enough to drive, have a license, or access to a car.

  • As some parents have admitted to Axios, they let their teens use Uber and Lyft despite both companies banning passengers under 18.

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