It’s a few minutes shy of six on a Friday, and Gabriel strolls into the misty San Francisco evening. Seeing his ride, he walks past his ninth-grade classmates loitering around their prep school’s entrance, waiting for a parent or babysitter to shuttle them home. He approaches the van parked at the curb with the bright pink kangaroo pasted on its side, slides open the door, and jumps into the back seat.
As Gabriel buckles in, Ariana Garcia begins her last ride of the day. The 14-year-old is an easy charge compared to the younger kids she must sign out of school or strap into a booster seat. Whatever happens, it’s her responsibility. “I always make sure the kids are in their location, in the school or in the house, before I take off,” she says. After five miles of zipping through the city, they arrive at Gabriel’s front door, where his mother, Sara Schaer, waits outside.
The driver needs to be a “surrogate parent,” Schaer says. Her view matters here: The little pink kangaroo is the emblem for her company Kango, which launched three years ago.
Kango is just one of the startups vying to be “Uber for Kids,” building an optimized, app-based twist on the neighborhood carpool by contracting part-time drivers who transport the youths in their personal cars. To succeed, these companies must not only overcome the struggles faced by powerhouses like Uber and Lyft, but also ace the more difficult test of taking solo minors along for the ride.
The market is definitely there. Kids need to get around, even if their parents are at work or otherwise occupied. Data from a teen debit card company shows that 84 percent of spending on taxis by 13 to 23 year-olds goes to ride-hailing, though unaccompanied minors aren’t supposed to be using most of these services, including Uber and Lyft. But some drivers—either out of ignorance or fear of a punitive rating—don’t verify their passengers are 18. While some parents have complained that Uber drivers are willing to drive their underage kids around, others happily plug their credit card info into their kids’ accounts .
(An Uber spokesperson says the company encourages drivers to request identification from passengers who “look young” and to report underage riders to its customer support services, and that refusing or cancelling these trips will not impact a driver’s rating or account. Similarly, Lyft says those concerned about unaccompanied minors in the car should contact its critical response line, and that drivers will not be penalized for refusing or canceling a ride.)
“Parents do it, frankly, out of desperation,” says Joanna McFarland, one of the three cofounders (all of them parents) of HopSkipDrive, another ride-share service hoping to monopolize the ever-busier afternoon scramble. “I was a latchkey kid, and I managed most of these things on my own. But we don’t live that way anymore.”
So for parents who want to stick to the terms-and-services agreement—and better protect their progeny—these apps offer a compelling alternative: rigorously vetted drivers who can babysit as well as drive.
Before Kari Samayoa, a HopSkipDrive “CareDriver,” started work, she needed five years of childcare experience (she’s a mother of three), a car no more than 10 years old, and a vehicle inspection. For pickups, she usually meets the teacher (or dance instructor, or Spanish tutor, or Quidditch coach) to find her passenger. Children often don’t have their own phones, so they, along with their parents, agree on a code word. Once the parent enters that word into the app, it’s shared with the assigned driver, allowing the child to confirm that the right person is picking them up. Every week, Samayoa also receives a driving “success card,” The company works with Zendrive, a service that uses phone location data to track speeding, braking, and whether a driver is texting at the wheel.
For these services, drivers are almost universally female—mothers, teachers, babysitters, empty-nesters looking for part-time income. As a woman, Samayoa says she feels safer doing this than when she drives for Lyft. “I’m a mom. The kids see me as that,” she says.
Potential rivals for Kango and HopSkipDrive include Silicon Valley–based Zum, which says it has transported more than 500,000 children since its 2014 founding. GoKart runs a smaller service in North Carolina. They also compete with kid-focused carpool apps that don’t use contracted drivers, like Pogo in Seattle.
But mixing minors into the rideshare model—a business that’s already expensive to build—is a difficult feat. These companies must adhere to privacy laws regulating data collected from minors. California law requires their drivers register their fingerprints with TrustLine, a state database of nannies and babysitters who have cleared criminal background checks. Their services are generally more expensive than those offered by Uber and Lyft, and are typically used for pre-scheduled rides, rather than on-demand service.
Those difficulties take their toll. Shuddle, one of the first minor-adapted rideshare startups, shut down in April 2016, after two years of operation. Critics said the company spent the $12 million it raised too quickly , and was slow in requiring its drivers register with TrustLine. When it shuttered, many of its drivers turned to HopSkipDrive, which acquired Shuddle’s assets. Sheprd, another kid-focused ride-hail service operating in Newton, Massachusetts, shut down in late October after announcing that it, too, was struggling with permit issues and had run out of money. Uber piloted a teen service between March and August last year in Seattle, Phoenix and Columbus, but has no service currently available for unaccompanied minors.
While parents’ have been the startups’ main customers, some schools are catching on. Zum has created a shared platform that allows teachers and parents to track traveling students. “It started with knowing about this gap. My children were going to school, and I wanted more parents to use Zum, and I realized that the schools themselves had a big pain point,” says Ritu Narayan, the company’s founder and CEO. Zum has already partnered with about 2,000 schools in over 125 districts, 15 percent of which use the service as their only mode of transportation for students. “We are complementing school buses,” Narayan says.
HopSkipDrive assists schools with field trips, transports students who need individualized care, and drives kids living with out-of-district foster families to their schools. “If you have a school bus, and there are only ten kids on that bus, that becomes a much more expensive bus. And we can be a much more cost-effective option,” McFarland says.
The challenges of making these services work aren’t going away anytime soon, and the companies that have foundered make clear that this is no easy trip. But if Kango, HopSkipDrive, and their competitors can make it work, well, the ride of the future might not look so different from mom and dad’s embarrassingly-suburban minivan.
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