Getting children where they need to go

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

With Dad and Mom rushing off to work early each weekday morning, who takes 5-year-old Jason from kindergarten to day care after lunch?

Dilip Desai does. In Downer's Grove, Ill., about 35 miles southwest of Chicago, Mr. Desai's Kids Kab company with six vans - all loaded with books, stuffed animals, and puzzles - has succeeded where many other taxi services for kids have run out of gas.

A few years ago there may have been over 350 such van services in the United States. With suburban culture demanding long hours for commuting parents, and shorter school and day-care hours for their kids, paying for taxiing children back and forth seemed like an idea whose time had come.

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But too many services proved to be friendly mom-and-pop enterprises that underestimated costs and were short on business acumen.

Customers willing to pay $12 to $20 for a round trip each day were not so plentiful in some communities. Steep insurance rates and not enough professionalism also doomed some enterprises.

An attempt to establish the National Child Transportation Association lasted two years before it closed its doors.

Surviving taxi services - no one knows how many - have learned how to succeed because a need remains in many towns. "This is not a pizza delivery service," says Desai, "and the parents have to trust you and the quality of your service."

Lisa Torre, owner of Precious Cargo Unlimited in Tenafly, N.J., says two keys to success are signing contracts with parents, and hiring good drivers with child-care experience.

"And it helps to have an above-middle-class clientele who think the extra cost is worth it," she adds.

Mrs. Torre started in l992 with one van after she had operated a service called Errands Unlimited. "We have eight vans now," she says, "and transport between 75 and 100 kids a day." In the van are books, children's magazines, Gameboys, and the radio is tuned to the Disney station.

"We screened all our drivers through a private investigator," says Torre. "The families really want to know the driver, so we try to hire family-oriented people with children of their own."

Some parents sign a contract with Precious Cargo for the school year. Others settle for a weekly or monthly agreement.

"In the mornings we do the regular school routes," says Torre, "and in the afternoons we do a lot of preschool, nursery, and child care." The service comes with juice and snacks on some trips. Wearing seat belts is a must.

In the afternoons the vans also transport children to appointments. "Kids go to doctors, dentists, therapists, tutors, dance, karate; the list is endless," Torre says. "Because the schedules change, we don't require contracts for these trips." For an added cost, drivers will wait for the child and transport him or her on a return trip.

In the red, white, and blue vans of Kids Kab, all kids wear photo ID cards. And all drivers carry a cellphone.

"We are extremely strict about unauthorized people picking up the kids," says Desai. "In the past we have refused a child's grandma from picking her up because she wasn't authorized by the parent. Without the parent's approval, we don't give a child to anybody."

Several times, when parents have been late, Desai has taken a child to his home, or to the nearest McDonald's for a burger. But the meter is always running. Under contract some parents can pay as much as $250 a month for round-trip services.

"We started with two vans in 1994," Desai says, "but I don't think I want to expand too far beyond six because I could lose control. When somebody trusts me with their loved ones, I want to keep it that way."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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