WHAT'S a working parent to do?
When the school day ends at 3 o'clock and the workday stretches until 5 p.m., how do you transport children to music lessons, gymnastics, babysitters' homes, and appointments? Even the most tolerant boss can't accommodate too many employees' requests for regular time off to chauffeur offspring.
Now an innovative business idea - children's transportation services - is meeting that need for some families.
Instead of riding in parent-driven cars with bumper stickers reading ``Mom's Taxi,'' children are making their rounds in vans operated by carefully screened drivers and equipped with cellular phones and state-of-the-art safety equipment. More expensive than a bus but cheaper than a taxi, the vans ferry passengers ranging from preschoolers to teenagers.
``The '90s are an era when people are paying for all kinds of services,'' explains Gary Selnick, president of Kids Xpress in Foxborough, Mass. ``This makes parents' lives easier by providing a safe, on-time delivery system.''
In partnership with his brother, Mitch, Mr. Selnick operates two eight-passenger vans in suburbs west of Boston. Parents pay an annual fee of $30, plus a minimum of $5.50 one way for a trip under three miles. All Kids Xpress clients hold contracts for regular service.
Some van services grow out of the experience of parents who know firsthand the challenge of accommodating children's schedules. When Carolyn McAtee Cerbin was Sunday editor of the Dallas Morning News, her erratic hours made it difficult to arrange transportation for two active children. ``I figured that if I was having problems, probably a lot of other parents were having problems also,'' she says.
After moving to the Orlando, Fla., area, Ms. Cerbin started one of the earliest van services, My Chauffeur After-School Shuttle Inc., in 1991. She serves hundreds of children a week, using two 15-passenger vans and one seven-passenger van. Clients range from one-time-only users to those who ride every day of the school year. Rates begin at $10 one way and $15 round trip, with discounts for frequency. Drivers make their first pickups at 6:30 a.m. and finish at 6 p.m.
Another parent-owned service, Kids Around Town, operates in St. Paul, Minn. Its president, Barbara Ruprecht, a former data-processing marketing coordinator for 3M and the mother of two daughters, used a severance package to help finance her 18-month-old business. With eight vans and nine uniformed drivers, she serves more than 125 families. Her youngest passenger was a five-month-old baby, her oldest a 101-year-old woman in a church group.
``The church called and asked if we take big kids too,'' Mrs. Ruprecht says.
Always the emphasis is on safety and a personal touch. Some owners make an initial visit to the child's home before the first pickup to acquaint families with the van and the driver. In addition, the owners of Kids Taxi in Camillus, N.Y., provide photo identification badges for each child. Parents give schools a form verifying that Kids Taxi will transport the child. Parents also assign each child a security code.
``Any changes to the schedule require the security code to be given to us when they call in,'' says Keith Tupper, one of five business partners. Their two Chrysler minivans serve suburban Syracuse, with rates starting at $6 one way and $10 round trip.
Sometimes the newness of these enterprises causes confusion. ``A lot of people are not sure of you when you first go in looking for insurance and financial backing,'' Ruprecht says.
Cerbin tells of similar challenges. ``I can't even get the Yellow Pages to give me the kind of classification I want, which is `Children's transportation services,' '' she says. ``I would have to go under `Chauffeur.' ''
Because these services meet a pressing need, interest is running high among entrepreneurs who see them as lucrative ventures. Indeed, owners of some larger companies, like Ruprecht and Cerbin, expect to franchise. But Julia Reardon, who with her husband, Tim, owns Kids Carrier in Glendale, Ariz., offers a cautionary note.
``Just in the last three days, we've had quite a few people calling us wanting to start a business like this,'' Mrs. Reardon says. ``We've had to be very honest with them. The sad thing is, the demand is out there, but you've got such high overhead with vans and insurance.
``We have a huge waiting list,'' Reardon continues. ``But one of the main problems we have is that all of the schools get out in a half-hour time period, between 2:30 and 3. You can't be all over the city at once. You would think the solution would be to get more vans, but you need to keep moving all day to make any profit.''
Still, Reardon and others emphasize the satisfaction they derive from helping families.
``This is some parents' last resort,'' she says. ``Without services like these, I don't know how kids would get home.''
Ruprecht agrees, saying, ``We make it possible for some students to take part in after-school sports and activities. With their parents' schedules they would never be able to participate otherwise. Children are often very grateful that we're able to pick them up and take them home. That's very satisfying to hear.''