Parents need help driving kids. Are ride-sharing apps the answer?

Ben Margot/AP/File
Alpa Kohli greets her teenage son Saahas as he returns home from school after a Zūm ride share in Saratoga, California, Oct. 29, 2019. A handful of ride-hailing companies have been created that allow parents to order rides for children using smartphone apps.

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With increasing demands on working couples, a growing number are turning to ride-sharing companies, akin to Uber or Lyft, to transport their children so they can keep up in a culture that thrives on extracurricular activities and extra hours at work.

What started mainly in Silicon Valley is spreading to other parts of the United States – and to school districts – and is causing debate over how and if families should be utilizing new conveniences to help with harried lives. 

Why We Wrote This

For some parents, keeping up with work and student extracurriculars requires an extra set of wheels. But what if that ride is provided by a stranger, albeit a well-vetted one?

A number of the companies started in the past six years, including North Carolina-based GoKart, and several California-based companies such as HopSkipDrive, Kango, and Zūm. HopSkipDrive lets parents book rides for their kids age 6 and up in eight states and Washington, D.C. The company expanded to its 13th city, Las Vegas, in January. Kango expanded to Phoenix in January.  

Tara Vassallo-Soto, in Raleigh, North Carolina, says she felt reassured by the vetting GoKart conducts. She likes that most of the drivers are mothers or grandmothers. The service is less expensive than her prior babysitter, and she’s used it to take her kids home, bring them to gymnastics class, or to meet her at the office. 

“It’s been a godsend to us,” she says. 

Tara Vassallo-Soto and her husband knew something had to give. With both parents working full time and four children scattered among three different schools, after-school pickup was a logistical nightmare. 

When a friend introduced her to GoKart, a business specializing in transporting children, Ms. Vassallo-Soto decided to give it a try. The Raleigh, North Carolina-based mother now schedules rides ahead of time through the company’s app and depends on its drivers to pick up her middle and high-school aged kids three or four times a week. 

“You never want to be the parent that’s not able to pick your kids up from school, but we work full time and this is a really good alternative,” says Ms. Vassallo-Soto. 

Why We Wrote This

For some parents, keeping up with work and student extracurriculars requires an extra set of wheels. But what if that ride is provided by a stranger, albeit a well-vetted one?

With increasing demands on working couples, a growing number are turning to ride-sharing companies, akin to Uber or Lyft, to transport their kids so they can keep up in a culture that thrives on extracurricular activities and extra hours at work. What started mainly in Silicon Valley is spreading to other parts of the United States – and to school districts – and is causing debate over how and if families should be utilizing new conveniences to help with harried lives. 

“As a parent, I’d be uncomfortable using it myself,” says Erin Hatton, a sociology professor who studies labor movements and the gig economy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.  

Yet such companies highlight the pressures parents face, Professor Hatton says, with many overburdened with work and family obligations, undersupported by government and employer policies, and expected to enroll their kids in multiple extracurricular activities.  

“I’m not quite sure this [ride-sharing for kids] is the answer, but clearly there is a need to lighten the load and support working parents and working mothers in general,” she says. 

Options for parents grow

A number of companies providing ride services for children started in the past six years, including North Carolina-based GoKart, and several California-based companies such as HopSkipDrive, Kango, and Zūm.

Uber and Lyft ban drivers from giving rides to unaccompanied minors, although a recent poll from the University of Michigan found evidence that teenagers use the services alone. Public transportation isn’t always available for families. 

Fares for HopSkipDrive vary by market and range from a minimum fee for a single-passenger ride of $22 in Washington state to $15 in Colorado. Zūm rides start at $19.50 for solo kids, with cheaper options for carpools. 

Companies like these appeal to affluent parents who are caught in the crosshairs of the dueling societal trends of overworking and rigorous parenting, says Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University and board member of the Council on Contemporary Families. 

“You might think if people are dedicating more time to work, then they would dedicate less time to parenting, but that’s actually not true,” says Professor Schoppe-Sullivan. Middle and upper-income parents face a culture of “intensive parenting,” where “parenting requires a lot of investment of time and money to give children every opportunity.”

HopSkipDrive lets parents book rides for their kids age 6 and up in eight states and Washington, D.C. The company just raised $22 million in venture funding and expanded to its 13th city, Las Vegas, in January. Kango expanded to Phoenix in January.  

“A lot of parents need a little extra help. They might not need a full-time nanny, but they don’t want to sacrifice their careers or limit their kids from being able to do activities or even just get to school on time,” says Miriam Ravkin, senior vice president for marketing at HopSkipDrive. 

To assuage parent concerns, HopSkipDrive and other companies highlight the strength of their security measures. HopSkipDrive requires its drivers to undergo multiple background checks including an FBI check, holds in-person interviews, and only hires drivers with at least five years of child care experience. Drivers and children can exchange a secret password, and parents can follow the ride in real time on an app. 

“This company was built by overprotective moms,” says Ms. Ravkin. 

This week, according to local reports, a HopSkipDrive driver appeared in court in Las Vegas. He has been charged with luring a child and unlawful contact with a minor.

“The safety and security of every rider is of utmost importance to us. We have always upheld and enforced stringent safety standards,” HopSkipDrive said in a separate statement to the Monitor. The company reiterated the steps it takes to check its drivers, adding, “We immediately address any allegation that is made and enforce a strict zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate conduct. ... We fully cooperate with local law enforcement to support any investigation.”

Still finding solid footing

Despite the growth of specialty ride-hailing companies, there are plenty of potential pitfalls. Several have folded, including the Bay Area’s Shuddle in 2016 and Newton, Massachusetts-based Sheprd in 2018. Both companies ran out of funding, and Sheprd faced permitting problems with the state. 

Another Massachusetts-based service for children, Zemcar, stopped facilitating rides last year, in part because operating costs were too high, says Juliette Kayyem, the company’s CEO. Zemcar pivoted to sell its proprietary technology, including audio and video feeds from inside the car. 

“There’s going to be a price point where parents will begin to balk, where it’s just cheaper to have a babysitter or leave work early,” says Ms. Kayyem, a mother of three who also lectures on security at Harvard University. 

“I think there is a market for it, but we could not figure it out,” she says. “Even if we were to raise $20, 30, 40 million dollars, we could not figure out scale and volume in a fast-enough time frame.” 

Several “Uber for kids” companies are diversifying their business model. HopSkipDrive started partnering with public and private school districts two years ago to provide rides for students in remote areas and for foster or homeless students who live outside the school district but are still entitled to transportation. 

Recently, HopSkipDrive CEO Joanna McFarland told TechCrunch that 70% of the company’s revenue comes from school districts. Zūm has also rolled out partnerships with more than 4,000 school districts in six states and Washington, D.C. 

Some parents and members of the public remain skeptical about putting children in strangers’ cars, no matter how highly vetted. In Raleigh, Ms. Vassallo-Soto says she felt reassured by the vetting GoKart conducts. She likes that most of the drivers are mothers or grandmothers. The service is less expensive than her prior babysitter, and she’s used it to bring her kids home, take them to gymnastics class, or to meet her at the office. 

“It’s been a godsend to us,” she says. 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the court appearance of a driver for HopSkipDrive and a statement in response from the company.

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