If only children were allowed to drive, they could get from home to school to piano lessons and back home again without their parents’ help. Alas, they are not.
In recent years, though, a slew of relatively small companies have stepped in to correct for this unfortunate fact, offering a service that, from the perspective of an overstressed parent, has a similar effect: They sell dependably safe, usually prescheduled car rides for unaccompanied minors.
These Uber-like companies have mostly limited their operations to just one or two metropolitan areas each, and they’re dotted throughout the country—from Los Angeles to Denver to Charlotte. They have appropriately start-uppy names like Zūm and Sheprd, and tend to charge in the neighborhood of $15 for a 15-minute ride (but usually less if a child rides with other children). Compared with the biggest ride-hailing companies, Uber and Lyft, these ones are tiny in scale: The number of rides they book each month is in the thousands. But what they lack in size they make up for in safety, hiring background-checked driverswith multiple years of caregiving experience. One (Bubbl, in Dallas) exclusively employs off-duty or retired police officers, and another (Zemcar, in New England) lets parents watch a live video of their kid en route.
Given the vexing mismatch between the workday and the school day, there is no shortage of parents who would love to remove pickups and drop-offs from their list of daily stressors. But it is an open question whether driving kids to and fro—which comes with a set of logistical challenges all its own—is something that could ever be off-loaded onto a fleet of part-time workers. The nascent kids’-rides industry, with its localized successes and occasional struggles, offers a glimpse of one possible future for how families get around.
Each company in the industry tends to pursue a similar group of people: well-off families with two time-starved working parents and multiple overbooked children. “Kids can make it on time to the very best rowing practice, math tutoring, and fencing class,” says Kate Soskil, the marketing manager of the Massachusetts-based Sheprd, as she described the company’s target customers, “and Mom/Dad can stay late at the office for that important meeting that’s running over.” Juliette Kayyem, the CEO of Zemcar, told me that “divorced dads are actually a big customer base for us.”
These companies are effectively trying to replace carpools and school buses, and the majority of them were launched in the past two to five years. Arun Sundararajan, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business and the author of The Sharing Economy: The End of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism, says he attributes the boomlet to the rapid rise of Uber and Lyft during that time: Those two companies proved the viability of on-demand rides, but since their terms of service prohibited minors from riding unaccompanied, there was room for kid-specific firms to claim some of the market. In carving out this niche, these companies have been decidedly less cutthroat in their business practices, and because so many of them seek drivers with professional caregiving experience, many of those drivers are women.
The kids’-rides industry is yet another gig-economy innovation that outsources chores, such as grocery shopping and housecleaning, to an on-demand workforce. For the parents who can afford it, this can be a big help. But, says Liana Sayer, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who specializes in families’ time use, “for more disadvantaged families, my guess—and it’s only a guess—is that it wouldn’t really have an impact, because of the cost of the service.” Backing up Sayer’s guess, the Pew Research Center has found that college graduates and high earners are more likely to use ride-hailing services than those who didn’t go to college or who earn comparatively less.
And sometimes, Sayer added, “companies don’t deliver—restaurants won’t deliver and certain companies won’t deliver packages—to disadvantaged neighborhoods, because of concerns for their drivers,” which could additionally limit who gets to use kids’-rides services. Indeed, unofficial car and van networks have been operating in parts of cities underserved by public transit, and they don’t have slick brand names or apps.
The relatively affluent niche these companies occupy remains, for now, uncontested by Uber and Lyft. A couple of years ago, Uber did test a program in three different cities for kids ages 13 to 17, but a spokesperson said kids’ rides are “not our current focus.”
Despite Uber’s and Lyft’s official ban on unaccompanied riders under the age of 18, kids’ rides make up an unknown, but potentially not insignificant, chunk of both companies’ business. “I bet they’re the No. 1 provider of rides for minors, but just not officially offering it as a service,” says Harry Campbell, who runs the driver-oriented website The Rideshare Guy and regularly hears from drivers for both companies. Nick Allen, who co-founded a now-defunct kids’-rides company called Shuddle, told me that he thought it was mostly teens who might be riding with Uber or Lyft, not younger children.
When I asked Uber and Lyft if they were aware of this happening on their platform, spokespeople for each referred me to the companies’ terms of service. They noted that users’ accounts can be deactivated if used to transport a minor and that drivers can report such violations, but neither company would say how regularly minors might be riding.
Campbell told me he thought that Uber and Lyft have, legally speaking, stayed out of this market because they don’t want to take on the liability that might come with transporting kids. He also said that the sort of job experience parents might prefer drivers to have—think Bubbl’s corps of police officers—would necessitate a much more intensive hiring process on their part. “It’s a big endeavor—almost like a separate company,” Campbell said of assembling a group of drivers who’d be up to parents’ standards.
Uber and Lyft have also probably kept their distance because the economics of giving kids rides are particularly perplexing, as Allen, the Shuddle co-founder, discovered. The potential market, he told me, is “humongous,” but one big challenge is that “kids move around all at the same time”—most trips happen right before or right after school starts. “Most of your supply gets one or two rides a day,” he said, which is “not enough work for the average driver.”
The basic business model remains generally unproven, but there are a few other approaches companies might try. Allen, who now runs a men’s-skin-care start-up, thinks that companies might succeed by expanding their clientele to other groups—such as the elderly or those with special needs—that might need to get around at times when drivers would otherwise be idle. Meanwhile, Rodrigo Prudencio, Shuddle’s other founder, spoke favorably of efforts to sell rides directly to schools. “The big opportunity is to disrupt the yellow-bus service,” he told me.
Sundararajan, the NYU economist, presented me with a broader view of what might happen in the long run to these companies. He thinks it’s likely that eventually there will be a few major apps people will use to get around and that will stitch together different modes of transportation, such as cars, trains, scooters, and walking. In this possible future, Sundararajan says kids’-rides companies could prosper as specialized independent businesses, as long as they are compatible with those dominant apps.
If these companies survive, and especially if they can make their services more affordable, they have the potential to make many parents’ lives easier. But it’s possible something less perceptible might be lost in the process. Sayer, the sociologist, says that cars can be “a space that allows parents and children to talk, sometimes about difficult things to talk about, so I wonder if parents would have mixed feelings about giving up this time.” She’s right, but as Allen told me, some of the parents who used his service said driving rarely felt like quality time to them, with kids staring at their phone for much of the ride. Which is what they might be doing no matter who’s driving.
This article originally appeared on The Atlantic.