Where par­ents feel like chauf­feurs, com­pa­nies step in

Times Standard (Eureka) - - BUSINESS - By Cathy Busse­witz

NEW YORK » When Deb Fink heard about a com­pany that could drive her 9-year-old son to his af­ter-school pro­gram, she balked at the idea of putting him in a car with a stranger. But faced with the un­re­lent­ing pres­sure of driv­ing him where he needed to go in the mid­dle of her work­day, she de­cided to give it a try.

Now she is sold, and grate­ful for the hand­ful of ride-hail­ing com­pa­nies that have emerged to re­solve a dilemma many par­ents face: How is it pos­si­ble to pick up chil­dren from schools that end at 3 p.m. and drive them to mul­ti­ple ac­tiv­i­ties across town, all while hold­ing a full-time job?

The ride-hail­ing com­pa­nies en­able par­ents to sum­mon a car — and in some cases child­care — for their lit­tle ones through smart­phone apps. Among them are HopSkipDri­ve, Kango and Zum, hatched as star­tups pri­mar­ily led by work­ing moms as ride-hail­ing be­comes a ubiq­ui­tous part of dig­i­tal life. To­gether, the com­pa­nies have driven more than 1.4 mil­lion chil­dren in 16,000 schools, pri­mar­ily in Cal­i­for­nia but with a grow­ing pres­ence in Colorado, Texas and Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Sara Schaer, co­founder and CEO of Kango, says her com­pany wants to be a so­lu­tion as soon as par­ents run up against the chal­lenge of juggling work and fam­ily, rather than hav­ing them wait for their child to turn 6 or 7 or 8 when “the dam­age is done” and “you’ve had to dial back on your ca­reer, you’ve not been able to en­roll them in cer­tain ac­tiv­i­ties that you wanted to get them started early on, or you’ve had to move closer to where the day care is, or have lim­ited your choices in that way.”

The de­mand for such ser­vices has been so high

in some places that com­pa­nies strug­gle to pro­vide enough driv­ers. Oth­ers face hur­dles con­vinc­ing par­ents that a stranger hired by a ride-hail­ing com­pany is trust­wor­thy enough to ferry their most pre­cious pas­sen­gers. They have dis­tanced them­selves from main­stream heavy­weights Uber and Lyft, which have been hit by law­suits ac­cus­ing driv­ers of as­sault­ing pas­sen­gers.

To al­lay con­cerns, com­pa­nies cater­ing to kids claim to screen driv­ers more ex­ten­sively, check­ing their fin­ger­prints and re­quir­ing them to have child­care or par­ent­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, some­times de­scrib­ing them as “nan­nies on wheels.” Driv­ers and chil­dren are given pass­words that must match, and par­ents can track a child’s where­abouts in real-time through the app.

“Ev­ery parent is go­ing to be nat­u­rally skep­ti­cal, and we built it with that in mind,” said Joanna Mc­Far­land, CEO and co-founder of HopSkipDri­ve, which op­er­ates in five states. “As a parent, you may not know your child’s friends’ par­ents or you may not know who the bus driver

is. It’s re­ally no dif­fer­ent, but with this you have that track­ing ca­pa­bil­ity, and you know they’ve gone through that vet­ting process.”

Fink’s son ini­tially rode with an­other child when they started get­ting rides from HopSkipDri­ve, easing his dis­com­fort about get­ting in the car with a stranger.

“We love it,” said Fink, an ed­u­ca­tor in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia. “We had some is­sues with the driver giv­ing the kids candy, or the driver not know­ing the pass­word, but for the most part I feel very com­fort­able and con­fi­dent.”

Zum, which op­er­ates in seven states, drives chil­dren aged 5 to 18 and HopSkipDri­ve serves ages 6 and up. Kango, which op­er­ates in Cal­i­for­nia, will pick up ba­bies, and they re­quest — but don’t re­quire — that a care­giver ac­com­pany chil­dren un­der 2 years old.

Un­like a babysit­ting ar­range­ment, par­ents can­not in­ter­view can­di­dates in advance or hire the same re­cur­ring driver us­ing HopSkipDri­ve or Zum. On Kango, par­ents can “meet and greet” a driver be­fore a ride and can re­quest one

or more to be the reg­u­lar driver.

If some­thing does go wrong, many com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing in the space re­quire con­sumers to give up their right to file a law­suit and to agree to ar­bi­tra­tion or pre-ar­bi­tra­tion me­di­a­tion.

In places where ride­hail­ing ser­vices for kids aren’t avail­able, some par­ents have re­sorted to Uber and Lyft, even though driv­ers for those com­pa­nies are not sup­posed to pick up solo pas­sen­gers un­der 18.

Me­gan Schade oc­ca­sion­ally calls an Uber for her 14-year-old son, who she de­scribes as street-savvy, with good in­tu­ition and an “in­tim­i­dat­ing pres­ence.” If she had a daugh­ter, the Brook­lyn mom said she most likely would not send her in an Uber.

“At least with the driv­ing, you have a record of who’s driv­ing your kid,” Schade said. “There’s a cy­ber trail.”

Other par­ents said they wouldn’t take the risk.

“All it takes is one bad per­son who’s will­ing to risk their en­tire Uber ca­reer on hurt­ing some­one or kid­nap­ping a kid,” said Jeanne Solomon, a Brook­lyn mom with a 14-year-old son.

BEN MAR­GOT — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

On Tues­day, Zum driver Stacey Pa­trick, right, waves good­bye to stu­dent Saa­has Kohli, left, as he returns home from school in Saratoga.

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