It was nearing 5 p.m. on a Wednesday, and as usual, Shawna Walker was doing three things at once.
Then, a woman knocked on the front door, wearing an orange T-shirt with the word “CareDriver” on the back.
“You can call me Miss B,” the woman, Jacqueline Bouknight, said while shaking Walker’s hand and introducing herself to Jalen.
Bouknight works for HopSkipDrive, a ride-hailing service for children ages 6 to 18 that is expanding to the Washington area this month. It is one of several growing California-based start-ups aimed at tapping into a market of busy parents struggling to get their children from place to place, at a time when families’ schedules are more hectic than ever before.
For years, parents have been using ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft to move their children around. But the companies’ terms and conditions instruct drivers not to pick up unaccompanied minors. So about five years ago, HopSkipDrive and other similar start-ups began trying to seize the market — with a focus on safety.
“As a full-time working mom I was dying. I was feeling really guilty that I had to tell my son, ‘No, you can’t do karate because it’s at Thursday at 5:00 and I can’t get you there.’” said Joanna McFarland, co-founder and CEO of HopSkipDrive. “We just thought there had to be a better way.”
Founded by three working mothers in Los Angeles, HopSkipDrive says it uses an intense vetting process for drivers that includes FBI-approved fingerprinting, national and global criminal history record checks and a requirement of at least 5 years of caregiving experience.
The mobile application allows parents to book a ride a day in advance, leave customized instructions for drivers, and create a code word for a driver to say when picking up a child. Parents can instruct a driver to sign out a student from school and to walk with a child to ensure he or she connects with the right group. Families can also track a ride as it’s underway, and a support team of 20 people monitors each trip virtually in real time.
But some critics remain skeptical that a niche ride-share company can succeed, particularly for children at a time of heightened safety concerns over services like Uber and Lyft. Late last month, a college student was killed in South Carolina after police say she mistakenly got into the wrong vehicle, thinking it was an Uber ride.
John Boit, a spokesman for the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, questioned the validity of some of the company’s safety checks. He also suggested that the service should place a camera in each car for parents to monitor each ride.
“It’s nice marketing, but marketing won’t protect vulnerable passengers, especially children,” Boit said.
Studies show that parents today spend more time on their children than they did in generations past, despite busier workloads outside of the home, said Liana C. Sayer, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland who studies how American families use time. Parents, especially middle-class working mothers, are pressured to juggle busy work schedules while giving their children the same hands-on parenting and access to extracurricular activities as stay-at-home mothers would in the past.
“If you’re trying to maximize quality time with your children . . . you might look for ways to outsource this type of activity,” Sayer said.
That is, if a parent can afford it. At about $20 a ride, the service is more expensive than alternatives like Uber and Lyft, but HopSkipDrive also allows families to team up in carpools, bringing down the cost, McFarland said.
In the years since it launched, HopSkipDrive has expanded across California, to Denver, and now to the D.C. metro region, its first East Coast market.
It has launched in Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria and plans to start service in the District within the next couple of weeks, and in Maryland before the start of the next school year. Several hundred families and nearly 100 drivers have already signed up in the region, McFarland said.
After two family-focused ride-share start-ups, Shuddle and Boost, were forced to close amid financial struggles in recent years, some critics questioned whether niche ride-hailing services could compete with giants like Uber and Lyft.
But as other alternatives have foundered, HopSkipDrive is one of three child-focused ride-share companies now looking to expand to the East Coast.
A ride-hailing company called Zum, which partners with schools as an alternative to buses, currently serves schools in the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego. It is soon expanding to Dallas and Chicago, and is considering Maryland and the D.C. area as “targets for 2019,” according to an emailed statement from its founder and CEO Ritu Narayan.
Another similar company looking to expand outside of California is Kango, which touts itself as the only service insured to drive passengers under the age of 5, and to offer child care in addition to a ride, if needed, according to a statement from its founder Sara Schaer.
The demand for such a service seems evident in the D.C. region, where commute times are notoriously long for parents who work in the District and live in the suburbs, McFarland said.
When she first heard about HopSkipDrive while watching the news last week, Sandi Tartisel, of Alexandria, was skeptical about putting her 10-year-old son in a car with a stranger. But she was convinced by the requirements for child-care experience, and liked the fact that a driver can walk each child from the car to the final destination. She has booked two rides already, and the service has been a godsend, she said.
As a single mother commuting to her job as a legal secretary in D.C., Tartisel struggles to get her son, Carter, to baseball practice, math tutoring and doctor’s appointments.
“I definitely need this kind of support and I’m sure there are other single parents in my shoes,” Tartisel, 49, said.
Shawna Walker, the mother in Springfield, said she is often forced to rely on friends or her older children to help get Jalen to practices and games for the six sports he plays throughout the year.
“With programs starting earlier and earlier during the day, working parents need and want our kids to have those same opportunities but do struggle with getting them there,” Walker said. “How do you get him to the soccer field or to the clinic right in the middle of the day without having to leave work and without having to think about how traffic is going to impact your schedule? It was a scheduling coordination nightmare.”
When the driver, Bouknight, showed up at the Walkers’ door on Wednesday afternoon, she went through the usual process for picking up a child, asking Jalen for his name, date of birth and code word, even though his mother was there.
Walker had already alerted Bouknight earlier that day through the HopSkipDrive application that the location of Jalen’s football practice had changed to a field he hadn’t been to before. Bouknight promised to walk Jalen to meet his coach, and to let his mother know once he arrived.
“You ready?” Bouknight said to Jalen.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied. Putting on his backpack, he kissed his mother on the cheek as he walked out the door and into Bouknight’s car.