In the past, Matheson has relied on part-time nannies to help her carry the load, racking up hundreds of dollars a week for them to ferry her children around the Bay Area. More recently, she said, she has offloaded much of that burden on a ride-hailing company for kids called Zum.
Matheson said the company has helped her ease the burden created by her children’s schedules. In turn, she said, Zum has offered her the ability to focus even more of her energy on her career.
“As a woman, you tend to pick everything up and be in charge of everyone’s logistics, which helps your family, but it can also take a massive toll on your own life,” she said. “You can’t imagine how many meetings there are in start-ups where everyone else in the room is male, and I’m typically the only one worrying about the logistics of my kids while I’m also trying to do my work.”
Zum isn’t just a way for parents to outsource portions of their hectic lives. In addition to it being available to families such as the Mathesons, Zum has partnered with dozens of California school districts in recent years and is available to students at 2,000 schools in the Bay Area and in Los Angeles, many of which still rely on yellow school buses, the company says. On Thursday, Zum — which is accessible to parents through a mobile app and claims it has already completed 1 million rides — announced it is expanding to a half dozen other cities around the country, including San Diego, Miami, Phoenix, Dallas, Chicago and the D.C. area. Rides will begin in those locations next month.
In the District, Zum will compete with HopSkipDrive, a ride-hailing service founded by three working mothers in Los Angeles for children ages 6 to 18 that arrived on the East Coast earlier this year. In Dallas, Zum will compete with Bubbl, a ride service staffed by off-duty police officers and first responders, one of many small transportation companies that have popped up around the country in recent years seeking to fill a similar niche.
For much of the past century, generations of children have walked from their homes to bus stops each morning, embarking on a commute that is synonymous with both public education and adolescence. Beyond providing fodder for unknown numbers of television shows and iconic movies over the years, school buses have also played a prominent, and still controversial, role in America’s efforts to desegregate.
They have also been precarious environments beset by drug use, bullying, fighting and sexual activity — a “Lord of the Flies”-like island on wheels where the law of the jungle too often prevails.
Companies such as Zum, GoKart, Kango, Bubbl and HopSkipDrive — all of which are competing to become the next “Uber for kids” — are pitching themselves as the 21st-century alternative. If widely adopted, they maintain, their model could usher in a new era of safer, greener and more data-rich transportation for students that can be tracked by parents in real time.
For now, with ride-hailing for students still in its early stages and gradually gaining momentum, many districts offering Zum are using it to transport small numbers of students in conjunction with traditional bus routes. Many other students, school officials say, still rely on their parents for rides or have access to their own vehicles.
Shuddle, a ride-share start-up that shut down in 2016 after two years of operation and after raising more than $10 million, reveals that the room for error remains small.
Even so, investors believe Zum has potential for growth. In February, Zum raised $44 million in a Series C funding round led by BMW i Ventures. It was joined by Spark Capital, Sequoia Capital and Volvo Cars Tech Fund, bringing the company’s total funding to $71 million.
Investors know that ride-hailing has already been widely adopted by young people, but with a serious caveat that could play into Zum’s favor. Unaccompanied minors are prohibited from using services such as Uber and Lyft, though experts warn it can be difficult to verify a rider’s age. Data from a teen debit card company reveals that “ride-sharing services combined to capture 84 percent of teen spending on taxi services.” Despite age restrictions, some teenagers use drivers with specialized insurance that allows them to drive younger passengers, the study notes. Unlike Uber or Lyft, Zum rides are booked the day before, and the service is not designed to be on-demand.
Both Uber and Lyft have been plagued by reports of criminal drivers and demands for more rigorous background checks, leaving many parents with serious concerns about their children using either service.
Zum claims its drivers have three years or more of child-care experience. They undergo background checks and SafeSchools training courses, and the company claims its safety protocols are reviewed by KidsAndCars.org, a national nonprofit child safety organization. The firm says its business model is fundamentally dependent on its ability to keep students safe.
Janette Fennell, president of KidsAndCars.org, said the two organizations have also worked together to create best practices for driver training.
“We wanted to make sure students were transported correctly — in the back seat,” Fennell said. “We also put a big emphasis on making sure children are never left alone in the vehicle because that’s very dangerous. There’s a lot of thought that goes into each pickup and drop-off.”
School buses are typically funded by state education budgets with taxpayer dollars, the same money being used by districts to pay for Zum, according to the company.
When used by families outside of school, Zum starts at $10 for carpool rides (per child for a one-way trip) and $19.50 for a single (non-carpool) ride. Like Uber or Lyft, the company says, prices vary depending on location and time of day. At about $20 a ride, HopSkipDrive is also more expensive than alternatives such as Uber and Lyft, but it also offers carpooling options that lower prices.
Matheson admitted that the ride-hailing service is sometimes pricey, with longer rides costing as much as $30 apiece. However, that’s still less expensive than a part-time nanny. The company claims that, on average, kids who use the service in California take 10 Zum rides a month.
“I have friends using the service for their kids two, three times a day,” Matheson said.
Ritu Narayan, co-founder and chief executive of Zum, said the idea for the company came from her own experience as a mother juggling her children’s schedules, a challenge that began to affect her career.
“Each day, I was always on the edge of leaving my job to deal with a family issue,” said Narayan, who was working at eBay at the time. “I saw similar problems among the parents around me.”
In hopes of injecting flexibility into tightly packed family schedules, Narayan settled on creating a door-to-door ride-hailing service for kids. As she refined her idea, she said, it became clear that the established methods for moving children between their homes and schools were in desperate need of a modern upgrade.
“We’re stuck in an infrastructure that is 70 years old, and the yellow buses that districts rely on are only used 20 percent of the time,” she said, noting that busing is a $50 billion industry. “Schools find it very hard to replace drivers who quit or are fired, and children end up spending enormous amounts of time on the buses, which impacts their performance in the classroom.
“The current system is not personalized or flexible, and it doesn’t extend to after-school arrangements,” she added.
Using Zum, schools can pick which children travel together, and parents receive notifications informing them of a driver’s precise arrival time instead of having children linger at bus stops.
Zum says the company also provides schools with a technology platform that allows school officials to optimize transportation routes and monitor vehicles on those routes in real time. The result of using smaller and more efficient vehicles, according to Zum, is lower transportation costs and reduced administrative hassle.
Grace Garner, chief business officer with the Garvey School District in Rosemead, Calif., a city in the San Gabriel Valley just east of Los Angeles, said her district saved more than half a million dollars in the first year of switching from buses to Zum, with many special education students reducing their commute times from more than 45 minutes to less than 15.
Paula Wessels, assistant to the chief of student support services for the Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High School District outside San Jose, said her district has cut its transportation costs by just under half since partnering with Zum. Now in the third year of the partnership, she said, the district has completely phased out traditional buses. Wessels said school districts are evolving to keep up with the evolving expectations of parents, whose own lifestyles are being changed by ride-hailing, smartphones and more sophisticated delivery options.
“Parents have always wanted their students to get to school safely — that hasn’t changed,” said Wessels, who personally tracks about 40 students who rely on Zum to get to and from school each day. “What has changed is that parents can track their students’ rides on their phone and it gives them peace of mind, and students can give them feedback about whether they were pleased with the driver. It really is a personal service.”