School starts this month—the best beach month! What could they be thinking?— and I’ll be out there among the road warriors, my SUV packed with seven teenagers chattering in a language I pretend not to understand.
But shift it into park and say hallelujah. In a few months, my youngest child turns 16, and my days of being a ride-hailing app for three kids will be over. Clogged highways and byways leading to three schools at six times, soccer practice, service projects, tennis lessons, tutoring, baseball, body boarding, drum concerts, acting classes, guitar sessions, campfires at the beach, visits to friends’ houses from La Habra to San Clemente: The GPS-pinball life soon will be done.
I know I’m not alone. This is Orange County. We drive.
And though I wouldn’t trade all those intimate, cloistered drive-time conversations with my kids and their friends, the taxiing takes a toll. Most of my friends have resorted to Uber, none of them aware that children younger than 18 are forbidden from riding without an adult. I only learned this while researching this column.
And none of us knew that the past year saw the rise of some ride-hailing apps designed specifically for children. Among those available in Orange County: HopSkipDrive and Zum.
The larger of these services, HopSkipDrive, was founded last year by three Los Angeles mothers who were discussing their driving issues one afternoon at a child’s birthday party.
“We have eight kids between us who go to five schools, 17 different after-school activities, and we were ripping our hair out trying to make it work,” says founder and CEO Joanna McFarland, who has an MBA from Stanford. “We figured there had to be a better way. Families live far away. Parents are working. Kids are busier than ever. You’re constantly starting from scratch. Seasons change. Schedules change. You’re always solving problems. That’s where we come in. We provide a consistent solution.”
The service has taken off quickly. It expanded to Orange County last year after meeting a $10.2-million venture capital funding round. It’s really more than a driving service, as drivers are asked to sign the kids in and out of their schools and activities and even wait when children are running late. Parents tend to use the service repeatedly in a week and even in one day, prescheduling their drives (same-day service recently became available). The minimum fare for a family is $16, or $7 if the child is part of a HopSkipDrive carpool.
For neonatal nurse Trace Klug of Laguna Beach, the service came at just the right time. She believed she had no alternative but to quit her full-time job when her husband became more immersed in his start-up company.
“I couldn’t work (full time). We just couldn’t do it. My children needed rides to two schools and after-school activities. It was too difficult, ” she says. “This is just huge. It has changed our family’s life. I was able to go back, and financially, we are so much better off. We have health benefits. I have a 401(k) again. We don’t have all the stress.”
But there’s a new kind of stress: Placing your child’s welfare in the hands of a stranger in a setting that’s relatively dangerous: Southern California traffic. But Klug says she has confidence in the drivers, who are often the same every time.
HopSkipDrive’s McFarland, whose goal is to take the company national, would not release specific ridership numbers except to say they are in the hundreds of thousands overall, and in the tens of thousands in Orange County. There are also “hundreds” of drivers here, she said, discovering a new way to make money in an environment they maintain is safer than driving for other ride-hailing businesses.
HopSkipDrivers must have at least five years of child-care experience (most of the drivers are moms), be at least 23, and undergo a 15-point background check that includes FBI records, fingerprints, child-abuse and sex-offender records, and more. Vehicles are regularly inspected, and drivers are tracked live through software that allows the HopSkipDrive monitoring team to communicate in real time.
“It really is the best job ever,” says driver Rita Webber, a mother from Lake Forest who says she can make anywhere from $14 to $58 per job driving kids. “I really get attached to the kids. They’re just really sweet. I look forward to seeing them all the time. I ask them, ‘How’s your day going?’ The kids say, ‘It’s like having my mom with me.’ ”
The best job ever. Like having my mom with me.
As tiring as that road has become, it really is part of the best job ever. As I grip the steering wheel, my children and their friends talk about things they normally never see fit to share with me—it’s as if my only function is to drive and I don’t have ears. They talk about love interests, classes, music, parties, sex, and drugs. And it’s as if we’ve all signed a pact: This information will never leave the SUV.
The truth is, like so much about raising kids, it’s a mixed bag. I can think of other things to do with my remaining time on this planet besides being swallowed up by that octopus of a freeway. But I’m also going to miss it dearly—my three most-beloved passengers and the confessional bubble of our car rides together.