Several companies that launched to meet the demand by catering to unaccompanied minors are gaining traction in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Using these app-based transportation services, families can book rides in advance to take students to and from school, work, after-school activities, extracurriculars or anywhere else they need to be.
Keller ISD and Tarrant County have also recently contracted with ride-hailing services to fill the gap in existing transportation services.
The school district’s Federal Programs Department began working with one service provider in August. KISD pays HopSkipDrive to transport about seven students living outside of the district due to special circumstances, said Leigh Cook, KISD director of federal programs and academic compliance.
“When we’re dealing with one or two students who live in Arlington or North Richland Hills or [somewhere else], this is more cost-effective and more timely than sending a big, yellow bus,” Cook said.
Northwest ISD does not have any similar plans, NISD Communications Specialist Anthony Tosie said in an email. It currently partners with Reliant for bus transportation services.
HopSkipDrive is based in Los Angeles. It recently started serving the larger public in Dallas and surrounding suburbs, including Keller, Roanoke and areas of Northeast Fort Worth.
HopSkipDrive’s launch followed on the heels of New York-based VanGo, which was introduced in the DFW region over the summer. VanGo has not yet expanded into Fort Worth but plans to do so in the future.
A representative from another company called Zum confirmed via email that it, too, is expected to begin servicing the DFW area at a later, unspecified date.
But Dallas residents may be the most familiar with Bubbl, which has been operating in the city limits since 2016.
Bubbl also works with area nonprofits whose clients may face transportation barriers, said Pam Adams, co-founder and chief growth officer for Bubbl.
“[Nonprofits] can have a great program and be funded. But if people aren’t coming in using their social services, then it’s not working,” Adams said.
While Bubbl serves the North Dallas area, it can accommodate rides to and from Tarrant County and surrounding cities, Adams said in an email. Rides that remain within Tarrant County may carry additional fees if they can be accommodated.
Tarrant County Commissioners Court also approved a contract in October with Bubbl to help clients of county organizations, such as its public health department, criminal district attorney’s office, administrator’s office and other departments.
“As far as being here locally, we were really the first,” Adams said. “They are now starting to come from all over. Some people have different specialties. Some are offering buses and shuttles. Some are hiring mothers. Some are looking at private drivers versus carpooling, so there are definitely different models that are being experimented with.”
SERVING THE COMMUNITY
There is a “huge need” for this type of service, HopSkipDrive CEO Joanna McFarland said. She, along with two other women, got into the business because they were struggling to balance work and family life.
“We started HopSkipDrive really to solve our own problem as parents,” she said.
It seemed to McFarland that there were other families in the same boat.
“Dallas—overall, the metroplex—is a growing area,” McFarland said. “Hundreds of thousands of people are moving here every year. There are over a million kids that are school age in this area, and traffic and congestion are certainly [problems]. We thought that this is something that we could really help solve.”
Executives said the demand for this service stems from traffic congestion, hectic schedules and large populations.
Companies catering to children have added some extra measures to put parents at ease when using these ride-hailing services. Drivers go through extensive background checks and often need a specific amount or kind of experience to be hired. Many apps have ride-tracking capabilities for parents to monitor rides as well as a support team to contact in case of emergencies. Parents typically receive driver identification details before their children get in the car. In addition, some have notifications to alert parents that their children have arrived at their destinations safely.
HopSkipDrive and Bubbl also serve adults, such as seniors who cannot drive themselves or those with special needs.
VanGo, on the other hand, caters exclusively to older children and teenagers.
“We really geared ourselves as a company for working parents and specifically for working moms,” VanGo founder Marta Jamrozik said. “What we’re really trying to do is create a support system, starting with transportation.”
Jamrozik and her team monitor user signups, and demand has steadily advanced west of Dallas.
“In fact, there are a lot of parents in Fort Worth who are just waiting until that part of our service area [launches],” Jamrozik said. “We’re trying to expand consciously to make sure that we have enough drivers in that area, so that we can fulfill demand.”
In the launch of all these apps, safety was at the forefront of the conversation, company executives said. HopSkipDrive and VanGo require drivers to have a certain number of years of caregiving experience. This could include parents, nurses, teachers and nannies.
More than 85% of VanGo drivers are mothers, Jamrozik said.
Meanwhile, Bubbl drivers are former or off-duty police officers, first responders, medics and other civil servants. Its cars also come equipped with cameras.
Drivers for all three service providers go through extensive background processing, such as fingerprinting and reference checks. Vehicles are also inspected before being deployed. Parents are given the driver’s name, photo and vehicle license plate. They can also count on notification alerts or monitor the route through the app.
And although minors can benefit from transportation services, the terms and conditions for these apps have an 18-years minimum age requirement for who can create accounts to order rides.
“Uber, sort of, created this world of ride-on-demand, and I think we’ve just, sort of, taken that idea and taken it to a different level to provide [safe services] for busy families that just need to get the kids where they need to be and have the accountability to do so,” Adams said.