The relatively affluent niche these companies occupy remains, for now, uncontested by Uber and Lyft. A couple of years ago, Uber did test a program in three different cities for kids ages 13 to 17, but a spokesperson said kids’ rides are “not our current focus.”
Despite Uber’s and Lyft’s official ban on unaccompanied riders under the age of 18, kids’ rides make up an unknown, but potentially not insignificant, chunk of both companies’ business. “I bet they’re the No. 1 provider of rides for minors, but just not officially offering it as a service,” says Harry Campbell, who runs the driver-oriented website The Rideshare Guy and regularly hears from drivers for both companies. Nick Allen, who co-founded a now-defunct kids’-rides company called Shuddle, told me that he thought it was mostly teens who might be riding with Uber or Lyft, not younger children.
When I asked Uber and Lyft if they were aware of this happening on their platform, spokespeople for each referred me to the companies’ terms of service. They noted that users’ accounts can be deactivated if used to transport a minor and that drivers can report such violations, but neither company would say how regularly minors might be riding.
Campbell told me he thought that Uber and Lyft have, legally speaking, stayed out of this market because they don’t want to take on the liability that might come with transporting kids. He also said that the sort of job experience parents might prefer drivers to have—think Bubbl’s corps of police officers—would necessitate a much more intensive hiring process on their part. “It’s a big endeavor—almost like a separate company,” Campbell said of assembling a group of drivers who’d be up to parents’ standards.
Uber and Lyft have also probably kept their distance because the economics of giving kids rides are particularly perplexing, as Allen, the Shuddle co-founder, discovered. The potential market, he told me, is “humongous,” but one big challenge is that “kids move around all at the same time”—most trips happen right before or right after school starts. “Most of your supply gets one or two rides a day,” he said, which is “not enough work for the average driver.”
The basic business model remains generally unproven, but there are a few other approaches companies might try. Allen, who now runs a men’s-skin-care start-up, thinks that companies might succeed by expanding their clientele to other groups—such as the elderly or those with special needs—that might need to get around at times when drivers would otherwise be idle. Meanwhile, Rodrigo Prudencio, Shuddle’s other founder, spoke favorably of efforts to sell rides directly to schools. “The big opportunity is to disrupt the yellow-bus service,” he told me.
Sundararajan, the NYU economist, presented me with a broader view of what might happen in the long run to these companies. He thinks it’s likely that eventually there will be a few major apps people will use to get around and that will stitch together different modes of transportation, such as cars, trains, scooters, and walking. In this possible future, Sundararajan says kids’-rides companies could prosper as specialized independent businesses, as long as they are compatible with those dominant apps.