A teenager carrying a backpack getting into a car.
Data from Current, a debit card company that caters to teens, found that Uber and Lyft combined are the second-most popular merchant when it comes to teen spending within the last 90 days.
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Richard Tran lives with his aunt a mile and a half away from his high school in the suburbs of Orange County, California. That means it’s about a 30-minute walk away, but as a teenager, he doesn’t have a half hour to waste lugging home a heavy backpack. Those 30 minutes could be used for homework or video games, a quick nap or a solid scroll through social media.

It occurred to Tran one afternoon that, instead of walking, he could call an Uber home. The high school senior knew that Uber and Lyft have policies that prohibit minors from riding unaccompanied by an adult — underage riders being a potential liability — but his aunt didn’t seem to care. She called him cars whenever she was too busy to drive him to school, and they shared an Uber account under her gender-neutral name, Chon. If he appeared mature and of age, drivers didn’t seem to notice or care, Tran says.

But the first time Tran called an Uber home, he made the mistake of marking his pick-up location as his high school. When the car pulled up, the suspicious driver popped the question: “Are you 18 or older?” Tran, who doesn’t lie about his age, admitted that he wasn’t. He soon found that walking to the public library across the street spared him that awkward confrontation. It was simple: They don’t ask, and he doesn’t tell.

Tran, who is now 18 and has a car, wasn’t alone in his illicit use of ride-sharing services: Data from within the last 90 days for Current, a debit card company that caters to teens, shows that Uber and Lyft account for 94 percent of all taxi service transactions for customers aged 13 to 18. Combined, these companies are the second-most popular merchant behind Apple when it comes to teen spending.

There are ride-sharing services that explicitly cater to kids — offering scheduled rides for unaccompanied minors — but their customer base is actually the parents, not the kids themselves. Stories about minors using ride-share gift cards or even their parents’ Uber accounts are so common that it led Uber to launch a teen ride-sharing pilot in 2017, which quickly fizzled out over liability concerns.

Underage riders are an issue that companies have addressed in their terms of service but have minimal ability to independently enforce without relying solely on drivers. And every few months, news reports spotlight the dire consequences of a ride gone wrong — how an Uber driver attempted to kidnap a Long Island 15-year-old or how a 12-year-old hailed a midnight ride and jumped to her death off an Orlando parking garage.

Still, teenagers and drivers from suburban or urban areas have told me that underage ride-hailing is “extremely common,” given how simple it is to call a ride. They don’t have cars, and they have places to be. Most teens justify it for what it is (“It’s just a ride,” they shrug), noting that bad actors would take advantage of passengers regardless of age. Having grown up in a world full of smartphones and optimized convenience, this generation is accustomed to — even reliant on — ride-sharing, regardless of whether their parents, these companies, and drivers like it or not.

Ride-sharing apps for kids are convenient for parents, not teens

Cynthia Rodriguez’s old commute to school was, by her standards, an admirable trek. She would wake up at the crack of dawn to catch a two-hour bus across Los Angeles County, and the exhaustive ride doesn’t end when she reaches her high school. She had a packed schedule of classes and extracurricular activities that could last until 6:50 pm.

In her sophomore year, Rodriguez was spared that journey thanks to a partnership Los Angeles County developed with the ride-hailing company HopSkipDrive. The kid-friendly service scheduled free rides to and from school for foster youth who are relocated far from their original schools. Rodriguez and around 1,000 other kids qualified for the program, which reduced her commute to around 40 minutes each way.

When HopSkipDrive was formed, however, the company didn’t envision its major patrons to be school districts serving commuting students.

Five years ago, three Los Angeles-based moms zeroed in on a demographic that became the basis for their business model: Metropolitan middle-class parents who need help shuttling children around to Little League baseball games or soccer tournaments. Soon, a number of kid-friendly startups (the likes of Zum, Zemcar, and Kango) started trickling into that niche, eyeing urban and suburban areas where working families would need their services.

Their goal isn’t necessarily to be the “Uber for kids,” says HopSkipDrive CEO Joanna McFarland, nor are they trying to reach as wide a usership.

McFarland likens HopSkipDrive to a care-giving service that can easily transport kids — suitable for well-off parents or school districts seeking effective transit options — and as such it comes with a hefty price tag. Los Angeles County spends roughly $44 on a one-way ride, says children’s services administrator Patricia Armani. The minimum fare for a single-family ride, depending on the region, can range from $15 to $20, according to the company’s website. McFarland adds that the company performs thorough background checks and fingerprinting for drivers.

But ride-sharing for kids is marketed at parents, not at the kids themselves who, once they have an inkling of independence, often turn to more accessible and affordable alternatives, namely Uber and Lyft.

Rodriguez, for example, says Uber and Lyft remain her go-to apps for hanging out with friends. She raves about HopSkipDrive’s convenience (“I needed it to get to school every day,” she says) and has used the service through her senior year of high school, but her rides with the company were scheduled by her foster mom and social worker. So Rodriguez turned to Uber or Lyft to chauffeur her on the weekends or after school, even when she was underage.

“Whenever I need to get somewhere and if I’m running low on time, I just think to get myself an Uber,” the 18-year-old says. “None of the drivers ever really questioned my age.”

Generation Z needs to get around, so they turn to the apps

Today’s teenagers have more transportation options at their disposal than their predecessors — the millennials, Gen X-ers, and boomers — who previously turned to cars, bikes, or public transit to get around.

The shared-mobility business is booming, with traditional automakers scrambling to stay ahead of the curve. The next generation of Americans is no longer in love with cars; some don’t even care about getting their license, never mind owning a car, the Wall Street Journal reported. Gen Z’s focus is instead directed toward mobility and access, which means knowing how to navigate electric scooters or hail Ubers and Lyfts even before they’re legally adults.

“I come from a different generation,” says Dan O’Bryan, 48, a Los Angeles-based Lyft driver. “When I was a kid, I had a bus pass, bicycle, and skateboard, and I cannot tell you how many places I got there with that.”

O’Bryan, like many other Uber and Lyft drivers in major metropolitan areas, is exasperated with the number of teens he’s encountered on his routes in the last three years. He rejects minors every time, although he knows many drivers turn a blind eye, pressured by bonus pay and surge pricing. Plus, canceling a ride because a user is a minor isn’t simple: O’Bryan told me he has to reach out to Lyft’s Trust and Safety department to report that a minor requested the ride and note that he wants the cancellation excluded from his record.

Still, he’s a stickler for the rules. O’Bryan doesn’t take any chances because “all the liability sits on me while a minor’s in my vehicle.” The liability ultimately rests on drivers who are, after all, independent contractors: They have to ask for the passenger’s identification, they’re the ones tasked with reporting riders who violate the terms of service, and they have to remain vigilant.

“There’s an equal amount of bad and good drivers,” O’Bryan says. “People who don’t follow the rules; people who will practically do anything.”

A Lyft spokesperson reiterated the company’s policy to Vox, stating that unaccompanied minors are not allowed on the platform: “Children are welcome to join adult passengers in a ride but are not permitted to ride alone in a Lyft vehicle.”

According to Lyft, drivers’ ratings will not be negatively impacted if they refuse to drive a minor and cancel the ride. Drivers are able to report requests to transport unaccompanied minors through the ‘Contact Support’ function within the app.

Since reporting an underage rider does not directly freeze their account, drivers who turn away minors say that they typically call another car — often one that doesn’t care about their age. “On one occasion, I wasn’t far away and watched a driver come and pick them up right afterwards,” Joe Coffman, a driver in Champaign, Illinois, wrote to me on Facebook.

Sometimes the parents are the offenders, says Larry Duncan, a Lyft driver in Bowling Green, Kentucky. In his experience, there are two types of parents: the ones who aren’t aware of the terms of service that prohibit minors from riding and the ones who feel entitled to shirk the rules since they’re paying for the service.

“I know a lot of drivers who’ve faced outraged parents,” Duncan says. “They yell and scream for you to give their kids a ride, and what some of us try to do, we say that the parent can ride with the kid, but they can’t be alone.”

Duncan says safety depends on a number of factors, including how experienced a driver is and the undetermined likelihood of getting in an accident on the road.

Protective parents worry about the risks that comes with ride-sharing

That level of uncertainty makes particularly protective parents wary of these ride-sharing services, even those catering to underage youth. “Hell no,” one parent wrote to me when I asked if she let her teenager take an Uber from her account. “I don’t know any who do, either.”

Still, one in eight parents have reported that their underage teen uses a ride-sharing service, according to a 2019 poll by the University of Michigan. That same poll found that parents are worried about drivers speeding, being distracted by their phone, or potentially assaulting their child.

When a Pittsburgh radio station solicited parent opinions on its Facebook page in August about HopSkipDrive, commenters viciously condemned the service’s idea:

“Absolutely not!” three people wrote.

“This makes me feel a little nauseous even thinking about it. No way. I don’t even like when my mom drives my kids somewhere,” wrote another parent.

But kids grow up, and they eventually start attending events like school dances or late-night concerts, and ride-share becomes a hassle-free way to get there, no parental questions asked. They don’t even necessarily need to ask for a parent’s credit card: Uber and Lyft allow users to pay with PayPal (linked to a bank account) or a prepaid gift card, and Uber offers a family profile option that links multiple accounts to one default payment option.

“My older kids and I have this policy that both their phones are connected to my credit card,” says Emily Wright, a Denver-based marketing director with three kids. “Our understanding is if they’re ever in a situation where they don’t feel comfortable driving home, they can always call a car to come home and charge it to my card, and I won’t have any questions.”

Wright considered using HopSkipDrive to get her 11-year-old son to school while she was away on work trips, but after attempting to schedule his first ride, she didn’t feel fully confident in the service.

“I’m definitely very protective of my kids,” Wright says. But she thinks ride-sharing services can be valuable, especially if her kids just need to get home safe.

“There needs to be an option for those older teens who are under this legal age,” she says. “If it ever came to that, it’s a risk I would have them take versus driving themselves home.”

This all boils down to the question of personal responsibility, counters O’Bryan. Who, ultimately, should be responsible for the minors who shouldn’t be calling these rides in the first place? The drivers, the parents, or the teens themselves? The teens, for the most part, aren’t too worried about their actions: “It doesn’t concern me much, maybe because I’m pretty used to calling my own ride,” Rodriguez says.

They justify the risk for the convenience ride-sharing services provides them; sometimes it feels safer to call a ride home instead of walking from school in the dark. The oldest Gen Z-ers began using smartphones when Uber and Lyft reached peak ubiquity, when they’ve basically become verbs in the English lexicon (there’s even a song called “Uber Everywhere”).

It’s a problem that’s not going to stop anytime soon, drivers say. And by the looks of it, kids — at the peak of their teenage defiance — aren’t going to stop unless harsher age-certifying restrictions are put in place.

“Let’s be real about it,” Duncan says. “Even if there was an update to the policy, the terms of service is like 20 pages of small print that nobody ever reads.”

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