The “Uber for Kids” is causing chaos in Howard County

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Like many school districts around the country, Howard County, Maryland, has a bus driver shortage. In response, the district contracted with a company called Zum, a Silicon Valley startup that promises to bring high-tech solutions to student transportation. Zum was supposed to cover almost half the district’s bus routes, but somehow those promised solutions became major headaches: Thousands of students in the county public school system were late, weren’t picked up or dropped off, or were taken to the wrong places, buses on more than 20 routes were abruptly canceled, and parents were getting conflicting messages from Zum and the school district.

On Friday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Daniel Zawodny, who covers transportation for the Baltimore Banner, about how Zum’s tech is disrupting school transportation (and not in a good way). Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Lizzie O’Leary: It’s not surprising that a company like Zum emerged to try to bring tech to the world of school busing. It’s a huge market, and districts across the country operate with a mix of public employees and contractors.

Daniel Zawodny: Zum was initially providing smaller transportation operations for different school districts—things like transportation for children with special needs—then branching out and expanding into full-on yellow bus service. They’ve been operating in cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and expanded to Chicago. They have maybe eight other cities that they’re expanding to this year, including Howard County.

Can you describe Howard County a little bit? What’s it like?

Howard County is a suburb pretty much halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and has been a very popular place for folks in the Baltimore area to move to. It has always had this reputation of really good schools, and as a result, property values are a little higher. It’s generally considered tougher to buy a home there than, say, in certain parts of Baltimore County, or certainly in Baltimore City or other places.

Zum signed a $27 million contract to operate almost half the district’s bus routes for three years, and promised to modernize the way schools provide transportation.

Zum describes the industry as antiquated, one that has not seen any change or disruption in a very long time. The company strives to infuse tech into student transportation to modernize it. They’ve been described online by some folks as Uber for kids.

Zum has a mobile app for parents and families that provides real-time GPS tracking for all of their buses. So, for example, a parent could check their phone to see that the bus is in the neighborhood and two stops away, and would know when to send their child out to the bus stop to catch the bus; they could also confirm that their child got on the bus at the end of the day.

All Zum buses have driver-facing cameras that use artificial intelligence to give the drivers a running safety score. For example, if a driver is doing rolling stops at stop signs, it’ll dock the driver for that rolling stop and say, “Hey, you’ve done X number of rolling stops, and you need to work on that for your safety rating.” In addition to the tech stuff, the buses are decked out with seat belts, and have pull-down harnesses for little kids who still need a car seat.

Zum also promotes sustainability, and says that its on-road fleet will be 100 percent electric by 2027.

The company sells itself on being more of a sustainable option. When I visited their bus yard, they had 250 brand-new yellow school buses on the yard—and they were all diesel. So I asked, “Well, if you’re supposed to be fully electric by 2025, why’d you buy all these diesel buses?” And they essentially said, “Oh, there’s always a market for them. Someone will buy them.”

Do families like what they’re getting from Zum?

I spoke with a parent in San Francisco who shared with me that she loved the mobile app, that it was super convenient. She even said that her son, a fourth grader, would look at the mobile app while he was eating breakfast and he would track his bus and say, “Mom, my bus is almost here; I’ve got to get out to the stop soon.”

I also connected with the director of transportation for the Oakland Public Schools system. They were using a couple different contractors and gave some smaller routes to Zum. Now, several years later, they’ve transferred 100 percent of their service to Zum, and Zum is the sole provider of student transportation in Oakland’s school district.

Despite getting rave reviews on the West Coast, it’s clear from your reporting that Zum overpromised and underdelivered in Howard County. What happened?

Zum assured me that they were going to have everything covered and be fully staffed for the first day of school. Then, after Monday morning, buses weren’t showing up. A message went out about the 20 cancellations. Buses showed up late. Parents noticed that the drivers didn’t really seem to know where they were, where they were supposed to go, or where they were supposed to stop.

Other details started to come out about what was going on. Before school started, Zum actually had to fly 71 drivers in from Spokane and Seattle to handle these routes. There were reports of drivers fumbling with paper maps and not knowing where they were supposed to be driving, which was a safety concern, and reports of drivers driving the bus over grassy medians. There were reports of kids guiding the drivers on the bus and telling them where they were supposed to go and where they were supposed to stop.

We reached out to Zum for a statement. The company’s CEO, Ritu Narayan, said, “We know it’s impossible to state how hard this past week has been for the parents and students in Howard County. For that we apologize.” Zum’s statement went on to say that they’re clear-eyed about a national and statewide driver shortage and said the company has managed to turn a 43 percent driver deficit in Howard County into nearly full coverage. Zum also said the school district had changed several routes just before the first day of school. Is that true?

Apparently, the school district had either changed up some of the routes or didn’t have everything determined ahead of time and handed the routes to Zum on Saturday right before school on Monday. Zum didn’t have time to digitize them and put them into their navigation software. So drivers from Spokane, Washington, were fumbling with paper maps, trying to figure out the bus routes on the first week of school.

Why did Howard choose Zum to take over a pretty large part of their transportation fleet?

It’s not totally clear, and I don’t think families in Howard County are satisfied with the official answer. Howard County has depended exclusively on private companies to take care of student transportation. At one point, maybe 20 years ago, there were as many as 50 different companies providing these services. Now, it’s down to about 21 or 22, but there are still a lot of different companies that are doing it, and a lot of them are smaller, locally owned businesses.

For the past couple years, there has been a shortage of bus drivers in Howard County, and officials estimate that they are around 80 to 100 drivers short. When asked why they selected Zum, they allude to the fact that Zum was really confident that they could fix the bus driver shortage and be fully staffed by the start of school, and that they could handle all the routes that they were bidding on. Officials also pointed to Zum’s competitive wages and benefits, and believed Zum was going to be able to fill these positions.

Unfortunately, it seems like Zum was just as susceptible to the driver shortage as other companies were.

What has the school district said?

I think both sides have accepted some degree of responsibility, and they are also passive-aggressively throwing each other under the bus. There have been instances where school officials have taken responsibility for this and said, “This is on us and we’re so sorry that this happened,” but they have also said, “Hey, you got to talk to Zum about that. This was on them.” Then Zum, which has also accepted some responsibility for this, says, “Well, this is on the school system.”

Where do things stand now? Getting a kid off to school is hard enough without not knowing how they’re going to get there.

There are students that are doing okay—their buses are showing up and the students are getting to class on time. But some of the families—the ones on the original 20 routes that were canceled—still haven’t had their bus service restored. We’ve talked to several parents who have formed on-the-go carpool groups and are taking turns getting kids to school, fitting as many kids as they can in their cars. And now more students also have to walk to school. On the second week of school, one teacher mentioned that the school is taking attendance later in the day than they usually do, so that these students who arrive late are counted as “present” for the day because it’s not their fault.

There are obviously a lot of good things that tech has done in schools, but it does make me wonder: Was this an industry that needed to be disrupted? Is this a place where technology has made an improvement?

It makes me think of my own experience riding Miss Gloria’s bus to elementary school every day. Miss Gloria was my neighborhood’s bus driver for … I don’t even know how long. My parents told me that she retired only a year or two ago. She didn’t need a tablet to say whether or not the students that got on the bus were supposed to be there. She knew all of our names, she knew our parents, and she knew the route like the back of her hand. We didn’t have confusion with bus numbers. I knew that when I got out of school, I just had to look for the bus with a brown piece of construction paper in the window—that was the brown bus, and that was my bus to ride. It worked, so do we need all of this tech to “improve the service”?

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