When Seattle Public Schools students return to class in September, many of their families will be along for the ride — at least almost.
The district, which has more than 50,000 students, has contracted with California tech startup Zoom to provide half of its bus service.
Using the Zoom system, “all stakeholders are connected. There is complete transparency and visibility wherever the children are,” said Ritu Narayen, founder and CEO. “People said I could track my pizza. [delivery]But I don’t know where my kids are after they get on the school bus. That issue has been completely removed.
Parents also get the Zum app to track their kids’ buses and drivers. Students tap an RFID-enabled pass when boarding vehicles to enter the ride.
Narayen came up with the idea of Zoom in 2015 after she faced transportation problems for her two children. Zoom’s first client was the Oakland Unified School District, where her 10-year-old son and kindergartener were enrolled. The company now provides transportation to 4,000 schools in California, Washington, Texas and Illinois.
Zoom in numbers:
- The company has raised more than $207 million in venture capital and its current valuation puts it just shy of unicorn status at $937 million, Narayen said.
- Zoom was released in 2010. It aims to transition its fleet to all-electric vehicles by 2025, but did not share information on who will supply the EVs. In March, Lion Electric deployed the first six electric buses to the Bay Area.
- Zoom uses a variety of vehicles including buses, vans and cars of various sizes. Most are Zoom vehicles, but may include driver-owned vehicles.
- The startup recently signed a $400 million deal with the Los Angeles Unified School District, which serves more than 650,000 students.
In early July, the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) Board of Directors voted to split its $45 million, three-year transportation budget between the current provider, First Student and Zoom.
“The board’s vote is important because it promotes expanded transportation options for SPS,” SPS Assistant Superintendent of Public Affairs Bev Redmond said in an emailed comment. “The board is to be commended for moving this important issue forward and putting the needs of students at the center.”
As of 2019, Zoom has been providing limited transportation to Seattle students, including some with special needs. It is not clear how the district divides lines and responsibilities between the two companies. Narayen said they will deploy 200 buses and drivers to serve students and families in the district.
While Zoom is similar to ride-hailing companies like Lyft or Uber, it contracts directly with districts and does not offer on-demand transportation for students.
The road to the joint venture in Seattle was bumpy. In May, the school district came close to awarding the full contract to the first student, but Zoom alleged the decision was arbitrary and improper, MyNorthwest news site reported.
Additionally, the district’s longtime vendor eliminated more than 100 bus routes last fall, citing ridership shortages. Freshman recently received a $396,000 fine from the state for safety violations, MyNorthwest reported, up from $196,000 in April.
GeekWire has contacted the freshman for a response and will update this story if we hear back.
Narayen said Zoom tries to provide a more customer-centric experience compared to traditional school transport providers.
One of Zoom’s advantages is that students often spend less time commuting to and from school because the company can arrange routes and provide rides in a variety of vehicles.
“Our hope is to modernize all of Seattle’s transportation. [system for schools]bringing the aspects of visibility, safety, reliability that parents have been hoping for for a long time,” said Narayen. “Seattle is such a technology-wise and sustainable. [focused city]. Our values are fundamentally intertwined.