When Northwestern outsourced Safe Ride, the school left behind the people who relied on it most.

Designed and photographed by Sakke Overlund

SESP third-year Liz Curtis zoomed past in her Safe Ride car, trying to avoid the driver who was “it.”

On the Thursday of spring quarter finals week, most of Northwestern’s campus was left deserted. Students were finishing their exams, and there was hardly any demand for cross-campus transportation. Bernie Foster, Safe Ride’s manager, was retiring that summer; neither he nor the dispatchers seemed to care about what the drivers did that night.

Without much to do, Curtis and other Safe Ride drivers resorted to playing tag in their cars, a regular pastime when demand was low. They’d race toward one another and verbally “tag” another driver using walkie-talkies.

Curtis had no idea that this would be her last day driving for Safe Ride.

The road to Via

Around the same time, tucked away in an office at 600 Haven Street, Senior Executive Director for Division Services Jim Roberts faced a problem. For years, Foster had single-handedly managed Safe Ride, which provided free rides for Northwestern students to and from on-campus locations at night. His retirement left an immense gap in the program, especially as a supervisor for its staff of student drivers and dispatchers.

With only three months until students returned to campus, Roberts rushed to weigh his options. He could renew the Safe Ride program and hire a new manager, or he could outsource the program to an external provider. But Safe Ride itself was struggling as student demand was skyrocketing.

A staff of only about 20 to 25 drivers struggling to meet that demand created longer wait times — sometimes upward of an hour. In Roberts’ three years of overseeing Safe Ride, he says the program faced declining interest from student workers and significant turnover. Curtis says before her quarter driving with Safe Ride, she noticed a growing inconvenience to riders.

“There was a sense of frustration for a lot of students, which I totally get as someone who drove for Safe Ride and who took Safe Ride. We as drivers never knew how many people were waiting,” Curtis says.

In turn, those longer wait times led to more cancellations — a problem that undermined Safe Ride’s mission, according to Roberts.
“If you’re canceling rides, then it’s just impacting the purpose of the program itself, which is to be there when a student feels unsafe walking across campus,” Roberts says.

Roberts began to consider another option: outsourcing to a private ride-share service. Other universities around the country have already implemented these services. In July, Ohio State University announced “Lyft Ride Smart,” which would provide discounted rides through Lyft’s app. Uber paired with the University of Florida in 2018 to offer late-night rides at a 25 percent discount.

But Roberts found that neither Uber nor Lyft presented the right terms for Northwestern. He wanted the new service to match the old Safe Ride program as closely as possible, which meant not sharing rides or drivers with the community outside of Northwestern.

One emerging ride-share app, Via, had a potential answer. Via had recently developed agreements with Northeastern University and Harvard University to offer an app that provides free rides around their campus area, and it wanted to expand to Northwestern. Gabrielle McCaig, Via’s vice president of communications, says  Via considers itself a valuable supplement to struggling on-campus transportation services.

“Having a very rigid, fixed-route service doesn’t necessarily meet the needs of students,” McCaig says. By being able to provide a service that is on-demand, fully dynamic and flexible, we can much more adaptively service the needs of students when and where they need it.”

Over the summer, Roberts began negotiating the terms of a one-year pilot deal with Via. They would provide up to eight drivers per night and a total of 9,000 driving hours over the course of one academic year, a 38 percent increase from Safe Ride’s hours last year. Instead of students, a select pool of Via drivers would operate the service each night. Calling for a free ride would theoretically be easier than it was wiith Safe Ride (which used a platform called TransLoc) because Northwestern students would have access to the free rides within Via’s commercial app.

As the summer came to a close, Roberts and Interim Vice-President for Student Affairs Julie Payne-Kirchmeier rushed to finalize the deal before students returned to Evanston. And Roberts sent an email to student workers notifying them of the change.

Left in the dust

Medill second-year Imani Harris was sitting at her desk at her summer internship when she received Roberts’s email. With the subject line hastily misspelled “Safe Ride Oufsourcing,” it read:

“Dear Safe Ride Students and Dispatchers,
I want to let you know that the University is very close to finalizing an agreement with Via to pilot a transportation service for the 2019-20 academic year that will replace the student transportation service Safe Ride has delivered.”

The student drivers would be offered other opportunities for employment in Student Affairs, but even so, Harris was crushed.

“We as Safe Ride drivers put so much into Safe Ride … And then to just be told with an email, ‘We don’t need y’all anymore. We’re just going to use somebody else,’”  Harris says. “It just made me feel thrown away, and that our contributions to the University didn’t matter.”

With just one email, all of Safe Ride’s student worker positions were terminated. This created a significant challenge for its drivers. Driving for Safe Ride was unlike most jobs on campus. For one, drivers worked twice a week from 6:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m, which gave them the flexibility to more easily balance academics and work.

“At the time, I was taking five classes spring quarter, so my days were booked,” Harris says. “If I wanted to work, I would have to go from class to work and probably only be able to work three hours a day, a couple days a week. But with Safe Ride, I was able to work only two days a week and get 16 hours.”

Harris identifies as low-income, but because she receives external scholarships, she is not eligible for work-study. Safe Ride was one of the few places on campus that would hire her.

Safe Ride’s pay structure provided even more financial benefit for student workers. Drivers started at a $11 hourly wage, but after each quarter of driving, they’d be given a 25-cent raise. Student dispatchers like Weinberg fourth-year Emma Latz, who worked at Safe Ride for four quarters, could have pay rates of more than $12 an hour.

To many student drivers, though, Safe Ride was more than a job. It gave them a community of students — many of whom were low-income and queer women.
“It was a space of all different kinds of people,” Harris says. “We would talk about everything, from problematic stuff to our tattoos. And it happened so fast; we never even did ice-breakers or community building.”

Harris saw this community as an opportunity to build diversity and interpersonal connection within the University. She says Safe Ride gave her the ability to reduce the divide between low-income and affluent students.

“We go to the same campus, and you’ve never seen me. Never communicated with me,” Harris says. “What can I do in these eight minutes to make you question why?”

The Safe Ride drivers took to a Facebook Messenger group to express their discontent with the decision. Above all, they were frustrated with the lack of notice, which would have enabled them to find new jobs more easily before the school year started.

“If you say that you’re doing this for the well-being of students, then you also need to consider the well-being of the students that are employed by Safe Ride,” Latz says. “And being told that we lost our jobs in August, when I’m sure that you were thinking about it in the spring quarter, is not okay.”

Roberts says this lack of notice wasn’t meant to hurt the student workers, but happened because reinstating Safe Ride had still been a possibility even into September. He feared that notifying workers would lead to drivers quitting when they may have been needed to continue the service in the fall.

“The decision not to do that was looking out for the welfare of the 36,000 student rides that Safe Ride gave last year and those students who rely on that service,” Roberts says.

In his email, Roberts underscored the litany of job opportunities available in Student Affairs and other parts of campus. He personally worked with more than a dozen drivers to find them new jobs on campus and maintained that the University was always looking out for student workers during the transition.

“There was no insidious scheme to do away with student jobs,” Robert says. “We always planned on taking care of students.”

But finding comparable jobs was more challenging than Roberts expected. Many of the drivers weren’t work-study; campus employers were less willing to hire those students, as they’d need to pay them full wages without the federal government’s supplements.

Roberts assisted Harris with getting a job as a copywriter in the Student Affairs department. But once she got there, Harris says that her supervisor told her that it’d be almost impossible for her to work 16 hours per week. They could give her about half of that.

In October, Harris got another job in Norris University Center. Together, those jobs would make up the wages from the 16-hour work week she had spring quarter. Curtis took up two jobs as well, and Latz continued to work a second job. But those haven’t been enough, either.

“I definitely struggle a lot more now ... Even with my two jobs now, I am making way less than I was making just at Safe Ride alone,” Latz says.

Roberts says that he and one other staff person were in charge of finding new student jobs. Harris expressed her appreciation for Roberts’ effort; she says she sees the failure to student workers as more institutional than personal.

“I feel like Northwestern is really good at creating scapegoats, and he was the scapegoat,” Harris says. “He was the one who had to take all the flak.”

Getting home safe

Weinberg third-year Taylor Keesling needed to get back home. It was 2:45 a.m., and after a night of working in University Library, Keesling tried to call a Via back to her off-campus apartment. As she tapped the blue Via app on her phone, the new Safe Ride service was nowhere to be found.

With no other free transportation options available that night, Keesling was forced to pay for a Via home.

“When Safe Ride service isn’t available, I can’t just afford to pay for a ride if I was expecting to get a free one. It just makes me upset that the people who are most impacted by this feel the most powerless as well,” Keesling says.

Northwestern’s Safe Ride service was a hallmark of student safety on campus, and while Via hopes to be the same, students have already found the service lacking. One of Safe Ride’s most unique aspects was the student workers themselves. Riding with a peer rather than a commercially hired driver made students like Keesling more comfortable.

“Any time you’re with your peers, they understand things a little bit more. There’s nothing like the understanding that you can have with your peers and the safety that that can give,” Keesling says.

While ride-share services like Uber have faced controversy in the past over driver misconduct, Via has imposed greater vetting for their university programs to ensure student safety. Only about eight drivers were hired for the service, based off driver ratings, records and customer feedback. McCaig emphasizes Via’s 24/7 real-time customer support as a vital safety feature.

“There is always a human on the other end of your ride who is there who can help in any sort of emergency situation, both for you and for the driver,” McCaig says.
But based on her experiences both driving and using Safe Ride, Latz claims that student drivers provided a safer and better service than Via has.

“They don’t know the campus as well as we did, which I think compromises the student safety. I thought this was going to be a concern when I heard about the outsourcing, and it’s just been confirmed for me,” Latz says.

After a number of on-campus assaults during fall quarter in 2018, some female students have been especially concerned for their safety, making the need for a well-run transportation service imperative.

“Especially as a young woman, we have to carry so much on our backs: the anxiety of expectations of the way the world sees us and what could happen,” Keesling says. “If it lessens at least some of that day-to-day anxiety that we carry around about having to travel alone, especially at night, I think it’s worth it.”

A heightened desire for convenience has also altered the way students have interacted with the Safe Ride program.

Latz says that these “convenience rides” were a constant phenomenon when she drove for Safe Ride. In November 2018, Safe Ride dropped the three-block minimum distance amidst reports of harassment and targeting of female students on campus. After this change, students would request two-block rides with their groceries or laundry. Both Latz and Roberts agree that such cases detract from the very mission of Safe Ride.

Associated Student Government President Izzy Dobbel says that programs like Safe Ride are imperative for not just student safety, but accessibility.

“If you were taking your Safe Ride at 2 a.m. for the library and you want to get home sooner than 3 a.m., you would have to call an Uber or Lyft. And for a low-income student, that money adds up, and it actually sets up a barrier to being able to have a safe mode of transportation that’s actually effective,” Dobbel says.

Unlike Via’s deals with other campuses, Northwestern’s agreement included a unique feature: full integration into Via’s commercial app instead of third-party technology. While Roberts says that the app was a marked improvement in functionality, the Via app can add pressure to simply use their commercial service.
“It’s really tempting to just spend that $3,” Keesling says.  “But it adds up, and even more so when you’re in the circumstance that I am. The stakes are too high for you to just be spending like that.”

For low-income students like Keesling, accessible transportation isn’t a luxury. Without it, institutional barriers to academic success worsen.

“Students who can’t afford the transportation to get to and from wherever they need to go do not deserve to have fewer opportunities to complete their assignment, to keep up with their schoolwork, to do the same basic things that many other students are afforded,” Keesling says.

Reaching a destination

Since Via rolled out its service in September, Roberts has already seen dramatic improvements in many key areas. In Via’s first 49 days of service this year, the program has served 271 passengers per night, a 69 percent increase from the same period last year. Cancellations have dropped by almost half.

“My observation is that they’re seriously outperforming Safe Ride in terms of the number of rides completed,” Roberts says.

Nevertheless, many Northwestern students have struggled with the app’s functionality and wait times. The average wait time has increased slightly, from 14.5 minutes to about 17. Keesling recalls one instance where her wait increased from 45 minutes to 55, then up to 73 minutes.

“It’s like a slap in the face, considering that they fired all of those workers for thus far no tangible improvements,” Keesling says.

As winter quarter approaches, harsh weather conditions will provide a new challenge to Via. Roberts says that he’s saved many of Via’s 9,000 contracted driving hours to prepare for the upcoming quarter.

“When the weather is bad, obviously, the ridership tends to go up. So we’ll manage it closely and just try to find the most efficient way to get drivers out there when there are those surges,” Roberts says.

At the end of the 2019-2020 school year, Northwestern’s one-year pilot deal will expire. Before then, Roberts says the school will undergo a more formal process known as a request for proposal (RFP). During the RFP, Northwestern will evaluate Via’s effectiveness in the past year as well as alternative options.

While the former Safe Ride program could be reinstated, Roberts says that increased demand and declining student employment made the program unsustainable in the long-term.

“If it’s evolved to a point where the student expectation is that it’s no longer a safety service but just a way to get around campus, right now it’s not funded for that,” Roberts says.

According to Roberts, Safe Ride’s budget has remained stagnant amid University budget deficits during the past two school years. As more and more students are utilizing the service, inadequate funding has impeded the program’s reach.

With many student drivers left without comparable jobs and students struggling to use the new service, the move to outsource to Via has left low-income students doubly disadvantaged. Despite pushback from a wide range of the student body, Via has created a disruption in the lifestyles of students who need it most.

“Even if you don’t agree with the premise of Via, even if you don’t like it, you kind of have to put up with it right now. But I don’t think that’s fair. And I don’t think that we should let that be the case,” Keesling says.