As soon as Nancy picked up the passenger for a ride to the airport, she realized something was off. He seemed drunk or high, she says, despite it being 10:30 in the morning, and he kept saying things that didn’t make sense. “I was trying to distract him, as mothers do, asking him where he was traveling to, but he kept getting more and more anxious,” she says. “I asked him where his gate was and he didn’t know. He didn’t even know who he was flying with.”
Nancy felt threatened, and it wasn’t the first time. The Boston woman, who started driving for Uber and Lyft when her three kids moved out, had often dealt with intoxicated and otherwise frightening passengers, though she was thankfully never harmed.
“I have these young women who talk to me about driving and of course I tell them how much I enjoy it,” she says. “But then I turn to them and tell them they shouldn’t do it. It’s not safe for them; they’re too young.”
Then Nancy discovered Safr, a Boston ridesharing startup that aims to help women drive and ride safely at all times. There are currently more than 100 Safr drivers on the road, Nancy being one of them, and a thousand in the pipeline. And Safr isn’t the only ridesharing app for women either. See Jane Go recently started up in California, and Shebah began in early March in Australia. What these and similar apps offer is a special emphasis on driver screening and various options for filtering drivers and passengers by gender.
The new breed of ridesharing apps is emerging at a time when industry leaders Uber and Lyft are facing frequent controversy over rider and driver safety. An online campaign backed by the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association (TLPA) called Who’s Driving You? has been documenting these reports and posting them to their website, claiming that at least 23 deaths, 57 assaults, and 217 sexual assault incidents can be directly linked to the platforms. And in March 2016, BuzzFeed reported that the words “rape” and “sexual assault” showed up in Uber’s customer service database over 6,000 times. In response to these allegations, Uber’s Chief Safety Officer said, “Sadly, no means of transportation is 100 percent safe today. Accidents and incidents do happen. It’s why we are working to build an exceptional customer support team that can handle problems when they occur, including working with law enforcement.”
The ridesharing giants are, of course, huge, with more than 40 million Uber rides monthly and complaints on only a tiny fraction of them. Yet that risk is enough to cause some drivers and riders to look elsewhere.
“We are told all our lives as women, ‘oh you have to keep yourself safe, you shouldn’t have been jogging with your headphones on, you shouldn’t have been walking home at that hour of night, you shouldn’t have been walking through a college campus or parking lot without somebody walking you to your car, don’t get in a car with a man you don’t know,’” says Shebah founder Georgina McEncroe. “But then, nearly 100 percent of drivers at night are male, so you really don’t have a choice to get in a car with a man you don’t know. How can that be the only option?”
Shebah, thanks to Australian laws, is able to get away with having only female drivers and female passengers. U.S.-based apps like Safr and See Jane Go have to allow for some men to drive. Joanna Humphrey Flynn, Safr’s press officer, assures riders, though, that all of their drivers go through an intense screening process.
“Our background checks are deep across the board, we aren’t treating men differently,” Flynn says. “But part of our vetting process has been and always will be asking two important questions: ‘what does women empowerment mean to you?’ and ‘What does women’s safety mean to you?’ All drivers then have a session with a Safr mentor who can help new drivers get accustomed to ridesharing and engage in the community. Any concern about character will come up in our process.”
Female-friendly ridesharing services could also offer ways for female drivers to make more. Currently, women make 34 percent less gross driving income than men on ridesharing apps, and only around 19 percent of drivers on Uber and Lyft are women. That may have to do with the reluctance of women to drive on nights and weekends because of safety concerns. Safr, Shebah, and See Jane Go not only get around that concern but charge about 10 to 15 percent more than traditional rideshare platforms to ensure their drivers are making a living wage.
“We are seeing women stand behind each other and come to each other’s side when they need that extra support,” Flynn says. “We are also giving women going through career transitions the opportunity to find themselves without having to worry about their own personal safety.”
Ridesharing apps for kids are also becoming more popular, and some female-friendly platforms — like Shebah — are offering those services, too.
“Often a mother has to interrupt her day to take her child to a dental appointment,” McEnroe says. “Mothers are breaking their jobs and their career paths to do this or they’re asking their friends to take their kids to soccer practice, or football, or basketball, and never paying them for that emotional labor. But, imagine if you could outsource some of that emotional labor in a paid, structured way, to women who need that flexibility.”
McEnroe says that her Shebah drivers go that extra mile for kids. “Our drivers will put the headlights on as the 12-year-old girl gets out of the car and the mom will wave at the driver and the driver will wave back and wait for her to get to the door and off they go.”
So far at least, the female ridesharing apps appear to be taking off. Shebah is aiming to expand to the west coast of Australia next month, before going international. And Safr is spreading in its home state and hopes to expand nationally soon.
“We aren’t trying to take out the market,” McEnroe says. “But … female apps like this will hopefully put pressure on the whole industry and everyone will start saying ‘let’s look at this through a female lens.’”