SafeRide: once on foot, now warm refuge

Kirsten Salyer

When the weather settled into the single digits last week, SafeRide demand rose as the temperatures dropped.

Students might have been more concerned about frostbite than the dangers of walking alone at night. But for most of SafeRide’s history, the service has provided an escort for safety – not protection against the cold.

From walks with midshipmen to escorts in yellow windbreakers to students in hybrid cars, over the years Northwestern has made sure students are getting home safely.

Today, NU’s SafeRide service operates like a private taxi service. Last year, the service shuffled through an average of 295 riders a night providing a safe, easy and warm trip.

The easier it becomes to get a free ride from place to place, the more the service has grown beyond its much more personal beginnings, when it was called “the Student Escort Service.”

“It’s a popular service and is operating at or close to capacity,” SafeRide Coordinator Jerry Bauer said. “Northwestern’s demand for SafeRide cannot be sated.”

But before 1992, the face of student escort was dramatically different. The service consisted of Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps midshipmen on call to provide walks home to other students, particularly females, late at night. Midshipmen would meet students at the library or other locations to walk them back to their residences.

When, due to increased demand, the university took over the service in 1992, six male and female students in bright yellow windbreakers replaced the Naval ROTC midshipmen. But the service was still exclusively on foot. A “team” of student escorts – one male, one female – carried walkie-talkies and were paid $6 an hour.

In one night, the six escorts covered an area of more than a square mile, from Dempster Street to Central Street and campus to Ridge Avenue. This proved a long walk, so the escorts began using bicycles.

The escort would ride out on the bicycle, walk students to their destination and return to the dispatch office for the next assignment.

Finally, a switch to cars in the late 1990s accommodated the increasing demand for service. By 1999, SafeRide had a fleet of three cars. Now the service runs six cars on weeknights and eight on the weekend, and has purchased five hybrid Toyota Priuses.

When the service began using vehicles, it started to be seen as more than just a safety resource.

Drivers told stories of students who vomited in cars, treated them rudely or packed cars with friends to ride a few blocks, with their passengers viewing the service essentially as a free alternative to taxis.

“I’m always entertained when people think they can flag down SafeRide,” said SafeRide driver Sarah Love, a Communication sophomore.

To combat this, last year SafeRide announced it would no longer take students between locations already on shuttle routes, and that students would have to show ID so they could be identified if they caused problems.

Though she admits some students see it as a taxi service, Love said the job also comes with benefits, including the $10 per hour salary on weekdays and $11 per hour on weekends.

“You meet a lot of people and get a lot of funny stories, especially after one in the morning,” Love said.

Weather appears to influence demand, with wait times skyrocketing during colder months. The service averaged 240 rides per night during Winter Quarter last year, and 204 rides per night for the 2006-2007 school year as a whole. This means that students wait longer for rides.

“The drivers have a hard time waiting for the students if they have a busy schedule,” Weinberg freshman Moon Choe said. “Even if it’s late, I’d rather walk. It’s not that dangerous.”

Last year, in 13 percent of the total 45,654 rides requested, the caller did not show up..

But in winter, students may be more willing to suffer the long waits. Bauer said the number of no-shows goes down in the winter.

“When it’s warm, people will call for a ride and then decide to walk,” Love said. “In winter, people always show up for the ride.”

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