Matney: SafeRide should partner with Uber to provide more convenient service to students

Matney: SafeRide should partner with Uber to provide more convenient service to students

Lucas Matney, Columnist

Over Spring Break, I spent a few days basking in the sun at the University of Southern California. I was intrigued when I heard from students about a pilot program the university just began with Uber to supplement its SafeRide-equivalent service, which provided free Uber rides to reduce the wait times at peak hours. The program already shows promise with wait times for students declining and services gaining increased visibility on campus.

SafeRide made a number of changes in the past few years to improve usability, but is also limited by the logistics of meeting high student demand. If Northwestern can follow the models pursued by other schools like USC to push overflow traffic on campus to a ride-sharing program, students will enjoy unprecedented convenience without the school having to make major infrastructure investments.

SafeRide’s mission is not one necessarily focused on student convenience. The program’s website emphasizes that the service “is not a taxi,” and instead bills itself as “a safe and free alternative to walking alone after dark.” However, when students are tasked with getting back to their apartments from off-campus parties, many find SafeRide leaves them in the dark: their policy does not fulfill rides from one off-campus location to another. And when users attempt to use the service during its peak hours on weekends, they are often left waiting for an hour or longer, at which point they may either pay for a taxi themselves, or, if that’s not a viable option, walk home alone at night.

After discontinuing rides between off-campus locations at the beginning of Spring Quarter 2014, SafeRide faced a great deal of student backlash and protest through an online petition that garnered nearly 600 signatures. What followed was a confusing debate on whether SafeRide was in danger of a shutdown because of Evanston’s taxi ordinance, something Evanston officials denied. Traveling between off-campus locations needs to be a feature returned to SafeRide because the service’s mission isn’t really fulfilled otherwise. Students who live off campus are left with insufficient options for getting around. Partnership to subsidize or provide free rides with Uber during times when SafeRides are in high demand could expand the reach of the student affairs service.

The current average wait time for getting a SafeRide on campus is 35 minutes according to the service’s website. This isn’t too bad — the site also details that SafeRide transports an average of 330 students per night, and indicates that the service is sufficiently equipped for their weekday traffic under current policies. It’s the heightened traffic during peak hours on the weekend that necessitates changes from SafeRide. By partnering with an existing ride-sharing service, NU can avoid hiring more drivers and purchasing more vehicles that are needed only during peak hours on weekends. The move may also allow SafeRide the flexibility to return to allowing trips between off-campus locations in the future.

SafeRide has a slew of issues to deal with in providing a safe service to NU students, but providing timely rides to students traveling in the university area is central to their mission statement. A partnership with Uber may be the most effective way to serve students’ needs without making even more major investments in infrastructure for the already rapidly evolving SafeRide service. It’s a lofty goal, but without making changes, the University invites future problems for students’ off-campus safety.

Lucas Matney is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].