October 2020

By Emily Kortright & Lucy Johnston-Walsh*


Children and young adults who are involved with the foster care system face multiple barriers to transportation, particularly in remote areas of the country with limited public transport options.  Recent changes in federal and state laws now allow children to remain in foster care beyond age 18 up to age 21, with a goal of providing these young adults with the opportunity to develop independent living skills.  As a greater number of older youth may choose to remain involved with foster care, there will be increasing demands for transportation to places of work and education.  Youth residing in suburban or rural areas have unique challenges due to lack of public transportation. Unfortunately, foster youth frequently experience many legal challenges in obtaining their drivers’ licenses, purchasing a car and obtaining insurance.  Foster care provider organizations (both governmental and private) often express fears of liability related to allowing a foster youth to drive.  

New and emerging forms of transportation may provide potential solutions, but – as always – with advancements in technology come challenges in implementation. Just as mass transit is unavailable, micromobility is largely inaccessible for foster youth in remote locations. Bikes, scooters, and other means of bike-lane-occupying transit have provided cost-effective, footprint reducing options for residents of cities around the world. However, micromobility options are often impractical to implement in suburban and rural locations where most trips are more than a few miles. Micromobility for foster children in urban areas presents its own slew of concerns such as risk of accidents and injuries, lack of supervision, and determination of appropriate age of usage.

Ridesharing apps have become some of the most pervasive and visible technological advancements in mobility; however, combined with the lack of available cars in non-urban areas, they do not provide the advantages to foster children that they do to the general population. Many foster children do not even have access to smart phones and cellular data. Also, Uber and Lyft drivers cannot be properly vetted to ensure the safety of the children, and often have restrictions related to unaccompanied minors. State laws and policies place appropriate safety restrictions on who may transport foster youth, and often the list includes only caseworkers, biological parents and/or foster parents, or residential facility staff. Unless special permission is given by the court or parents, it would be challenging to approve any rideshare driver.  Moreover, waiting for a rideshare driver to become available and arrive could be problematic for youth who have time commitments relating to jobs or appointments.

Companies such as HopSkipDrive, Kango, VanGo and Zum seek to provide ridesharing services to children in a safe manner, vetting drivers through extensive interviews, background checks, and certification processes, and implementing real-time monitoring systems. Los Angeles-based HopSkipDrive, has even focused its outreach on foster youth, expanding to Las Vegas and partnering with Clark County Child Welfare Services. However, these services are not widespread, often require scheduling in advance, and the extensive vetting process for drivers means that the cost of each ride tends to be even higher than most ridesharing apps. Even extensive security measures cannot completely shield children from the risks of assault and kidnapping that ridesharing apps present. In February of 2020, HopSkipDrive was suspended in Las Vegas when a driver was charged with unlawful contact with a minor and luring a child, despite having an approved criminal record and background check.

According to a new report, 1 in 10 vehicles will be fully automated by 2030, with robo-taxis comprising a significant portion of the market. While contracts with agencies that provide robo-taxi services could provide a convenient solution for foster youth, the possibility of fully automated vehicles means that even semi-autonomous cars will still require some manner of control by a human driver. This presents similar challenges as ridesharing. Furthermore, the newness of the technology will likely mean higher costs, accessibility that is limited to cities and wealthier areas, higher risks, and lower public trust – all crucial factors that the foster care system considers when dealing with the transportation of youth.

Even if the aforementioned options were easily accessible to foster youth, all of them could prove to be cost-prohibitive. Child welfare agencies operate on strict budgets, allocating money only for necessities. Foster parents are also likely on tight budgets and may have a hard time justifying the expense of transportation technology. Even if a child has access to a smart phone to order an Uber, he or she most likely does not have the money to spare. Children in urban areas may have access to micromobility, but if they do not have the money to pay for it, it is of little use. Children in suburban or rural areas may find the cost prohibits them from even owning a bike or scooter. If such technology is deemed necessary, various bureaucratic hoops remain when deciding who will pay for such expenses.

Despite these safety and budgetary considerations, technology should still be harnessed to address many of the transportation barriers that foster youth face. Technology must be adapted to better suit the unique situations of the foster youth population.  For instance, individuals with connections to child protection services (i.e. caseworkers, foster parents, Court Appointed Special Advocates, etc.) could volunteer to act as on-call drivers, providing rides to youth in the foster care system. Safety concerns could be limited by keeping drivers within the pool of individuals who have already been approved. For older youth and those in less rural areas, micromobility programs could be created specifically for foster children, in which scooters and bikes could be donated or purchased specifically for their usage. Additionally, as a far-out solution, contracts between counties and fully automated vehicles could prove to be the ultimate solution once the technology has become more pervasive and affordable. It must not be taken for granted that technology automatically benefits all populations and individuals equally; the unique challenges of foster youth mean that we must provide them with unique solutions.

Sources:


* Lucy Johnston-Walsh is a Clinical Professor and Director of the Children’s Advocacy Clinic at Penn State Dickinson Law in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Emily Kortright is a certified legal intern in the Children’s Advocacy Clinic and JD candidate. The Children’s Advocacy Clinic is an experiential learning program for law students. The Clinic receives court appointments to represent children who are involved with the foster care system. Many clinic clients have been negatively impacted by transportation barrriers.

This year we have tried our best to keep up with all of the ways that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge our transportation system – though with so much news on so many fronts that is often a losing battle. This past summer I moved from Ann Arbor to Washington, D.C. and last week I made a return trip to Michigan for some work that had to be completed on campus. Having crossed the eastern part of the U.S. twice now, I have been relieved to see the vast majority of travelers using mask when in public rest stops in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio – I saw maybe on noncompliant person the entire trip. In reflection on my travels, I want to use today’s blog to present a grab-bag of COVID stories from the past few months that I hadn’t had a chance to feature yet.

How COVID Changed Driving Behavior

All the way back in March, Phil noted in a blog post how COVID-related lockdowns shifted traffic and pollution levels in the U.S. For some people the pandemic has become an excuse to indulge their leadfoot. From January to August the Iowa State Patrol saw a 101% increase in the number of tickets for speeding 100 mph above the speed limit, and a 75% increase in tickets for drivers speeding 25 mph over the limit. Likewise, between March and August the California Highway patrol saw a similar 100% increase in tickets for speeding 100 mph over the limit, with other states reporting extreme speeding ticket increases as well. Some of this could be due to emptier roads inviting speed demons, combined with reductions in the number of officers on the road due to the pandemic.

Earlier in the year, the pandemic lockdowns and travel reductions did benefit one population – wildlife. Over the spring, when lockdowns were at their height and travel at record lows, California reported a 21% reduction in roadkill, while Idaho reported a 38% reduction and Maine a 44% fall. For a while it appeared that human roadway deaths would also fall as travel reduced – from March to May New York City went a record 58 days without a pedestrian fatality. Yet as time has gone on, the number of roadway fatalities has started to climb, or at least have not fallen comparable to reductions in travel. Looking at New York City again, while the number of vehicle miles driven in the city was down 40% between January and June of this year, the number of road fatalities only dropped 10%. Nationwide, while the total number of deaths on the road dropped 5%, the number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled actually rose from 1.02 in 2019 to 1.15 in 2020. Indeed July 2020 motor-vehicle fatality estimates saw an 11% increase over 2019.  Could it be that the drivers still on the road are the most dangerous? Could the increased number of speeders be goosing the number of deaths?

Ridesharing Continues to Take a Hit

In August I touched on the major ridership drops facing Uber and Lyft, as part of a blog post discussing the companies’ challenge to a new California law requiring them to treat their drivers as employees, rather than contractors. What I didn’t touch on was how those services and their drivers that are operating in the pandemic reacted to the health crisis. It wasn’t until May that Uber started requiring drivers to wear masks, though now they require both drivers and passengers to take selfies pre-ride to prove all parties are masked up, though in the case of riders the photos are only necessary if the rider was previously flagged for not wearing a mask. Uber has also supplied public health officials with usage data to assist with contract tracing. The company reported that in the first half of 2020 they received 560 data requests globally from public health departments, up from just 10 such requests in the entirety of 2019.

As cities and regions have opened back up, Uber ridership has been reportedly up in cities like New York, while still collapsed in San Francisco and LA. Given that nearly a quarter of the company’s rides from 2019 came from NYC, LA, SF, Chicago, and London, reduced demand on the west coast could be a major issue for them – even if the increased demand for takeout benefits their delivery service, UberEats (though delivery apps have proven to be less than profitable, even during the pandemic…).

Disinfecting Mobility

Another issue that has come to the forefront during the COVID crisis is how to clean vehicles and spaces to reduce the spread of illness. For mass transit half the battle is getting people to social distance and wear masks. In New York more than 170 transit workers have been assaulted while trying to enforce mask requirements, with 95% of those attacks taking place on buses. Meanwhile, companies like AV developer Voyage have adopted new tech to help keep their vehicles clean, which in Voyage’s case meant adopting ultraviolet lighting systems that sterilize their robotaxis in between passengers. In May, Ford rolled out new software for police vehicles they produce that uses the vehicle’s own heating system to bring the internal temperature in the car beyond 133 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes, to disinfect high touch areas. In both of these cases the cleaning technology is dangerous to humans, meaning it’s unlikely to be rolled out to the average consumer. New mobility tech like drones have also been repurposed to help fight COVID, with a drone-based system being used to spray disinfectant in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which has been reopened for NFL games (though the number of fans that will actually be allowed in is unknown…).

That’s enough for today, though of course going forward we’ll continue to explore the many ways the ongoing crisis can challenge our transportation system – including upcoming looks at the future of rail and air travel.