The big yellow school bus has traditionally been the most common means of transportation for students traveling to and from school.
But now, the smaller yellow taxi cab is making more and more of those trips on behalf of school districts — or zTrip’s silver Toyota Scions are.
In an effort to compete with companies like Uber and Lyft, the operators of YellowCab and zTrip ride-sharing service are venturing further into the realm of student transportation, an area their rivals can’t as easily go.
The company provides between 70 and 80 rides a day for students from nine local school districts and some private schools, said Pittsburgh Transportation Group CEO Jamie Campolongo. And that number is growing.
“We just found a little niche that’s been working for us,” Mr. Campolongo said. “It’s a service that is unique, and it’s a service that some of our competitors can’t provide.”
The Pittsburgh Transportation Group announced last year that is would be phasing out its century-old YellowCab taxi business and focusing instead on zTrip, the ride-sharing service it launched in 2015. While Uber and Lyft still dominate the ride-sharing app business in Pittsburgh, they can’t easily compete in the realm of student transportation because of the stringent state licensing and clearances required to work with children.
In Pennsylvania, anyone transporting students must possess a valid commercial driver’s license and the appropriate insurance, as well as pass numerous criminal background checks.
A decade ago, Mr. Campolongo said, about 25 of his drivers met the requirements to transport students. Now, about 170 of zTrip’s 450 drivers have the clearances to chauffeur students and provide rides as needed by social services or for people with disabilities, he said.
“We’re not your grandma’s old cab company,” Mr. Campolongo said.
The taxi company has been transporting students in “special circumstances” for years, Mr. Campolongo said, but not in as many numbers as it is attempting to do now. YellowCab provided rides for some Pittsburgh Public Schools students for about 20 years, driving them when they have to go home sick or in other special situations.
Eldridge Black, director of pupil transportation for Pittsburgh Public Schools, has moved to expand the district’s work with zTrip since he started in July and has encouraged the company to purchase more vehicles than can transport multiple passengers.
Like the Woodland Hills School District, which recently approved a contract with zTrip through the end of the year, Pittsburgh Public Schools has a large number of homeless students who need transportation to and from school. Legally, those transportation arrangements have to be made immediately, and taxis are the easiest way to provide them with rides, school leaders say.
Between 200 and 300 homeless students in the city school district are being transported via zTrip, Mr. Black said, in addition to homeless students who walk or are transported by Port Authority bus or with the help of a different district contractor.
The district is attempting to be more “analytical” and efficient with arranging transportation for its students this year, and even though the district has been using zTrip more frequently, all of the changes his 11-person team has made has resulted in a savings of about $150,000 so far this year.
“I think just partnering with zTrip has made a big, big difference,” Mr. Black said.
Woodland Hills Superintendent Alan Johnson said he got the idea to enter his own contract with the cab company from Pittsburgh Public Schools. The school board last week approved the agreement, which provides a means for transporting some of the district’s roughly 150 homeless students and students in “emergency situations.”
And like many districts across the country, Woodland Hills is facing a shortage of bus drivers with the appropriate clearances to man the numerous bus routes the district provides, Mr. Johnson said.
If a student suddenly becomes homeless and needs a special transport, the district will first check to see if he or she can be accommodated on a school bus or by another of the district’s transportation contractors. If not, Mr. Johnson said, the district can call zTrip.
The district has already arranged a zTrip ride for a student currently residing in the Shaler area at a cost of about $50 each way, Mr. Johnson said. That’s significantly less than the $200-$300 cost quoted by a different contractor.
“We’re hoping this will really help us out a lot because some of those trips are really challenging for us, and we want to make sure we serve the student properly and their family, but also at a reasonable cost to the district,” Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Campolongo said partnering with school districts makes sense for both his company and the schools. The districts often save money and are able to provide rides for students that are otherwise difficult to arrange, and Pittsburgh Transportation Group is able to diversify its business.
“It’s really been a win-win for everybody,” he said.
Elizabeth Behrman: Lbehrman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.