When Seattle Public Schools students return to the classroom in September, many of their families will be along for the ride — at least virtually.
The district of more than 50,000 students has contracted with California tech startup Zum to provide half of its bus service.
Using the Zum system, “all of the stakeholders are connected. There’s full transparency and visibility at all times of where the children are,” said founder and CEO Ritu Narayen. “People used to say, I can track my pizza [delivery], but I have no idea where my children are once they are on the school bus. That issue is completely removed.
Parents get a Zum app to track their kids’ buses and drivers. Students tap an RFID-enabled pass when boarding vehicles to sign into the ride.
Narayen began working on the idea for Zum in 2015 after facing transportation challenges for her own two children. Zum’s first customer was the Oakland Unified School District where her 10-year-old son and kindergarten-age daughter were enrolled. The company now provides transportation for 4,000 schools in California, Washington, Texas and Illinois.
Zoom by the numbers:
- The company has raised more than $207 million in venture capital, and its current valuation, Narayen said, is just shy of unicorn status at $937 million.
- Zum aims to shift its fleet to all electric vehicles by 2025, but did not share information on who will provide the EVs; in March it deployed in the Bay Area its first six electric buses from Lion Electric.
- Zum uses a variety of vehicles including different-sized buses, vans and cars. Most are Zum vehicles, but can include driver-owned vehicles.
- The startup recently signed a $400 million contract with the Los Angeles Unified School District, which serves more than 650,000 students.
In early July, the Seattle Public Schools (SPS) Board of Directors voted in favor of splitting its $45 million, three-year transportation budget between its current vendor, First Student, and Zum.
“The board’s vote is significant because it introduces expanded transportation options for SPS,” said Bev Redmond, SPS assistant superintendent for public affairs, in an emailed comment. “The board is to be commended for moving this important matter forward and remaining centered on the needs of students.”
Since 2019, Zum has been providing limited transportation for Seattle students, including some of those with special needs. It’s unclear how the district will divide the routes and responsibilities between the two companies. Narayen said they expect to deploy 200 buses and drivers, serving students and families district wide.
While Zum has operational similarities to ride-hailing companies like Lyft or Uber, it contracts directly with districts and does not provide on-demand rides for students.
The path to the shared contract in Seattle has been a bumpy one. Back in May, the school district was close to awarding the full contract to First Student, but Zum alleged that the decision was “arbitrarily and improperly” made, according to the news site MyNorthwest.
Additionally, the district’s long-time vendor had eliminated more than 100 bus routes last fall, citing driver shortages. First Student also recently received $396,000 in penalties from the state due to safety violations, reported MyNorthwest, settling for $196,000 in April.
GeekWire contacted First Student for a response and will update this story if we hear back.
Narayen said that Zum tries to offer a more customer-oriented experience compared to traditional school transportation providers.
One of Zum’s benefits, she said, was that students often spend a shorter amount of time traveling to and from school thanks to the company’s ability to optimize routes and use a variety of vehicles to deliver rides.
“Our hope is to modernize the entire Seattle transportation [system for schools], bringing the aspects of visibility, safety, reliability that parents have been hoping to get for so long,” Narayen said. “Seattle is such a technology savvy and sustainability [focused city]. Our values are so fundamentally aligned.”