Senior Tanner Smith parked the red van outside the Wells Library parking lot, pop music playing softly in the background. Usually, he would be blasting electronic dance music like Bassnectar or Porter Robinson to keep himself awake.
It was a little after 9 p.m., and his shift was just starting.
Smith is a driver for IU Safety Escort, a university-sponsored alternative to ride services like Uber and Lyft that lets students, staff and faculty catch free rides around Bloomington at night. Riders can call a phone number or download the free app, TapRide.
“I’m a night person anyway, so why not drive around in a van listening to music?” Smith said.
From 8 p.m. to 1:45 a.m. during the school year, university-employed student drivers provide rides to any student, staff or faculty member who needs it, whether it be because they feel unsafe walking late at night or they just don’t want to pay for a ride home, according to the IU Safety Escort website.
The service transported 27,800 riders in the 2018 fiscal year, according to the IU Safety Escort annual report, which averages about 76 riders per night. These rides are divided among four vans: One for campus pickups and drop-offs only, and three that spend their nights cruising around the city limits.
Most riders use the service when they are studying late at Wells Library or the Indiana Memorial Union, IU Safety Escort Associate Director Hannah Brainard said.
“People sometimes get confused if we should be used as a primary transport or if it should be used in an emergency, so we’re trying to carve out a spot for us somewhere in the middle,” she said. “But we want to give everyone a safe way to get home at night if they need it.”
Although the rides are free, some find themselves waiting for up to an hour for the van to arrive. About half of the more than 17,000 cancellations last fiscal year happened because the wait time was too long, according to the service’s annual report.
Sophomore Katherine Kennelly, who has used the service several times, said she worries about students who choose to walk home because the wait time is too long.
“For me, its safety over convenience,” she said. “But I can see why people would get annoyed.”
The average wait time last fiscal year was 23 minutes. Brainard said the company is always looking to improve wait times.
Kennelly said she thinks there should be more than four vans each night so the wait time will be lower.
But Brainard said adding more vans would likely just create more demand, and the wait time would be the same.
“It’s like a cycle,” she said.
Funded by the Office of the Provost, the service cost the university more than $196,000 last fiscal year. Brainard said it is not planning on expanding its fleet size because the cost would outweigh the benefits.
Kennelly said she usually waits about 45 minutes for each ride, which are usually later at night during peak hours. But sometimes, when she works at University Information Technology Services in the library until 2 a.m., the service isn’t available when she clocks out.
So she finds another way home, like Uber, because walking is not a safe option.
“I live off campus by the School of Optometry, so it’s not very close,” she said. “And the area isn’t very well-lit.”
Amanda Wilson, director of fleet services, said they have thought about expanding their hours but ultimately decided it would not be cost-efficient either.
“There’s not a significant enough population who needs the service that late at night,” Wilson said.
Brainard said after around midnight, the number of riders significantly drops.
She said it also would be unfair to the student drivers, like Smith, to be up that late each shift if the hours extended. Things like hours and fleet size may change in the future, she said, but there are no definite plans.
For now, Smith said he enjoys his time as a driver because he has a flexible schedule and always gets to drive with a navigator in the passenger seat, so he has someone to talk to.
“I really like it,” he said. “We’re just students helping out other students.”
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