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Nancy Lowd told her teen he could put Uber on his phone “just in case he got stuck.”
“That’s always how it starts,” the Canton mother said, “for emergencies.”
She laughed the joyless laugh of a person on a slippery slope, of a credit card holder who has encountered unexpected Uber charges.
“The next thing you know, it’s: ‘I was with my friend and they were nervous about the neighborhood’ — Back Bay — ‘so we Ubered.’ ”
In pre-ride-hailing days, chauffeurs were for rich kids. Everyone else bummed a ride from mom or dad or a friend. But now, a growing number of teens have what amount to private drivers. They’re pulling out their phones and summoning rides to parties, restaurants, sports practices, friends’ houses, the gym.
In some circles, Uber and its like have become so pervasive that rides are their own currency, like cigarettes in prison. It works like this: A kid whose parents foot his Uber bill hosts pals on his ride, and then collects cash, which mom and dad might never see, or allows himself to be treated to pizza or other in-kind donations.
Many parents of girls won’t put their daughters alone in a car with a driver who’s a stranger. It’s considered risky, the modern version of hitchhiking. But parents of teenage boys are typically less worried, and some guys have grown so accustomed to having a car pull up wherever they are — on a moment’s notice — that the T, or their feet, are no longer acceptable transportation.
“Walking? They don’t even think about it,” Lowd said.
In 2017, teens are negotiating Uber and Lyft terms with their folks the way kids once angled to borrow the family car.
In Jamaica Plain, Alex England gives her 15-year-old son a $1,000 annual Uber supplement to his allowance, but when he called for a ride home recently, and she told him to take an Uber, he wanted to know who was paying.
“On whose account,” he quickly shot back, “yours or mine?”
Uber and Lyft policies prohibit children under age 18 from riding alone. But drivers rarely check a passenger’s age, according to kids and parents.
And now, the young — paying — ride-hailing customers are upending the usual order of things, where the adult is the authority figure, said Harry Campbell, founder of a popular blog and podcast for ride-hailing drivers, The Rideshare Guy .
“Most kids are pretty respectful,” he said, but problems emerge when a driver wants a teen to turn down his music but fears the kid will retaliate by giving a low driver rating.
“If an adult is treating you poorly, you put up with it,” he said, “but with a kid, it feels a little demeaning.”
At the same time, he added, tech-savvy teens can be easier to deal with than older passengers if a pre-ride problem emerges. “They know how to message the driver.”
Many parents and kids aren’t aware minors aren’t supposed to be riding alone, particularly since there are no age restrictions for a child alone in a Boston taxi, according to the Boston Police Department.
But even some who know full well their ninth-grader isn’t supposed to be alone in that Uber or Lyft have become too reliant on the convenience to go back, even if it does mean missing out on the eavesdropping inherent in being a car pool mom.
Uber’s and Lyft’s popularity — and the growing competition among smaller firms to provide safety-focused rides specifically for children, complete with panic alarms and real-time video feeds — says a lot about the lives of today’s families: the work pressure, the time stress, the shrinking share of high school seniors with licenses.
“If I’m leaving work an hour earlier than I would so I can walk to my car and then drive to get [my son] in West Roxbury, I’m wasting time and gas and it’s bad for the environment,” said a mother who works in the Longwood Medical Area.
The mom, who didn’t want her name used for privacy reasons, initially worried that her son would miss chatting in the car, but he assured her that at 5 p.m., with work worries and Boston traffic clouding her mood, “it wasn’t our best time together.”
Like many parents, she’s done the math and figured that calling an Uber — as fancy as it sounds — isn’t always the pricier option. Not when compared with the cost of buying and insuring a car for a teen driver. And even not always when compared with public transportation, if a few kids are riding together and can split the cost, or if a child takes UberPool and shares a ride with strangers.
“I don’t want to be flip about money,” said England, the JP mother, but sometimes it’s just the cost of a couple of Starbucks drinks.
As ride-hailing services work their way further into people’s routines, they are creating new etiquette challenges in the already high-stakes car pool game: What do you say if another parent wants to hire a driver to cover her shift but it makes you nervous? What if you’re the parent who wants to do it?
Meanwhile, even as ride-hailing services are easing one parenting challenge — all that schlepping — they’re creating another. In Brookline, Kate Patterson’s 16-year-old son sometimes takes Uber home from football practice, a ride he makes in his smelly practice clothes and pads.
“I’m worried he’s going to ruin my Uber [passenger] rating,” she said.
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