Boosting Campus Safety
Universities can build their own on-demand ride-hailing service, supported by a mobile app, to provide students with safe rides home at night
- By Dillon Twombly
- December 01, 2019
It is no secret that university students keep odd hours. Whether
they are staying up all night to cram for a final at the library, working
a late shift after classes, or waking up early to put in a few
more hours at the lab, college students roam campus at all hours
of the evening, and ultimately, that can become a safety issue.
Keeping Students Safe
That is why many universities provide a range of ways to keep students
safe as they move around, from key cards to student IDs. In
addition, a number of others have instituted campus-run student
safety shuttles, which pick up students who were studying late at the
library, attending an event at the student center, or even need a safe
ride home from a weekend house party.
But these safe-ride programs have seen mixed success in how well
they have been adopted and used by students. Generally, securing a
ride on one of these shuttles means calling an operator, stating a location
and waiting for a driver — sometimes for up to 45 minutes or an
hour. Students often become frustrated and end up walking home by
themselves in the dark, sometimes while inebriated — exactly what
shuttles are intended to prevent.
Other students call a taxi or ride-share service, which is a better
option than walking, but because these are outside services, they are
no longer free and remove the student from the university’s campus
In an effort to find a more convenient way to help students arrive
home safely, some universities and their campus security/police
departments have explored partnering with existing ride-sharing
companies to provide subsidized rides for students — a viable option,
although not always free for students.
But others have been exploring a new
option: building their own mobile ride-hailing
service that allows a student to request
free rides on demand.
Building Your Own On-Demand Service
Some universities are partnering with software-
as-a-service (SaaS) companies to build
their own on-demand ride-hailing service
with an app-based interface, often times
using the university’s existing shuttle fleet
from a previous dial-a-ride student shuttle.
These partnerships create a microstransit
network expressly designed for each individual
Although the app is built by a third party
and powered by the SaaS company’s proprietary
routing technology, it is white-labeled
for the university. This allows the school to name the service and brand it according to its
own standards — and, of course, run it on its
own terms. A partnership of this kind creates
the best of both worlds: the safety and control
of a campus-run shuttle program, and the
convenience and efficiency of a third-party,
technology-based ride-share app.
As a university explores a partnership with
a tech company for a safe ride programs,
there are a few key factors to consider:
Hours of operation. Universities can control
the hours of operation based on locations
and behavior of the community. That means
the institution’s leaders determine things like
whether the service will operate only after
dark, or at all hours of the day; during holidays
where the campus shuts down; and even
during summer break where there may be
students taking off-season classes.
Pick up/drop off zones. Just as important
as the hours of operation is the area in which
students can request a trip. Unlike traditional
ride-hailing services that allow students to
travel anywhere in the city, a universityoperated
shuttle can specify the zone(s) in
which people can request rides. Limiting the
rides to specific zones or drop-off/pick-up
areas helps the university use the service for
safe travels, and it ensures that vehicles are
always available for students or staff to use.
Selecting the fleet. The type of vehicle and
the size of a university’s fleet are two important
considerations for a successful shuttle
deployment. If a university builds their own
on-demand student shuttle network, they
can select the most efficient quantity of vehicles
on the road at any given time, and the
capacity and style of van they think will work
best to drive students to their destinations.
Hiring trusted drivers. It may sound obvious,
but hiring the right drivers is critical to
student protection. That is why universities
have the power to hire (and rigorously background-
check) their own drivers, or ensure
outside staff undergo a stringent, campuspolice-
supported screening process.
Shared rides are better rides. With a student
safety shuttle, all rides are (and should
be) shared. By pooling multiple students into
the same vehicle, it only increases security
and safety by eliminating any potential oneon-
on moments with a driver. Plus, when
more than one student is in a shuttle at the
same time, it not only increases security, but
it also makes the rides more efficient and
cuts down on traffic congestion on campus
(not to mention emissions).
Making it Easy
Most importantly, when it is easier to book a ride on demand using
an app, and rides arrive quickly, more students will use the service
instead of walking home or calling a regular taxi — which inherently
increases safety. Students will no longer have to decide between calling
an operator and waiting sometimes more than 30 minutes for a
ride, or just walking to their destination. By making the service as
convenient to use as possible, where students are able to see the wait
time, routes and estimated times of arrival, more students will choose
to take the safety shuttle than ever before.
Universities Doing It Right
Two universities in Massachusetts found success with this approach,
partnering with private SaaS company Via to create their own ridehailing
apps for students to use.
Northeastern University launched its own free ride-sharing service
at its Boston campus, naming it the RedEye Safety Escort. The
dynamically routed transit network provides students with a safe ride
home from the campus library, and marks one of the first universities
in North America to integrate ride hailing technology into its standard
campus shuttle system.
Managed by the Northeastern University Police Department, the
RedEye is available to students living within two miles of the campus
center, with pickups every 30 minutes from the Snell Library Quadrangle
from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily.
Students use the RedEye App, available for both iOS and Android,
to hail the safety escort van directly from their smartphone. The app
directs passengers to a pickup point in the Snell Quad, and the app’s
algorithm optimizes routing to place students headed in the same
direction in the same vehicle, ensuring students arrive home safely
and quickly, without lengthy detours or inconvenient fixed routes and
schedules. More than 3,300 students used the service for 45,000 rides
in the 2018-19 academic year alone, and Northeastern representatives
say they expect an even greater uptick in use in the upcoming year.
To supplement a fixed-route campus shuttle bus, another leading
research university also launched its own evening van service in August
2018 to transport faculty, staff and students safely around campus.
Students book the service as needed using the university’s custombuilt
mobile app. To streamline pickups, campus leadership vetted a
number of safe, centralized pickup locations. Riders walk a short distance,
then join their shared ride. The service operates within predetermined
boundaries every night between 7 p.m. and 3 a.m. during
the academic year, with reduced hours between commencement and
the start of classes.
An algorithm directs the vehicle in real-time along an optimized
route, keeping passenger wait times to a minimum and reducing inefficient
detours that take riders out of their way. And because it is
on-demand, the service can pick up passengers more quickly than a
shuttle bus operating on pre-scheduled routes. The shuttle buses still
run on their regular schedules, but this additional service gives students,
faculty and staff an on-demand way to book quick shared trips
without detours. Some universities, such as Northwestern, also
upgraded their student safety shuttles by choosing to partner with a
consumer on-demand service using an existing app. The university
still maintains a high-level of control over the service by choosing
when students can hail a ride, what times of the school year the partnership
will operate and how many vehicles they plan to dedicate to
Furthermore, Northwestern worked with its partner to select drivers,
with preference given to those with a demonstrated history of
positive customer feedback and highest expectations for driving
records. Selected drivers are also given a Northwestern-branded vehicle
identifier, so students know what vehicle to watch for. Just like the
other universities who chose to develop their own, fully-branded
campus safety shuttle with their own app, Northwestern expects to
see a dramatic increase in the volume of students who turn to the
ridesharing service to get home. Following the partnership, students
will see a 38 percent increase in the total number of hours that drivers
are available, using an increased number of dedicated and trained
drivers each night.
Having a campus-run safety shuttle is an admirable aspiration for
a university, but ensuring it is convenient and efficient is critical to
student adoption. That is why more universities are partnering with
an existing on-demand service, or simply building their own. By
partnering with third-party SaaS companies to build their own ondemand
ride-hailing app, expressly designed with their campus in
mind, universities gain a shuttle service that is customized, safe, convenient,
and efficient — and students do not need to choose between
safety and speed.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.