It has been common enough for Kelly Barnhill to use a ride-share app.
As a notable children's author (the Minneapolis writer won the Newbery Award in 2017), she does a lot of traveling and speaking at conferences, libraries and schools. Lyft and Uber have been inexpensive, reliable ways for her to get around in a strange town.
So when she arrived in Houston on Sunday night, she hailed a Lyft to get to her hotel. (Mass transit, she said, would have taken more than two hours.)
Her driver "was a personable fellow — youngish, handsome, smiled easily," she wrote in a series of tweets describing what became a terrifying ride.
The driver took her the opposite way from her hotel, out into the countryside, where, as the evening grew dark, they were out of cellphone range.
Then the driver told her she had pretty eyes.
"According to Lyft's website, what one is supposed to do in these situations is demand to be let off," Barnhill wrote. "Apparently there is a call for help button too, but that doesn't help you if your phone doesn't work. And I can't see how it would help while going 90 on a lonely Texas road."
In the end, perhaps because of her endless stream of peppy, nervous talk (punctuated with frequent pointed reminders to the Lyft driver of how her cellphone was loaded with security features and tracks her everywhere she goes), the driver turned around and headed back into Houston. The 15-minute, $30 drive turned into an hourlong $90 drive.
Barnhill doesn't know if the driver was a sexual predator or if he was simply trying to run up the Lyft charge. Complaints to Lyft initially got her charge reduced to $30. After several days of Barnhill continuing to contact them and also tweeting about the incident, the company, she said, erased the charge and fired the driver. (Lyft didn't return calls or e-mails to the Star Tribune.)
Barnhill's experience has wider implications for authors — children's authors in particular, she said.
"For a lot of us, school visits are a huge portion of our income," she said. "And most of us use ride-sharing to get around in strange cities."
"When I first vaguely tweeted this on Monday morning, the people who responded were almost exclusively female children's authors who all have felt unsafe at one point or another," she said.
Barnhill's publisher, Algonquin Young Readers based in Chapel Hill, N.C., said it will hire cars for her when she's on book tour. "But for school visits," she said, "I don't know what I'll do."