Anderson could have taken a public Muni bus for about a dollar less, but as he explained as the bus rolled along one of San Francisco’s famously hilly streets, he often has trouble finding a seat on Muni; the ride home to his Inner Richmond neighborhood takes 10 to 15 minutes longer; and then there are, well, other factors.
“I saw a girl get her phone grabbed out of her hand on the Muni,” he says. “And I’ve had a woman light a glass pipe right next to me. I was like, are you...kidding me?”
Not long ago, commuters like Anderson didn’t have many other options. But in San Francisco – a city crawling with artisanal-coffee-drinking venture capitalists and app-happy entrepreneurs who insist that technology can solve our most vexing problems – a slew of companies have recently launched innovative services known as “microtransit”.
The moniker isn’t sexy, but if the concept takes off, microtransit could change the way millions of people get around.
The idea is simple: private vans or buses offering rides along fixed or ever-changing routes that cost just a little more than public transportation but are still far cheaper than Uber or taxi rides. In a way, microtransit takes a fresh, techy spin on an old concept. Whether they go by the name jitneys or dollar vans in the US, colectivos in Latin America or dala dala in Tanzania, private vans and buses have operated around the world for decades. New microtransit services make use of mobile apps that allow riders to pay for trips electronically and track buses as they approach. Think of microtransit as Uber for buses.
These services aren’t unique to San Francisco. Via operates rideshare SUVs in New York City and Bridj (http://www.bridj.com/) offers private bus rides in Washington, DC and Boston. Other services don’t employ buses or vans but still offer innovative new ways to get around. For example, UberPool, a carpool version of Uber, operates in six cities, giving riders a discount if they ride with others. Lyft is experimenting with Lyft Line. And in Tel Aviv, Google is testing a new carpool service using its Waze app.
But with its booming high-tech industry and its culture of innovation and early adoption, San Francisco, in particular, has been a hotbed of microtransit start-ups.
Leap launched earlier this year with $6 rides on luxurious buses decked out with wi-fi and selling Blue Bottle Coffee and $7 cold-pressed juices – amenities that prompted cries of elitism. But Leap soon ran into regulatory problems: the California Public Utilities Commission issued a cease-and-desist order in May because it said the company was operating without a permit. Leap reportedly began selling off buses in June and is no longer operating.
Then there’s Loup, a shuttle service backed by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams that made headlines in December 2014 when it raised $1.5 million. But Loup soon suspended operations; its app now promises the service is “Re-launching soon!”
Finally, Chariot launched in April 2014 and now operates more than 50 small buses along seven well-travelled routes during weekday mornings and evenings. It’s the brainchild of financier Ali Vahabzadeh, 38, who moved from New York City to San Francisco in 2010 without a car. He tried riding Muni to work but found the buses to be too crowded, so he wound up cycling instead. When he left the startup where he was working in 2013, he says transportation options had only gotten worse.
“I said to myself, all people have is a choice between a two dollar public transit ride and a $25 Uber Surge or Lyft Prime Time ride and nothing in between,” he says. “I said, let’s see what happens if I throw a few vans on the street and cut people’s commuting time in half and give them a fast, safe and affordable experience, and so we did that, and it’s been up, up and away since then.”
Chariot launched with four buses plying one well-travelled corridor, but its most recent routes were crowdsourced and crowdfunded: riders proposed the new routes and voted for them via the company’s website, and buses rolled only after at least 60 people had purchased their first passes. Chariot plans to launch routes in a similar fashion when it expands into the East Bay and down to Silicon Valley this year, and then into a second and possibly third market next year.
Stroll into Chariot’s brightly lit San Francisco offices and, on a wall near the entrance, you’re greeted with the phrase “#commutesolved”. The company is located near the Embarcadero in downtown San Francisco, just a block away from the Transbay Temporary Terminal – a buzzing lot that’s home to a Greyhound Bus Station and local buses serving the East Bay and beyond.
Wearing a checkered button-down shirt, jeans and Vans – San Francisco high-tech casual – Vahabzadeh strolls out of the company’s front door and past the Transbay Temporary Terminal, waxing rhapsodic about his vision for Chariot. The company isn’t a threat to public buses and trains, he says, because Chariot can help commuters better utilize public transportation.
“We’re trying to build first and last mile solutions, to be a connector, as opposed to Chariot coming all the way from Oakland into San Francisco,” he says. “It’s that first- and last-mile commute that scares people away from mass transit.”
To illustrate his point, Vahabzadeh cites the Fisherman’s Flyer route the company launched in May 2015. Vahabzadeh suddenly saw dozens of would-be riders voting for a new line running from the Embarcadero BART station to Fisherman’s Wharf – an area popular with tourists. At first, Vahabzadeh thought it was a joke. But as he soon learned, businesses around Fisherman’s Wharf were having trouble retaining employees due to transportation problems. Many workers reside in the East Bay and ride BART trains into San Francisco. But once they stepped off the train, the commuters had trouble travelling the last two miles to work.
“We got 200 riders voting for that in the first couple of weeks,” he says. “And a lot of the employers bought the first passes for their employees.”
Clearly, there’s a demand, but what microtransit means for the future of transportation remains to be seen.
Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that microtransit is just one of the many new commuting options popping up. Bike share programs are on the rise. Just days ago in San Francisco, UberPool launched a new service called “Smart Routes,” which offers riders on two routes a discount if they board at a fixed point. Also coming down the pike: automated cars that will get commuters to work with little effort on the driver’s part.
“It’s an exciting time,” Shaheen says. “And a confusing time.”
While Shaheen the researcher doesn’t know exactly what the future portends, Shaheen the commuter is confident about one thing. She often rides a BART train into San Francisco for meetings and needs help getting the last mile or two. That used to be a problem, she says. But not anymore.
“I now know with certainty that I can take out my app and get a ride.”
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