A bet­ter, if pricier, bus ride

Start-ups give S.F. rid­ers an al­ter­na­tive to the crowded public sys­tem, but at a cost too high for some.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - LAURA J. NEL­SON laura.nel­son@la­times.com Twit­ter: @lau­ra_nel­son

Sev­eral start-ups of­fer quiet, Wi-Fi equipped al­ter­na­tives to San Fran­cisco’s aging, crowded bus sys­tem. They may be look­ing at LA. soon.

SAN FRAN­CISCO — A bright blue bus pulled to the curb in the busy Fi­nan­cial Dis­trict, where two men in plaid shirts and back­packs were fo­cused on their phones.

Josh Pin­cus, 21, stepped aboard, greeted the driver and set­tled onto a padded bench at the rear, be­neath a wall of dis­tressed wood. An em­ployee tended a small counter of­fer­ing $7 juice and high-end cof­fee. The shut­tle was roomy, cool, quiet and al­most empty, with just five other, youngish pas­sen­gers hunched over phones and lap­tops.

“I don’t like feel­ing crowded,” Pin­cus said, as he scrolled through email us­ing the free Wi-Fi. Out the win­dows, he could see stand­ing pas­sen­gers sway­ing and jostling on a pass­ing city bus. “Muni just isn’t con­ve­nient, or very pleas­ant.”

Pin­cus’ ride, op­er­ated by Leap, is one of sev­eral star­tups pro­vid­ing an al­ter­na­tive to San Fran­cisco’s aging, crowded bus net­work. The com­pany and its main com­peti­tor, Char­iot, run short, peak-hour shut­tle routes be­tween the Fi­nan­cial Dis­trict and the Ma­rina, a pricey neigh­bor­hood popular with young en­trepreneurs and in­vest­ment bankers who com­plain of un­re­li­able and in­fre­quent Muni ser­vice.

The start-ups, both less than a year old, have drawn com­par­isons to Google’s sleek buses, which sparked protests last year among ac­tivists who said the shut­tles were ex­ac­er­bat­ing gen­tri­fi­ca­tion by con­nect­ing higher-in­come com­muters to neigh­bor­hoods with oth­er­wise poor tran­sit ser­vice, driv­ing up rents. Some fear Leap and Char­iot could fur­ther strat­ify San Fran­cisco com­mut­ing op­tions be­tween rich and poor — and re­duce pres­sure to im­prove the public trans­porta­tion net­work.

Of­fi­cials at Leap and Char­iot say they are in­ter­ested in ex­pand­ing to L.A., but are not yet sure how it would work here or what routes would make sense.

Leap re­sem­bles a char­ter bus; Char­iot a Su­per Shut­tle. Rid­ers buy tick­ets ($6 and $5, re­spec­tively) on com­pany apps and board in pas­sen­ger load­ing zones marked with side­walk signs. Both of­fer routes sim­i­lar to Muni’s $2.25 Ma­rina Ex­press, which is fre­quently full and forced to leave com­muters stand­ing on the curb. Trans­porta­tion of­fi­cials say the pri­vate shut­tles are help­ing their crowded sys­tem.

“If we could, we would be meet­ing those needs,” said Tilly Chang, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the San Fran­cisco County Trans­porta­tion Author­ity, an agency that works with Muni, BART and Cal­train on fund­ing and plan­ning is­sues. The shut­tles are im­por­tant, she said, be­cause “at the end of the day, we can’t meet the de­mand.”

Il­yse Magy, an or­ga­nizer with SF Tran­sit Rid­ers, said the rise of pri­vate Bay Area shut­tle ser­vices shows that public car­ri­ers such as Muni need to im­prove cus­tomer ser­vice to pre­vent the cre­ation of “par­al­lel sys­tems” for rich and poor res­i­dents.

“If peo­ple who are vot­ing on Muni im­prove­ments aren’t rid­ing it, that will only lead to an un­der­funded sys­tem,” Magy said. “When the ‘spirit of in­no­va­tion’ starts sep­a­rat­ing out the classes, that’s a scary pat­tern.”

Both com­pa­nies stress that their ser­vices are open to ev­ery­one.

“The so­cial fab­ric of ev­ery city is more com­pli­cated than two tiers of in­come,” Leap Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Kyle Kirch­hoff said. “We see a lot of shades of gray.”

Leap and Char­iot say they hope to com­ple­ment Muni, rather than com­pete with it. Their tar­get cus­tomers, they add, are peo­ple who com­mute by ride-shar­ing ser­vices such as Uber and Lyft, not by bus.

“Here’s the thing: Leap isn’t for every­body,” Dan Hon of the non­profit Code For Amer­ica wrote in a re­cent newsletter. “Take a look at the im­agery used on the Leap site. Look at the kind of peo­ple shown. Think about the kind of jobs that those peo­ple have. Leap isn’t just for all com­muters, it’s im­plic­itly for a spe­cific set of com­muters: the kind of peo­ple who aren’t, say, ser­vice work­ers.”

The real is­sue with pri­va­tiz­ing tran­sit, Hon con­tin­ued, is that “not in­signif­i­cant amounts of cap­i­tal are wasted on short-term so­lu­tions for small groups of peo­ple,” rather than fix­ing the mass tran­sit sys­tem for ev­ery­one.

Crit­ics note that, un­like public trans­porta­tion sys­tems, Leap and Char­iot don’t ac­com­mo­date guide dogs or wheel­chairs.

“Public trans­porta­tion is great, and al­ways needs to ex­ist, and al­ways needs to serve the whole pop­u­la­tion,” Kirch­hoff said. Leap is fo­cus­ing on bring­ing more op­tions to ar­eas that are “highly traf­ficked, but un­der­served” by tran­sit, he said.

Char­iot Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Ali Va­habzadeh says his firm hopes to act, in part, as a con­nec­tion to tran­sit, car­ry­ing peo­ple on first- and last-mile trips to Cal­train and BART sta­tions.

The new shut­tles hear­ken back to jit­ney vans that roamed San Fran­cisco un­til 1972, when the city banned the ser­vices in a bid to boost Muni rid­er­ship.

Va­habzadeh said some of Char­iot’s first in­vestors were from Asia and Africa, where such pri­vate, in­for­mal trans­porta­tion net­works are com­mon and popular.

Jenn Mariska, 30, used to take the bus from her Ma­rina apart­ment to her in­vest­ment job in the Fi­nan­cial Dis­trict. But it stops run­ning at 6:30 p.m. On the nights she couldn’t leave work in time, she took a taxi. Seven months ago, she switched to Char­iot, which costs $25 more per month than a Muni pass. But it runs later — and she no longer pays for late-night cabs, which bal­ances out the costs.

“It’s a nice, clean car, and it’s de­pend­able,” Mariska said. Plus, she said, she’s guar­an­teed a seat.

Weigh­ing the larger trans­porta­tion benefits of the pri­vate shut­tle ser­vices re­quires un­der­stand­ing how pas­sen­gers were com­mut­ing be­fore, said Su­san Sha­heen, co-direc­tor of UC Berke­ley’s Trans­porta­tion Sus­tain­abil­ity Re­search Cen­ter. If they were driv­ing alone, Sha­heen said, or driv­ing to a train sta­tion, the ser­vices are pro­vid­ing a net gain by tak­ing cars off the road.

“When new ser­vices come on­line, you get this very po­lar­iz­ing re­ac­tion, ei­ther ‘they’re com­pletely hor­ri­ble’ or ‘this has changed ev­ery­thing,’” Sha­heen said.

“The re­al­ity is that it’s prob­a­bly some­where in be­tween.”

Pho­to­graphs by Josh Edel­son AFP/Getty Images

FOR $6, SAN FRAN­CISCO com­muters can aban­don the public Muni net­work for a ride on a Leap Tran­sit bus, which of­fers a guar­an­teed seat, re­fresh­ments and free Wi-Fi to rid­ers trav­el­ing be­tween the Fi­nan­cial Dis­trict and the Ma­rina.

DAVID DOW works while rid­ing a Leap bus. The com­pany is fo­cus­ing on bring­ing more tran­sit op­tions to “highly traf­ficked, but un­der­served” ar­eas, its chief says.

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