Tech-based micro transit is trying to innovate solutions to San Francisco’s crowded public transportation system by taking cues from a ride system from the 1970s.  

While San Francisco’s transit agency is trying to streamline its services and hiking fares, entrepreneurial service providers are tapping into a new market to fill the gaps where public transit is lacking. Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at U.C. Berkeley, described the trend as a new phenomenon, likening the slew of “shuttle startups” providing on-demand shuttle services to the “renaissance of the jitney, fueled by information technology.”

“The concept of ride sharing is not new, but the technology that now accompanies it is,” said Shaheen.  And while jitneys, independently operated mini buses that transported passengers to transit hubs at low fares in the ’70s, were once viewed as competition to public transportation and folded under heavy taxation, micro transit startups are now looking to complement existing services with technology.  

A pioneer in this new wave of “shuttle startups” is Chariot, a two-year-old company that offers an app-based van commuter service. Chariot already operates nine routes throughout the city, and is adding a 10th in the Mission district that will take commuters to their offices in SoMa and to Caltrain starting February 22.  

“We want to provide more supply of fast transit where there is a lot of demand and also to provide mass transit where it really doesn’t exist in the first place,” said Chariot’s CEO, Ali Vahabzadeh. The idea is to get cars off the road while providing passengers with a quick, convenient and reliable alternative to public transportation.

Leap and Loup are two bus startups that have attempted to enter the mass transit arena in the past year but have not been able to sustain themselves, despite notable seed funding. Vahabzadeh said that he is not worried about his company facing a similar fate, because his model is based on crowdfunding.

“Our customers are crowdfunding routes and we provide the service,” said the entrepreneur.”The next phase of our growth is hooking up with municipalities and figuring out how Chariot can improve and increase its service while reducing the cost [of transit] for the taxpayer.”

Vahabzadeh said that his idea for Chariot was inspired from ad hoc van networks that he observed while traveling abroad in Nepal.

“There was a bus and no way to get on, with people hanging out of the windows,” he said. “A shared van pulled up, and we blew right by the regular bus and got to the other end of Kathmandu in minutes.”

Sitting in the back of one of the 90 vans that make up his Chariot fleet of 14-passenger vans, Vahabzadeh explained that demand for his service has grown exponentially since Chariot first hit the streets in April 2014. “Mission Possible,” as he’s dubbed the Mission’s new route, was added at the behest of local residents, said Vahabzadeh.

“Proportionally more Mission residents work in SoMa compared to other neighborhoods that we’ve crowdsourced,” said Vahabzadeh, a former Mission resident. “Chariot can help people connect to BART and regional transit.”

The route starts at Duncan and Dolores streets, then makes its way through five pick-up stops along Guerrero Street and five drop-off stops in SoMa. Riders who download the Chariot app may board and exit between 6:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. on weekdays. The trip is offered in reverse to transport passengers home between 4:30 and 7:30 p.m.

The crowdsourced stops could change depending on demand, said Vahabzadeh. Riders’ home and work addresses are used to determine the most popular commuter corridors and areas for which additional service is requested.

For Chariot passenger Dave Torres, the chance to bypass crowded Muni cars is what drew him to the on-demand shuttle service. He has come to rely on Chariot for his daily commute to and from work.

“Using the subway is awful,” said the data analyst. Despite being new to the city, he has written off San Francisco’s public transit system for good. “I used to take Muni to work, and it felt like ‘Hunger Games’ trying to get on there. It was always terribly crowded, and you could forget about getting a seat. Worst of all, I was always late.”

Becca Derenthal, who takes Chariot to the downtown marketing firm where she works, agreed that Chariot’s convenience beats public transportation and other rideshare services.

“I start at Webster and Oak streets, which is like two blocks from my house, and I end at 2nd and Market, which is three or four blocks from my office,” said Derenthal. “There aren’t really any other options besides Lyft and Uber, but that takes longer.”

A one-way Chariot ride costs $3.50 – a third of what a Lyft Line or Uberpool costs, said Vahabzadeh. At $2.25 per ride, public transportation remains the cheapest option, and some Mission residents have mixed feelings about the service’s accessibility. “I think carpooling is awesome, but I am not sure if this will be just another tech convenience,” said Mission resident Kelly Ng.

Shaheen, of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center, questions whether the impacts of private services on public transportation will be beneficial, considering the limited research that is available.

“If there is a transit line that’s running and serving a lot of people but doesn’t have additional capacity, micro transit services could potentially provide spillover complementary services – they are mirroring fixed routes,” explained Shaheen. “Micro transit could help. But from its history, it was competing [with public transit] and in most cases in the U.S. it was outlawed. But in the future, it could be viewed as a more supportive partner.”  

“We really want to be the solution for the masses,” said Vahabzadeh, shrugging off comparisons to tech shuttle buses by pointing out that his vans, which are commercially licensed, do not use Muni bus stops and must park in white and yellow zones to pick up and drop off passengers.

One aspect that distinguishes Chariot from other on-demand ride services is worker compensation and retention, he said. Chariot drivers are paid an hourly wage and are entitled to promotions.  

“I think Uber and Lyft have done an extraordinary job at producing this propaganda that everyone wants this 1099 liberty – and maybe some people feel like that,” said Vahabzadeh. “But a lot of our drivers have turned away from [these companies] because they have a guaranteed income with us. I think most people don’t like living with that uncertainty of ‘What’s my paycheck going to look like tomorrow?’ ”