Can New Shuttle Service Curb San Francisco’s Transportation Trouble?

Chariot founder Ali Vahabzadeh hopes to fill the gaps in public transportation with his private shuttle service. Photo by Laura Waxmann

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?’ ”  

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  1. Susan

    What goes around comes around. The Jitney vans from the ’60’s-70′ that operated from 1st Mission to The Top Of The Hill. Not glamorous but sure did the trick. Good to see Chariot roll out in the Mission. And anyone can use it! I’m going shopping downtown and dinner mid-Market.

    • Yes, Susan. Part of my inspiration of Chariot was the “dollar vans” in Brooklyn & Queens and jitney networks everywhere I traveled. Most people don’t know the jitneys used to be a way of life in the Mission:

    • Chariot is open to anyone with the app. What about people without the app? What about discounted pricing for seniors/disabled/youth passengers?

      • Why would there be discounted pricing for anyone in the first place? Giving discounts to certain classes of people blatant discriminated against other groups.

        And why would they let someone ride without using their smartphone app? Using their app allows them to handle payments and keep track of riders, which means that they might be able to screen out problematic (drunk/rude/angry) riders, whereas if they did random street pickups without an app, they don’t have that power.

      • Dee

        Jake, I recognize your concern, but Chariot doesn’t fulfill any requirement for providing service to the public as a municipal provider. It’s product and profit based. If your on a fixed income as a senior, without an income as a child, or likely on a fixed or reduced income as a disabled person, then it’s not a ride you can afford to buy regularly. I’m astounded that someone feels discriminated against because a crippled senior citizen or a child pays a reduced fair on public transit, but that’s just the point, Chariot is not public transit in any regard, it’s private and isn’t required to be accessible for everyone. I’m equally astounded that some people consider the service MUNI provides as a “product” and that competition by a private enterprise makes any difference when, most people understand, that what brings quality and improvements is a sufficient number of employees and consistent adequate funding. The logic some would apply is based on the model of capitalism, when services such as transportation, police, and the fire departments are not. They aren’t profit driven in the same way and, as a service for everyone who needs them, regardless of their economic or social status, are not businesses. We all “own” them and their funding comes from the general fund.

  2. Josh Krist

    For me, besides a great rider experience, this is key: “One aspect that distinguishes Chariot from other on-demand ride services is worker compensation and retention, he said. Chariot drivers are paid a hourly wage and are privy to promotions.”

    I have serious doubts Uber is viable in the long term relying on a labor force that doesn’t feel it’s treated fairly. No doubt this is why self-driving cars are very much on the mind of ride share moguls.

    • Thanks for the compliment, Josh. Our employee-drivers are the face of our business and the backbone of our service. We learned that early on and have been investing in them ever since. It’s one reason why most of them converted from part-time to full time and our retention rate is so high. -Ali, Chariot

  3. greg

    More transit options are great, but let’s not buy into the idea that Chariot is taking cars off the road. It’s taking people off of mass transit, mainly people who seem to want to live in cities but seem to not want to deal with lots of people – the people interviewed for this story confirm as much and a look at their routes show lots of overlap with MUNI routes – hell, the Mission-FiDi/SOMA route is already well serviced by BART & MUNI. In that case Chariot is now another vehicle on the road filled with people who could use BART or MUNI. That’s cool, but let’s call it what it is, not some car-alternative. If there’s one thing Chariot can do better with it’s making sure their drivers don’t block lanes when they park (I’ve seen this multiple times)

    BART and MUNI are fine, not perfect but they do their jobs. If they have issues it’s chronic underfunding, crappy management and sadly in BART’s case unrealized development plans at its inception which could have had it reach the western parts of the city via lines along Geary. I’ve been using both for 10+ years now and they get me where I need to go. Crowded sometimes? Yes. But it’s “mass” transit. Chariot is nothing more than boutique transit for people who want a comfortable ride and can afford to pay more than the BART or MUNI fare to the same place. Again, let’s just call it what it is.

    • Thanks for the input, Greg. When we survey them after their first rides on Chariot, the majority of our riders say they are substituting from a commuter mode other than Muni. We’ve had people tell us they quit telecommuting from home, sold their cars, or saving hundreds per month from ridesharing options.

  4. Fran Taylor

    Let’s call Chariot what it is: one more service that panders to people who consider themselves too good to mix with us riff-raff. Consider first this quote:

    “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.”

    Webster and Oak is a few short blocks from Muni’s 21, 6, 71, and 71R, which all go to 2nd and Market, but “there aren’t really any other options [that don’t involve sitting next to someone who isn’t as rich and entitled as I am].”

    Now consider the price differential. Paying the single fare each time, a daily Muni commuter would shell out about $90/month. This drops to $70 for an adult Fast Pass, which would also cover trips on weekends or evenings. In comparison, Chariot would cost the daily commuter about $140/month. (Seniors, youth, and people with disabilities can now ride Muni for free.)

    That extra $70/month may be peanuts to someone fresh out of school and making six figures, but that’s groceries for a week for most of us. Please, Chariot, don’t try to wrap your business in feel-good bromides about getting cars off the road. This is just another offensive in the class warfare currently ravaging San Francisco.

    • John Talbott

      How do we get Muni to compete and offer better product, Fran? You’ve been instrumental in improving transportation at the south end of the Mission for years and the improvements that are starting today on Mission Street are welcome and overdue (thanks for your work). It seems to me that the City (Muni and its funders) need the threat of Chariot and others to improve its service (including the Commuter buses which cause so many issues). Some of us remember how bad it was in the nineties but Muni has made some strides and Caltrain has really improved. Let’s call Chariot an experiment. Let’s hope it provides a nice, livable wage for some people for however long it exists, and then let’s hope Muni can improve it out of existence while Mr. Vahabzadeh finds another way to tweak the system to improve while others work inside to help Muni respond to its customers.

      • Dee

        John, you’re not entirely unreasoned, but Chariot doesn’t “tweak” the system, it generates private profits from a long term crisis and the tastes of a segment of commuters. Public transit doesn’t respond to competition like a private business might. It doesn’t provide a “product”, it provides a necessary service. What it needs to improve is consistent funding. MUNI’s funding for hiring and improvements was frozen for seven years following the ’08 financial crisis.

      • Dee

        MUNI does not make a “product”, it provides a public service. Public service providers, as opposed to businesses, don’t respond to competition or “tweaking” by someone who is profit driven. They improve with consistent, adequate funding. MUNI has had to freeze hiring and stall any improvements for seven years because the economy collapsed in ’08. What you’re seeing now is a release of funding being put towards important, long awaited needs. It didn’t help that in that time of frozen funding the city continued to gain residents and that MUNI’s ridership increased by 100,000 daily trips. I think you put too much emphasis on the effect of market driven capitalism. It’s like saying that the police or the fire department improves when someone starts a private crime fighting agency or emergency response company.

    • Chad Russo

      You called it right, Fran! It’s all about privatizing public infrastructure. I’m just sorry that Mission Local has bought into the propaganda. The Green Cab Company of San Francisco, which is a true-blue (make that green) Mission District business, has gotten short shrift from this blog.

      Green Cab continues to operate from Mission Street and Cesar Chavez. Yet the last mention it got in this blog was in November 2014, when it almost went out of business. (It was back in operation a week later, but you wouldn’t know it from this website as no update was published.)

      This worker-owned co-op, whose drivers who support many other Mission businesses, gets no coverage. Where’s the fawning coverage you otherwise give to tech, Mission Local?

      • Why would any media outlet write about a taxicab business? This article about Chariot is interesting and relevant because the company just started serving the Mission District. If you want coverage for your taxi company, try doing something interesting, useful, and relevant, and you will get coverage. 😀

    • This is absolutely not the case. The 21 makes dozens of stops between Webster and Oak and 2nd and Market. It takes nearly an hour to make the trip.

      This is about a more convenient product that MUNI does not provide, but it has nothing to do about class warfare. Sending a letter overnight through Fedex versus 3 days with USPS is about the right tool for the right job.

      Your criticism is insulting to people who would gladly use a MUNI express if it existed in a format that was as convenient as Chariot. Shame on you for treating your neighbors like that.

      • Chad Russo

        Shame on YOU, Mr. Kazanjy. You can clearly see the Chariot shuttles clogging up both Haight Street and Chestnut Street, delaying the muni buses on any weekday rush. Part of the problem (á la the Google buses), not part of the solution.

        • How is it Chariot’s fault that they’re transporting passengers at peak times, and why are they seemingly more at fault than every other vehicle on the road at that time?

          Obviously, Chariot is not at fault at all. They’re actually *reducing* our traffic by providing a shuttle system that pools riders together in one vehicle like a bus does so that we don’t have to all hop in private cars as singletons.

        • By “clogging up”, you mean driving down the street with 16 people in a car, instead of those individuals taking Ubers, Lyfts, and Taxis?

          Or did you mean when they stop at the designated stopping areas that they rent, out of the way of traffic (again, unlike Taxis, Ubers, Lyfts, or carpoolers).

  5. Anne Marie McGill

    Maybe get the driver that ‘zips’ through the Octavia/Oak St to slow down a bit & it would be much appreciated by those of us who use are feet for transport. Guy drives like a bat out of hell.

    • Thanks for the feedback Anne Marie. I’ll have the route’s captain aware of the situation. We monitor vehicle speed by GPS and issue instant warnings to our drivers if they are exceeding the speed limit. – Ali, Chariot

    • Jen

      I’ve noticed that too in the exact same place and as he/she approaches Van Ness! So much so that then I see the Chariot Van I immediately think proceed with caution.

      • Dee

        But how else is Chariot going to achieve its goal modeled after that private van in Nepal that Ali says was his inspiration, “A shared van pulled up and WE blew right by the regular bus…[emphasis added]”?

  6. Michele

    Will this service provide vans that are wheelchair accessible?

  7. Sal

    I don’t see this as class warfare. I see it as the only reliable option to get from the Richmond district to Mission Bay in less than an hour, on time. I am not a rich-young-technobrat-too-cool-for-MUNI person. I have lived in SF and ridden MUNI for over 30 years. How long am I supposed to wait for MUNI to get better? Chariot can certainly be part of the picture for some of the people, some of the time.

  8. Chad Russo

    Who are these drivers, Mr. Vahabzadeh? Are they FBI background-checked and on file at City Hall, as the SFMTA provides? Or are you doing it on the cheap, like Uber?

  9. Clarice Corell

    Mission Local – are you censoring comments? There were some posted here earlier that no longer appear.

    • Laura Wenus Staff

      Our comments policy asks a full name to post, which we’ve found keeps things slightly more civil. I’m not sure why anything would be approved then unapproved – I can check to see if anything was unapproved erroneously.

  10. Sven Eberlein

    The problem is with this statement:

    “‘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.”

    I live on Guerrero and yesterday the sandwich board signs indicating Chariot pick-up sites were not in yellow or white zones but in front of people’s driveways and in red zones. And even if the stops were to be in yellow or white zones, wouldn’t that be illegal and tick off the businesses and residents that pay for those to have customers or students load and unload? Aside from the question of whether it’s really necessary to run a private van service when you have several Muni lines within blocks (not to mention the city’s fastest bicycle boulevards down Valencia & Market), I think the big flaw with this crowdsourced “convenience transportation” is that it relies on usage of curb space that isn’t theirs to use, presumably in the hope that nobody will notice.

    I would be curious to know what the SFMTA thinks of this. Also, what does DPW think about having advertising boards on public sidewalks? Isn’t that illegal? Did the company ever check with SFMTA and/or DPW to get permits for their moving loading/advertising zones?

    • You’re right, Chariot should probably pay SFMTA to use SFMTA bus stops like the tech buses use, however, that’s not the route that Chariot has chose to take. I foresee some regulatory issues for Chariot in the next year or two, but I pray that these regulations offer a level playing field for SF’s various transit methods, as opposed to wiping out the innovators who are providing the transportation services that SF’s commuters clearly prefer.

      Chariot is a godsend for many of its riders, as Chariot is often faster than MUNI. Let’s not forget that.

      • Sven Eberlein

        “that’s not the route that Chariot has chose to take.”

        So the route they’ve chosen to take instead is to illegally use painted curbs and people’s driveways? Sounds to me like an “ask forgiveness not permission” modus operandi that seems to be very common among this current crop of “innovators.” I’m not against great new ideas but if you have to break the law to implement that idea there’s something that doesn’t add up. If your idea is such a “godsend,” why not work with the city to make the needed regulatory changes that would make it legitimate BEFORE launching? There are plenty of people, businesses and organizations in SF with great ideas who have successfully gone through the city’s bureaucratic process to change or ease regulations to implement them, so why should Chariot be exempt from that? The reason why there are regulations in the first place is because there are always many stakeholders and when changes are made we have to make sure we hear from different constituents so that it can work for everyone. In this case, good for you that you can shave off a couple of minutes from your commute, but what if I don’t like a commercial advertisement in front of my house? Do I deserve to have a voice in it?

  11. Dee

    Moderators, I know you’re a small outfit and have a lot to do, but because I mistakenly believe that my comments were “zapped”, I end up trying again and again to finish what I started. The result has been so many comments awaiting moderation that undoubtedly I will be perceived as unstable and giving this too much attention. Argh.

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