In SF, Your Chariot Awaits

I am a transportation junkie. Years ago, in another life, I took a heavy dose of transportation planning, economics, and policy classes, and had an excellent teacher who turned me onto it. One summer, I actually worked at the Port of Boston — splitting time between the Airport and economic development office, and then container port. This is why I geek out about Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, as well as other ones popping up like Scoot, or even new devices like Boosted Boards — all of these products and services have sprouted up at the same time, driven by mobile devices and the SF Bay Area’s unique (and sad) issues related to outdated and insufficient public transportation.

So, when I heard about Chariot in San Francisco, I got really excited. Make sure to follow @ChariotSF on Twitter if you also geek out about this stuff. It sounds like they’re just starting, but the service is essentially a private shuttle that carries folks between only the Marina and downtown SF. In transport-speak, Chariot offers a point-to-point route where it can reasonably estimate demand at both ends of their inaugural route. For $6 round-trip, Chariot will whisk passengers from the Marina to work downtown and then back, entirely bypassing the public bus system and all the stops those make along the way — assuming those are on time or not filled to the gills. (A friend of a friend on Twitter tried it out, at my request, and reported back that she loved the service and would definitely take it again.) It’s not difficult to envision Chariot, if successful, expanding to Noe Valley (to supplement the J-Church) or other known neighborhoods with enough demand, like Laurel Heights/Village, Inner Sunset, and on and on. If this does take off, expect there to be more “private bus” backlash, but at the same time, nothing can really stop this from happening.

In airline networks, most of the big ones operate with hub-and-spoke models, which lets them handle more passengers, more routes, and (at times) more efficiencies. But, these networks are more complex. Newer airlines, such as JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin, do offer connecting routes, but generally don’t have hubs and instead operate as point-to-point routes. This helps them be efficient, estimate demand (they rarely “oversell” flights), better estimate fuel spend (and hedge fuel risk). Now, if we think about transport options (not including biking or walking) within a city like SF, there are private professional (Uber) and peer-to-peer car services (UberX, Lyft, Sidecar), there are car-sharing options (Getaround, Zipcar), there are public options like Muni cars and SF Muni buses, and there are things like Scoot (scootersharing) and soon to be LeapTransit. In the case of Chariot’s original route selection, people in the Marina have 2-3 options for buses to get downtown.

Now, Chariot fits in between the public option and the more private or peer-to-peer option — and it’s priced in the middle, as well. And, Chariot can just carve out more point-to-point routes and appeal to riders who would be willing to pay more than the average daily fare and have a normal ride to work without all the stops, crowds, and the like. As the city becomes more crowded without adding more public transport inventory, I can see many professionals who live and work in SF willing to pay a bit more for this convenience. Good idea. Raises tough issues, but reality is indifferent. Ultimately, consumers may vote for point-to-point with their feet and fingertips.