The city of San Francisco is rapidly becoming a hotbed for new forms of public transport that threaten to disrupt traditional forms of the mode


Leap Transit –  a bus, but not as we know it


Earlier this year Leon Daniels, Transport for London’s managing director of surface transport, warned delegates attending the UK Bus Summit in London that technology will play a part in radically redefining what public transport actually is (PT103).

And it would seem that the city of San Francisco in the United States is at the cutting edge of what that digitally-derived urban transport future could look like.

The city is something of a mirror of the problems and difficulties that face cities across the planet – congestion and poor perceptions of public transport against a background of economic problems – but despite the global recession, San Francisco is booming. Unemployment has rapidly declined and the population is skyrocketing, increasing pressure on the city’s already high levels of population density and on Muni, the public transport system in the city and county of San Francisco.

Much of this growth has come about as a result of the booming tech industry that has established itself in the Bay Area. Google, Apple, Facebook – you name a well known technology or internet brand and it’s more than likely they have their main base in Silicon Valley and Muni’s problems coping with the city’s growth pains mean that some of the sector’s innovators are turning their attention towards public transport.

In March, upstart bus operator Leap Transit began operations with a single route linking San Francisco’s smart Marina district with the technology hub of downtown, a distance of around three miles. Its backers are a host of venture capitalists that are veterans of the tech scene, including Andreessen Horowitz, which was an original backer of Twitter, and Index Ventures, which invested in  Facebook.

“Although San Franciscans have more options for getting to work than ever before, the headaches remain,” Kyle Kirchho, the founder and chief executive of Leap, told Passenger Transport.

“During peak hours it can be difficult to find a seat on public transit, and private car services are expensive and increasingly unpredictable. So we decided to go back to the drawing board and create a service that helps you start the day feeling comfortable and relaxed instead of anxious and stressed out.”

With a tag line of ‘Your daily commute. Redesigned’, Leap is not your normal bus service. In the Marina district there are four stops, with four stops downtown. Between these two points, buses run non-stop and only during peak commuting hours.

It is impossible to purchase a ticket on-board as it’s a cashless operation. All passengers (or riders as Leap prefers) must preregister and download Leap’s app and purchase tickets before they travel. Cleverly, by switching on the Bluetooth function on their phone before boarding, they don’t even have to scan or show their phone on the bus as it will be automatically registered by the on-bus check-in point.

By keeping ticket purchasing cashless and making all riders check-in on boarding, a real spin off is that the real time information provided by the app also shows how many seats are available on any given bus.

Things are also a little different elsewhere onboard. All of the vehicles, acquired secondhand, have been refurbished with an interior that looks more like a trendy independent coffee shop (see main photo). At the rear there’s lounge-style seating for friends travelling together, while towards the front there are stools and a laptop-friendly bar for those keen to get to work.

Meanwhile, there’s an on-board host who mans a bar stocked with achingly trendy (and pricey) drinks and snacks, which can be bought through the app (which knows you’re on the bus, remember). When you’ve made your purchase, the host brings it directly to your seat.

Of course this premium service comes at a price. Leap charges a flat fare of $6 per ride, much higher than the $2.25 charged on Muni’s 30X bus route that Leap effectively replicates. Critics also argue that Leap is creating a two-tier system for those willing to pay more for a slicker and possibly more pretentious trip.

“Urban transportation is an area of extreme impact that still desperately needs fresh ideas,” says Scott Banister, a Leap investor. “As a private player, Leap has the flexibility to reimagine mass transit, creating new ways to get people where they need to go.”

His words are echoed by some of the other private transport developments in the city, some of which are blurring the boundaries of what’s considered public transport.

At March’s London bus conference, Daniels warned that it was not too far a leap of the imagination to foresee a time when a technology firm used the example of taxi app Uber to match make two, three or four people who wanted to make vaguely the same journey.

In San Francisco that is happening with a host of newcomers, led by Chariot, which began operations in early 2014 with funding from a number of tech venture capitalists.

Like Leap it operates only during peak hours with a number of frequent routes that largely connect the Marina district with downtown using a fleet of 15-seat Ford Transit minibuses.

Tickets are bought through an app and scanned on boarding rather than buying a ticket from the driver. Prices start from as little as $3.75 per ride, with an unlimited ride monthly pass option priced at $93.

Chief executive Ali Vahabzadeh says that Chariot is filling the middle ground between the Muni bus network and taxi apps like Uber and Lyft. “I would say actually we’re taking a lot of the overflow,” adds Vahabzadeh.

“A lot of our customers are actually waiting three or four buses which are overcrowded.”

He adds that Chariot also connects neighbourhoods that are poorly served by traditional public transport, maximising the advantages of using smaller vehicles, a factor that also offers those faster and more predictable journey times.

Chariot is also taking an innovative approach to selecting new routes through ‘crowdsourcing’ – in other words, enlisting the help of its user base. A large part of the company’s website is devoted to proposed new routes, all of them suggested and submitted by Chariot users or their friends. If 120 of them vote for a route and pre-commit to buying monthly passes upfront, the campaign will tilt in their favour and Chariot will launch the route. “We think this is a great way to take the risk off our table and get the community involved in putting together better commuting options for themselves,” explains Vahabzadeh.

This burst of activity has not gone unnoticed by the taxi apps. Uber and Lyft, which operates across the United States, have test launched their UberPool and LyftLine shared car services in three US cities, including San Francisco, with tariffs below their traditional car service.

These offerings replicate Leon Daniels’ vision of a carpool service that matches cars to people wanting to make similar trips, indeed Lyft says that 90% of journeys made using its app have someone else wanting to make a similar trip within five minutes.

So could San Francisco’s upstart transport offerings be heading across the Atlantic? Time will tell, but its seems likely that some of their innovations will in time.


This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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