Taking Muni used to be an equalizing experience in San Francisco, but new ride-share apps are making public transit optional for people who’d rather not stand with the masses. A new pay-per-ride service is launching in the city today, with Blue Bottle iced coffee and hipster-appropriate wood paneling as the backdrop for morning selfies. For $6 a ride, Leap buses will take commuters from the Marina to the Financial District during peak hours. The company bills itself as the “Virgin America of buses.”
The area served by Leap’s bus line has “a high concentration of people who work downtown and a high concentration smartphone users. We’re particularly interested in serving areas where it’s tough to get a seat on public transit, and surge pricing is too high for daily use,” says Kyle Kirchhoff, founder and CEO of Leap.
The launch is not Leap’s first go-around in San Francisco. The company is launching the same proposed service today, more than a year after a scathing editorial in 2013 that called Leap a “selfish disruptor.” San Francisco also has seen other private bus apps like Loup or Chariot, which has four lines and offers a $93 monthly pass.
To be fair, private jitneys like Leap, Loup, or Chariot have sometimes been the basis of our current public transit system. SFist put it best: “While this all may seem ugly and capitalist in an era when Muni needs all the help and financial support it can get, it should be noted that many of Muni’s routes were, at one time (pre-1912), run by private entrepreneurs and were only later absorbed under a single system.” So this may not be all bad news in the long run, right?
With the proliferation of these private buses, life on Muni could start to look really different, and that scares me. When we started Muni Diaries seven years ago, public transportation felt like the great equalizer. We all had to get from point A to point B, and Muni was the only viable way for most people. Taxis were unreliable, parking was inconvenient and expensive, and bicycling wasn’t always an option. As a daily commuter, I saw a cross section of San Francisco whenever I got on the bus, and I loved it. Interactions on Muni helped us learn about one another and added layers to our experience of living here.
Sure, you might complain about WTF behaviors on Muni (hello, dude gulping Franzia), but you also see moments that restore your faith in humanity. Who wouldn’t want an impromptu Happy Birthday serenade on the bus?
There were always people in San Francisco who never rode the bus because they can afford to take cabs or drive to work and pay for parking every day. But that used to be an option only for the very rich. Now there are a lot of alternatives for people who make enough money to forgo public transit altogether. With life in San Francisco looking more and more segmented, who will be left to advocate for public transportation?
Our transit problems don’t come with a simple tech solution, but I’ve seen some creative attempts like the BART Twitter forum, the SFMTA Hackathon, and of course, this year’s TransportationCamp (maybe it should be a requirement for VC’s and business school grads?).
There’s no denying that it sucks when the bus is crowded and uncomfortable. It’s highly unrealistic to say that you should ride Muni just so you can learn about humanity. There’s a market for better public transit, but does the solution have to be a smart phone app for a private bus with bar stools and Blue Bottle coffee? I should hope not.