(TNS) –– SAN FRANCISCO — Long maligned as the least desirable form of public transit, buses are making a comeback.
These aren’t the lumbering behemoths most often associated with frequent stops, long rides and dingy carriages. Enter Chariot, Lyft Shuttle, MagicBus and the latest addition to the East Bay, OurBus. With crowd-sourced routes and app-based hailing, cushy interiors and shorter rides, these privately-owned services are positioning themselves as serious competitors to public transit.
That has transportation experts hopeful the new services will get cars off the road, reduce traffic and provide options for commuters where there are limited or no bus routes. But those same experts also question whether the upstarts will threaten the viability of public transit by siphoning passengers and making it more difficult for public operators to serve the lowest-income and wheelchair-bound riders who depend on them.
For East Bay resident Jay Nag, it all comes down to cost and convenience. He started using OurBus after his company moved its offices from Pleasanton to San Francisco.
Nag had been taking three different services to get from his Pleasanton apartment to his job in San Francisco, including a public bus, BART and a company-provided shuttle to his Mission Bay office. If he missed just one of those connections, he’d be stuck waiting at least 20 minutes for the next leg, he said. Now, he walks out of his apartment to the bus stop and then gets dropped off in front of his office.
“It’s definitely eased my commute,” Nag said of the nascent service. “It’s much more convenient.”
OurBus crowd-sources its routes, opening new lines when enough people ask for them, and it specializes in filling the gaps left by public operators, said Axel Hellman, a transportation planner for OurBus. Similar to the employer-provided tech shuttles that have multiplied in the Bay Area in recent years, OurBus uses large charter buses outfitted with WiFi, individual electrical outlets and reclining seats.
MagicBus, which launched in 2015, operates with a similar model, but with smaller vehicles that cart passengers from San Mateo, Palo Alto and Foster City into San Francisco.
OurBus just started running its first Bay Area route earlier this month, but both company’s arrival in the region will be an important experiment to watch, said Ratna Amin, a transportation planner at SPUR. For years, SPUR, an urban planning think tank, has advocated for a regional bus network that minimizes the number of transfers and offers passengers a more seamless commute.
“Most of our public transportation operators face boundaries on where they can and can’t operate,” she said. “There are a lot of markets that don’t get served well, especially the ones crossing county boundaries and places that have grown more recently, such as the South Bay.”
If private companies can fill in the gaps to provide routes public operators aren’t offering and shift more people away from driving by themselves, that could help reduce traffic congestion, improve the environment and free up parking spaces in busy downtown areas, Amin said. But it’s a problem when the services clog bus stops, making the buses even slower. Or when they duplicate routes and steal passengers, whose fares help pay for the taxpayer-funded operations, she said.
Such was the case in San Francisco, where Chariot operates its public routes and where Lyft started offering its “shuttle” service earlier this year. Lyft Shuttle uses regular passenger vehicles, but they only stop at designated points along a set route and the prices are fixed. Think of it as a jitney service with sedans, rather than vans.
Chariot works in a similar way, except with larger vehicles that seat around a dozen people. In addition to its public routes in San Francisco, the company also contracts with employers to shuttle workers in the South and East bays as a private service.
Transportation officials in San Francisco and Marin counties cried foul last year when Chariot petitioned the state to expand its public service beyond the city. The county agencies complained the company shouldn’t be allowed to expand since its vehicles were already wreaking havoc on public transit and other drivers by blocking bus stops, crowding driveways and stopping in the middle of the street, according to documents filed with the California Public Utilities Commission.
Chariot ultimately pulled its application, and San Francisco officials agreed to let the company use loading zones for passenger pick up, but that hasn’t stopped city officials from clamping down on the upstart service. Last month, officials at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency approved new rules requiring Chariot, or any other jitney service, to submit its operating data to the agency and provide wheelchair accessible vehicles.
The agency’s governing board is still considering a more controversial proposal to limit private competition with the public service by banning jitney routes that mimic MUNI lines at least 75 percent of the time. Transportation experts, however, urge caution.
The services are so new, there just isn’t a lot of data about whether they help or hinder public transit, said Susan Shaheen, the co-director of UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center.
“In many cases, these services can be more expensive than public transit so they may be attracting a different ridership base,” Shaheen said.
Prices for the services vary. Lyft Shuttle, for example, charges $3.50 for a ride, compared to $2.50 on MUNI. Chariot charges $5 per ride during peak commute times and $3.80 during off-peak hours. And OurBus passengers pay $8.85 per one-way trip, compared to $6.15 on BART.
But for many Chariot riders on board its Chestnut Bullet route on a recent Tuesday, price was not the primary concern. Several passengers said they had lived in San Francisco for a few years without ever stepping foot on a MUNI bus.
“I just had heard such awful things about (MUNI), I felt like I never needed to take it,” said three-year San Francisco resident Alex Adam, adding people people told her, “It’s dirty, and you never know who will be on it.”
Others, however, have certainly been swayed by the new service. Jack Yandell has been living in San Francisco for the past nine years and was a regular MUNI rider until he got fed up with buses passing by his stop because they were already packed full with passengers.
“(MUNI) has improved more recently with the double-long buses, so there is more room,” Yandell said. “But there just used to be no other options for years, and the city wasn’t doing anything about it.”
Rather than clamp down on the new startups, transportation experts say officials should be seeking to learn from them, instead. Those companies may come up with solutions public officials haven’t yet dreamed of, said Darnell Grisby, the director of policy development at the American Public Transportation Association.
“Experimentation can create some fears in various corners … and that’s natural,” Grisby said. “One think we probably should not do at this stage is be overly prescriptive.”
©2017 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.