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Your Chariot Awaits

On the road with San Francisco's latest—and maybe greatest—Muni disrupter.


Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about local influencers, insiders, and rabble rousers that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the December 2016 Power Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue’s contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.

It’s Wednesday evening
at rush hour and I’m in a giant mom van with a dozen strangers. Besides the soft jazz emanating from the speaker system, it is eerily silent. My fellow passengers are staring at their phones, listening to music, sleeping. One pair of friends board together but stop talking as soon as they sit down. Another guy has the unfortunate luck of having to sit in a weird kind of jump seat, right next to the sliding door, and every time someone wants to get out, he has to get out, too. Our driver pulls away from the curb near Pine and Montgomery and pilots us through Nob Hill and toward the Richmond, making his first drop-off at California and Laguna. My ride takes 20 minutes.

This is my first experience on the Geary Galloper, one of some 40 routes offered by the transit service Chariot, which ferries weekday commuters from various neighborhoods and BART stations into the financial district and SoMa. The Chariots (“don’t dare call them ‘vans’ or ‘buses,’” admonishes their website) are 14-passenger Ford Transit Passenger Wagons that offer single rides for $3.80 (it jumps to $5 during rush hour) and pick up and drop off at designated points along the route. Riders download the Chariot app on their phone, purchase credit, and reserve seats on individual vehicles before boarding.

As someone whose typical commute home from her office in Telegraph Hill to her apartment in the Inner Richmond involves a mile-long, 25-minute walk south and then a 30-minute Muni express bus ride, I was eager to test Chariot’s promise of “#commutesolved.” Chariot claimed it could offer a ride that was fast, reliable, and comfortable, three things I wasn’t getting from Muni. I was on board.

So, it seems, are thousands of other San Franciscans. Since the company’s founding in 2014, turquoise-blue Chariot coaches have become a familiar part of our city’s streetscape. Though the vans pop up most frequently during the morning and evening rush hours, the company also runs charter services to popular destinations like Napa and the Russian River. Chariot’s growth has been slow and steady: In May 2015, its fleet consisted of 25 vans; a year later, it had grown to 86 vans, and it now hovers around 100 (the company won’t disclose the number of riders). After receiving an initial round of investment from technology VC firm SoftTech in December 2014, Chariot was acquired by Ford this past September in a reported all-cash deal exceeding $65 million. It’s also expanding its reach: In October, Chariot announced the opening of its second market, Austin, Texas, and it says it’s targeting five more markets in the next year.

In a city with regular showdowns between corporate shuttles and protesters, rideshare companies and regulators, and bicyclists and car drivers, Chariot has miraculously managed not only to stay afloat but to largely keep itself out of the intramural fray. It’s fully licensed by the California Public Utilities Commission, the body responsible for placing stiff restrictions on Lyft and Uber. And thus far it’s avoided the guerrilla tactics of tech shuttle protesters. But as it continues to become an ever larger player in the local transit game and makes its move into the national market, Chariot is inevitably going to run up against the competing interests of local government, existing transit services, and media-savvy anti-gentrification activists. How it deals with that challenge will determine whether Chariot can actually solve the commute or is, in fact, just adding to its rancor.

As with many
local startups, Chariot’s origin story involves its founder observing a San Francisco problem and coming up with a San Francisco solution. Ali Vahabzadeh, Chariot’s charismatic 39-year-old founder, came to the Bay Area from New York in 2010 for a job at a real estate startup. In February 2014, he had just quit and was having breakfast in the Marina when he noticed that people waiting at nearby Muni stops were getting passed over by buses packed to the brim with rush hour commuters. He approached them to ask if this happened often and learned, of course, that it did. So he hopped on his bicycle and began timing different commutes within the city; soon he realized he could beat Muni at rush hour, even in a car. Two months later, using four vans he rented with his personal savings, Vahabzadeh launched Chariot’s first line, the Chestnut Bullet. Soon he dug into his savings again and hired developers to create an app for the project. “It was very apparent that there was this huge gap in transportation between an affordable but unreliable bus ride and a very expensive ridesharing option,” he says. “I thought that having this safe, reliable, affordable, and fast commuting option is something that the vast majority of people could really appreciate.” 

To a large extent, he was right. Vahabzadeh debuted his idea during the first session of Y Combinator’s Winter 2015 Demo Day, where Chariot was a featured startup. TechCrunch instantly labeled the company a “favorite,” and Vahabzadeh parlayed the media hype to crowdfund more lines. Less than a year later, Chariot hit a monthly average of 50,000 rides. It crowdsourced the most in-demand routes by having riders vote with the app and then commit to using the route by purchasing credit ahead of time (they would only be charged if the route actually launched). Soon Chariot’s realm of service grew beyond the Marina, and it eventually extended out of the city, with shuttles north to Marin; east to Albany, Oakland, and Fremont; and up and down 101 and 280 through Silicon Valley. The company has also played up the idea of community with gimmicks that reflect the assumed lifestyles of its riders: In August, at the height of the Pokémon Go phenomenon, Chariot sent its customers an email with the subject line “Join Chariot’s PokeSafari Shuttle this Sunday!,” inviting people on a group outing to hunt Pokémon. In October, customers received another invitation, this one advertising transportation to several Halloween events, including a party at the Armory (“Yes, booze is allowed on board!”). In less than three years, Chariot has gone from ad hoc shuttle van—a kind of cool kids’ school bus—to nearly ubiquitous transit company recognizable to almost any San Franciscan.

But not available to any San Franciscan. Though Chariot’s single-ride fare is cheaper than Lyft Line or Uber Pool, it’s still more expensive than a $2.25 bus fare, and its $119 monthly pass is considerably higher than Muni’s $73 pass. Chariot’s wheelchair policy only allows for chairs “that can safely and securely fit in a Chariot’s seating area without obstructing the driver’s view or taking the seat of a passenger with a reservation,” making access nearly impossible for disabled riders. (The company claims that if it cannot accommodate a passenger, it will work to find them a ride on a paratransit service.) And when it comes to service areas, its route map has a glaring gap. As of press time, the company had no routes to the relatively less wealthy neighborhoods of Ingleside, Bayview–Hunters Point, the Excelsior, Visitacion Valley, and the Sunset, almost the entire southern and western part of the city. (Strangely, it also has no routes to affluent Noe Valley or Twin Peaks.) This has not ingratiated the company to some. “[When Chariot started], they were talking about going to disenfranchised communities, communities that don’t have service, low-income communities,” says District 9 supervisor David Campos. “To the contrary, they have focused on wealthier communities and tried to serve them.”

For Erin McElroy, who founded the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project and led the anti-shuttle protests that roiled the streets of the Mission and other neighborhoods over the past few years, Chariot feels reminiscent of the Google buses. “Access to apps and an upper-class form of employment shouldn’t be the gateway to certain forms of transportation,” she says. “Rather than privatize transportation, we should be pushing for better funding for public transportation.”

Others argue that as a private company, Chariot has no obligation to serve the entire city. “It’s not Chariot’s responsibility to have service in every corner of San Francisco,” says District 8 supervisor Scott Wiener, who often advocates for better transit infrastructure. “It’s the city’s responsibility, it’s Muni’s responsibility. We should not try to slough off that responsibility on a private company.” Asked why Chariot doesn’t have routes throughout the city, Vahabzadeh points to the crowdsourcing aspect of the service, but acknowledges that people in neighborhoods without Chariot lines have indeed voted for a route. “As we expand our fleet of chariots, we look forward to continuing to add routes to serve neighborhoods across all areas of the city,” he says via an email from his publicist.

In addition to criticism regarding its service areas, Chariot has also come under fire from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency for allegedly using Muni stops for its own purposes. SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose says his agency has ticketed the company numerous times for stopping at designated Muni stops. The SFMTA, 311, and police stations have received dozens of complaints about Chariot, mainly involving its vans blocking driveways and bus stops and disrupting traffic. “They are using and benefiting from the public transit infrastructure without any contribution to it,” says Campos. “I don’t think that we need another company that breaks the rules.” Asked about these complaints, Vahabzadeh says that the company has always worked within local regulations and that Chariot drivers are instructed to use only yellow and white curbs for stopping. “If we are made aware of complaints of any kind, we work to address them immediately.”

It’s almost a
week after my first Geary Galloper ride, and my next Chariot is late. Really, really late. I wait at the designated pickup location (which is, by the way, a bus stop) for 20 minutes, but the app seems stuck at an 8-to-14-minute predicted ETA. While I’m waiting, two Muni buses headed for my neighborhood pull up and take off, taking my chances of getting home soon with them. When my Chariot finally arrives, it’s just as eerily quiet as the first one, but the driver is more talkative and has the radio blasting Top 40. This time, I get the dreaded jump seat next to the door. The ride takes 22 minutes.

In the end, Chariot doesn’t really solve my commute so much as mitigate it. The ride is more comfortable than Muni, sure, and, subtracting the pre-ride wait, shaves about eight minutes from my normal commute. But in my case, the Chariots are going the same direction as the buses, and their likelihood of getting stuck in traffic is just the same. And because there is no direct line from Telegraph Hill to the Inner Richmond, I still have to walk a mile from work to get to the nearest pickup point, on Pine Street. I get home feeling just as frustrated as I do after using Muni, and I’ve paid more.

Still, there’s no denying Chariot is working for thousands of people. Thanks to smart business tactics, like encouraging riders to take advantage of city-mandated commuter benefits, the company is finding a way to sell itself as something other than just a private bus service for pampered techies. And because Chariots are (theoretically) available to anyone, the vans have been able to quickly slip past the Google bus protesters and onto our roadways without incident. (It also helps that some Chariots lack any company branding, making their numbers on the road appear lower than they actually are.) That openness also means more riders and more demand, which in turn leads to more vehicles and, hopefully, more routes.

As success brings expansion and acquisitions, Chariot is carefully threading the needle between skeptical municipalities and fed-up, desperate commuters. Move too fast, Vahabzadeh knows, and you risk the same kind of public shaming that Uber gets when it inundates a new city. But move too slow and you risk the birth of a new competitor. Chariot’s move to Austin is not random; its expansion comes five months after Uber and Lyft were forced to leave the city when voters upheld a law regarding background checks on drivers. In order to continue finding success at the same level it has in San Francisco, the company will need to keep focusing on markets with gaps in their transit systems. Luckily for Chariot, there seem to be a lot of those.

: On November 30, after this story went to press, Chariot announced that it is adding 50 vans to its fleet and hiring 75 more drivers; it also plans to expand service on existing routes and launch new lines to the Sunset and Potrero Hill.

Originally published in the December issue of
San Francisco 

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