Now that the taxi industry has been disrupted all the way to its deathbed, Silicon Valley has set its sights on a new prize: municipal buses. And Chariot, an "Uber for the rest of us," says it has the secret sauce to shake up the government stranglehold on busing.
The thing public transit has been missing, claims Chariot, is a data-driven approach to routes and regular, timely schedules.
"Chariot builds better transit routes by learning commuter habits and preferences," the company boasts to investors.
"Timetables are old news and don't apply to our super-frequent commuter service. We've replaced them with our commitment to be at your stop every eight minutes in the morning and every nine minutes in the evening."
All of which sounds great! If Muni managed to get their fleet of lumbering vehicles into stops every eight minutes, there'd be a whole lot less overcrowding on buses and need for Fuckin' Muni shirts in San Francisco. But Chariot's "solution" to Muni's problems breaks down as soon as you evaluate the specifics:
Tired of Muni timetables? Chariot's "Chestnut Bullet" arrives every 8 minutes from 6:30 to 9:30AM. When it's time to come home, Chariot will be there for you from 4:30 to 7:30PM.
At $93 a month, the self-described "best-valued commuting option" in San Francisco is a good deal only if you need the bus to run six hours a day, five days a week. And those hours only apply if you live in a trendy millennial neighborhood along a profitable route, otherwise you're completely out of luck.
All this is remarkably similar to Leap Transit, another busing startup that launched last year promising "a seat for everyone," despite being iPhone-only and exclusively serving the Marina and downtown areas of San Francisco—and charging $6 a ride. In fact, both startup's routes mimic Muni's 30X route: Leap's was called "Chestnut Express" versus Chariot's "Chestnut Bullet." The major difference is the Andreessen Horowitz-backed Leap suspended their service following a torrent of bad press, in which a San Francisco politician called the startup a "crock of shit" and ZDNet declared it "symbolises everything that is wrong with the current bubble and boom of internet startup culture."
Hoping to avoid similar backlash, Chariot's CEO Ali Vahabzadeh stressed to Valleywag when reached by phone that his company "is not Leap."
We don't use Muni stops, we're not exclusive to iPhone users, we offer monthly passes, and our route is on a transit corridor that is underserved [by Muni].
He went on to state that he doesn't see Chariot as "a competitor to Muni, but a competitor to Uber."
But Chariot's small fleet of five vans are already at 55% capacity, and the company's FAQs clearly states, "As ridership grows, we expect to upgrade the experience to buses."
And when that happens, it'll be hard to shake the reality that the Valley has created yet another two-tiered bus system.
[Photo by Chariot]