Some mornings, when I’m on a particularly crammed Muni bus to class, I find myself wishing there was a better alternative, but not quite Uber. Something that would be cheaper than Uber, but less crowded and more timely than Muni. As it turns out, I’m not alone; Silicon Valley has stepped in to fill this gap with a ride-sharing service called Chariot. You might recognize them by their aqua colored vans emblazoned with the smug #commutesolved hashtag in big white letters. Chariot has come under fire for being another representation of the growing divide between newly-wealthy tech employees and the rest of San Francisco. While Chariot builds on a sound concept, their implementation is severely lacking, and ultimately has only created a glorified bus system for those with money which often closely mimics existing Muni routes.
Despite purporting to be a revolutionary transit model on their website, Chariot is simply rebranding a concept that is in use all over the world known under many different names: the share taxi. From the jeepneys of the Philippines to the marshrutkas of Eastern Europe, the idea of shared rides with fewer riders than a bus is internationally implemented. The model is so popular because it works: there is consumer demand for more nimble transit. San Francisco could certainly benefit from a similar system, but Chariot is not it.
While the share taxi idea of Chariot is sound, a less exclusionary service that would complement — rather than directly imitate — Muni would be a more equitable solution. San Francisco has a demand for a shared taxi service, but it should be a public venture rather than a private one. The San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency, which has repeatedly chastised Chariot for offenses like unloading in bus stops and having improperly licensed drivers, has proposed a variety of regulations for services like Chariot to address these violations.
Chariot, which was recently acquired by the Ford Motor Company, operates a fleet of vans which run on nine routes with cheery names such as the “Geary Galloper” and “Portero Pronto.” Most of these routes run from wealthy or gentrifying neighborhoods, like the Marina or Bernal Heights, to the Financial District and SoMa. In addition to these nine routes, companies can hire Chariot to provide private routes for their employees. Amazon employees, for example, can take a Chariot shuttle directly from Pacific Heights to the Amazon HQ in Cupertino, never having to leave their tech bubble.
In order to ride with Chariot, one must download their app and book a ride. The company provides both monthly and pay-as-you-go plans, ranging from $119 a month for unlimited access to San Francisco routes to single-ride credits, which are $5 during peak hours or $3.80 during off-peak hours. Booking a ride reserves a spot, and once a van is full, no more riders can be added.
While Chariot’s mission talks about providing affordable and equitable transit for all, Chariot has thus far catered mainly to the moneyed white collar set, as prices are across the board higher than Muni and BART. Additionally, one must have a smartphone in order to be able to access the system. Chariot in every respect serves the tech world it came from: it provides service in cities with significant tech sectors, such as Austin and Seattle, and most of its corporate clients are tech companies, like GoPro and Auris Robotics.
Muni is a public utility, funded through tax dollars which serves all, including the poor and disabled, who may not be able to afford the more expensive and non-wheelchair accessible Chariot rides. Chariot, though publicly accessible, is not a public utility. It is owned by the massive Ford Motor Company and often blatantly copies Muni routes. The “Great Haight” Chariot route, which runs from the Haight to the Financial District, serves a remarkably similar route to Muni’s 6-Haight/Parnassus and 7-Haight/Noriega lines. Critics have often asserted that Chariot is actively siphoning riders — and therefore profiting — from the Muni system. Smaller bus ridership leads to smaller profits, which leads to service decreases. Muni, which already struggles with maintaining frequent services, a modern fleet and clean vehicles, clearly needs more investment.