Should San Francisco Regulate Chariot?

There's a Need to Regulate TNCs...but is Chariot Really the Problem?

Chariot's jitney service has come under scrutiny from the SFMTA Board. Photo: Chariot
Chariot's jitney service has come under scrutiny from the SFMTA Board. Photo: Chariot

Last week, members of the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Transportation Committee were “shocked” to hear that a hugely disproportionate number of traffic violations in downtown San Francisco are committed by Transportation Network Companies (TNC), mainly, Uber and Lyft. The rub is that Uber and Lyft, since the cars are owned by private citizens, are regulated by the state–beyond San Francisco’s jurisdiction. The city can issue them traffic tickets, but that’s it.

But the city can regulate jitneys–small buses or vans, running on fixed routes, picking up passengers. This afternoon, the SFMTA board of directors was supposed to hear a staff report and plan, available online, for regulating jitneys. But the item was pulled near the start of the meeting (apparently because staff wanted to work on it more).

Regulating jitneys actually means regulating Chariot, the only company currently operating them in San Francisco. It’s an app-based jitney service, owned by Ford Smart Mobility, that uses Ford Transit Shuttle vehicles, seen in the lead photo. Techcrunch did a great breakdown on Chariot’s history, goals and operations.

Jitneys, meanwhile, have been around for a long time. From the background section of the SFMTA report:

They first appeared during World War I, when car owners across the country began travelling along streetcar routes and taking passengers for a fare. Most cities in the country banned these services, known as “jitneys,” after heavy lobbying from the streetcar companies, but in San Francisco they were allowed to continue operating along certain routes.

It took a long time, but the city ultimately ‘regulated’ the historic jitneys out of existence by refusing to issue new operator permits. The last jitney, which shuttled between the Caltrain station and Market Street, finally went away in 2016.

Chariot service map. Image: Chariot
Chariot service map. Image: Chariot

In pursuit of a new permitting and regulation regime for modern jitneys, San Francisco has been holding negotiations with Chariot, conducting public outreach, and checking in with the SFMTA Citizens Advisory Council for a while now, as reported in the SF Examiner. The resulting staff report specifies a permitting program with fees, as laid out in the charts below:

SFMTA's proposed permitting requirements. Image: SFMTA
SFMTA’s proposed permitting requirements. Image: SFMTA
From the SFMTA staff report
From the SFMTA staff report

The report cites San Francisco’s ‘Transit First’ policy as justification for the permit plan. Meanwhile, as Streetsblog has pointed out before, the M-Oceanview line waits for privately owned automobiles to turn left into the Stonestown Mall before it can proceed into its station. There are similar examples throughout the system where transit is definitely not first, and it’s a big part of why Muni trains and buses can be so maddeningly slow and unreliable. It seems ironic for SFMTA to use ‘Transit First’ to justify regulating a privately run transit company, when it doesn’t apply that dictum to its own operations.

Maybe if it did, there wouldn’t be a market for Chariot in the first place.

View from inside an inbound M-Oceanview. If SF's 'Transit First' policy is behind the push to regulate Chariot, then why does SFMTA allow trains full of people to sit in a mixed-flow turning pocket waiting for cars to make a left into a mall? Photo: Streetsblog.
View from inside an inbound M-Oceanview. If SF’s ‘Transit First’ policy is behind the push to regulate Chariot, then why does SFMTA allow trains full of people to sit in a mixed-flow turning pocket waiting for cars to make a left into a mall? Photo: Streetsblog.

 

  • mx

    Oh no! People are piling into vans to get to/from work. We’ve only been telling people to carpool and vanpool for decades, but if it’s going to be marginally popular, we’d better regulate it? 8 million cars double parking all over the city and bus service so mediocre that people will pay more to ride Chariot, foregoing transit-only lanes no less, but this is somehow the priority for regulation? SFMTA’s priorities are seriously out of whack.

  • Maurice

    I guess my problem is with Chariots use of Bus Only lanes and bus stops and other public infrastructure. I’m not sure how they are paying for access to these services, or how we’re regulating that their impact on congestion or slower busses is worth the trade off.

    So far, SFMTA seemingly has looked the other way and proposed grandfathering in existing Chariot routes in any regulation. Why no scrutiny, I wonder?

  • mx

    Chariot already isn’t supposed to be using bus only lanes. If they are, SFPD can stop them and give them a ticket like anybody else who isn’t where they’re supposed to be.

    I did always find it pathetic that the old Caltrain jitney had an illegal left turn off Market as part of its route though, and nobody ever seemed to care.

  • Ragazzu

    NOW you ask?

  • Ragazzu

    I disagree about our Muni being “mediocre.” It covers the entire city superbly and is cheap for everybody, cheaper for seniors and disabled. Private corporations should not get free perks at our expense—especially if they impede traffic flow.

  • crazyvag

    I don’t see why using a muni bus stop is bad – as long as Muni isn’t delayed. What’s the crime in PUBLIC using PUBLIC infrastructure. It’s not like people inside these vehicles are from another city. In fact, they are more likely to be SF residents than Muni riders who might be connecting from other services.

    Also, I don’t see competition with rules as being a problem as long us Muni is unable to remove stops or improve safety on L-Taraval. Perhaps a better rule would be that one cannot block safety improvements or that rail stops MUST be 400 yards apart.

  • disqdude

    Yes, a basic level of regulation is necessary. We can avoid TNC-like problems if we keep jitneys in check. SFMTA has a commuter shuttle program, after all, and this isn’t much different. Now if only we could do something about TNC’s…

  • disqdude

    Chariot is a private company using public infrastructure. It is within the purview of government to be compensated for the use of public facilities. Ford owns Chariot, so they aren’t hard up for the few bucks it’ll cost to reasonably regulate them.

  • Andy Chow

    Transit oriented cities often have a mode that’s between the fixed route mainline transit and taxis. In New York there’s a famed dollar van, in Hong Kong the red and green minibuses, and in Manila the Jeepneys.

    I don’t have an issue with basic licensing, but SF as always has a much bigger agenda, including business issues such as “labor peace”. The historic SF policies on taxis basically have resulted in taxis demise. TNCs, the two largest first began operation in San Francisco, basically made an end run by seeking state authority and skipped SF entirely. Only larger cities with a more reasonable taxi regulations can still keep TNCs at bay, but the battle is losing in SF. Smaller towns with fewer and smaller taxi companies got decimated whether there’s good regulations or not from city governments.

    I still don’t understand that in the TNC era that some still think that people should only ride Muni with the homeless or else. If some operator can provide a profitable service (by collecting more money from riders than that they would have for Muni) that would be a money loser for the city to operate, the more should be better. I think that any bus operator, whether is tour bus, commuter bus, or Chariot, will be a more responsible actor than the TNCs. Remember, the TNCs are more than ready to decimate everyone else, including public transit, as long as VC money is being pumped into their veins. SF cannot reject TNCs using untrained drivers from the Central Valley if not LA to make some bucks carrying folks on a weekend.

  • theqin

    Seriously though, the city should be encouraging any form of transportation where there is more than one person in a vehicle. Maybe start by changing all multilane roads into having one lane reserved for single occupant vehicles and the rest are all marked as carpool lanes.

  • Andy Chow

    The original jitney model is to be independently owned, which has the advantage of being small business/minority friendly and be able to be responsive to demand of minority communities. You can have a direct service between minority communities with drivers who speak the language. This is not something that’s possible with Muni or with a corporate model being considered by SF. $10,000 annual permit for a jitney? That means a no go unless you have a well-funded VC backing, and we know how discriminatory VCs are when it comes to women and minorities.

    https://ny.curbed.com/2014/7/2/10079798/9-factoids-about-nycs-shadow-transit-network-dollar-vans

  • Andy Chow

    I heard that one of the reasons why the Caltrain jitney got discontinued is that the driver could no longer pick up riders where he has been for years (when SFMTA redrew the curb zones by Caltrain). He would either got a ticket or not picking up anybody because people couldn’t see him.

    As a independent business, all you get is cash income. You can’t expect the driver to be tech savvy, or somehow some app writers would approach him with a different business model. If he wants income by driving, he would’ve been better off driving for a TNC.

  • dawdler

    If we can’t regulate TNCs then there’s a higher risk of regulating Chariot out of business. Not saying we shouldn’t regulate Chariot – but the city just needs to be careful because the TNCs will just expand into any vacuums created by regulation of other modes.

  • mx

    Why are people riding Chariot then, at greater expense, when many of the routes are similar to Muni service? Has the City actually tried to research that, find Chariot riders and ask why they’ve chosen the service over Muni? It seems like that would be a good step to take before regulating it, to understand why riders are using it.

  • Ragazzu

    OR, why aren’t more people using Chariot? Totally irrelevant to this article. Why do some people buy SUVs over sedans? Or choose bikes over cars? Or…

  • crazyvag

    Yes, and street is public infrastructure, as are street lights, sidewalks, parking spaces and among many other things. People are just trying to get to work, and as long as you’re not blocking others trying to do the same. You can take this logic to say that anyone waiting for a taxi, is not allowed to use a bus shelter because that’s an inappropriate private use of public infrastructure. It’s actually VERY illegal to make a business call in a bus shelter for same reason.

    Anyway, laws should be designed to be clear and helping residents get to where they want to go. Outlawing bus stops at all times vs just disallowing blocking of buses is a poor execution of a good intention.

  • disqdude

    Except that these vans end up blocking buses. It used to happen on Fremont Street in the afternoon-only Golden Gate Transit bus stops until Chariot changed its routing.

    If Chariot gets approval to use bus stops, only intense enforcement efforts will give them the incentive not to block Muni (and GGT) buses. I doubt Chariot would be amenable to paying the significant cost associated with enforcement when it’s cheaper for everybody for them to use white and yellow zones.

  • disqdude

    For the record, they didn’t redraw the curbs specifically to put the jitney out of business. Everything down there was changed to accommodate the Central Subway construction. Even Muni had trouble getting enough curb space for its buses.

  • crazyvag

    Might be a case to just extend the bus zones a few feet to accommodate more vehicles. Some of the bus stops are long enough for two 60-foot buses, but given how rarely that happens, making some of the front-most space available to other services doesn’t seem like a big deal.

    Point is, city should find a way for everyone to work together and make better use of the limited infrastructure. Having a separate passenger loading zone for buses doesn’t seem efficient. Banishing some services to commercial loading zones that lead to double-parking is just kicking the can down the road.

  • Vooch

    but that would increase efficiency of road use. we can‘t possibly do that

  • mx

    The subway has been a disaster all rush hour, with services suspended, switchbacks, and 30+ minute gaps. I apologize; to call Muni mediocre was entirely too generous.

  • Schtu

    When you look at the impact on even a modest increase on dwell time for buses at a stop it has a exponential effect on the entire line. All door boarding yielded a decrease in dwell time of 1.5 seconds. Allowing bus zones to be used for anything other than muni can easily throw those gains out the window.

  • crazyvag

    So extending bus zones to fit more buses would preserve the shortened swell time and transport more people.

    NOTE, this only makes sense in bus stops where bus pulls over to the curb like on Mission. Bus boarding islands or where bus stop extends past parking so bus doesn’t have to pull out of traffic are probably not good candidates.

  • Sean

    I think that the small markets should have much cheaper licenses. Those operations are likely to be small businesses and the tiny numbers of vehicles won’t make any recognizable difference on the road. Collectivos, minibuses in Mexico, are often family run. Last I used one there it connected to the major bus stops and took me out to campsites near ruins. Some routes don’t need a 40ft vehicle and this is a cheap way to serve them. I would even like to see more collaboration with Muni. Maybe a cell phone app ‘farebox’ that reads basic Clipper to give you transfers or maybe some FastPass+Chariot monthly pass combo savings. Otherwise they will drift further apart, making a two tiered system.

    That being said, I do doubt the long term viability of Chariot. They won’t share their costs but they can’t be too much different than transit due to the hiring of full time drivers who can ask for standard Bay Area transit operator benefits like an 8 hour guarantee, health insurance, PTO, they need fleet maintenance, etc. I heard Chariot needs to mostly fill a bus every trip to even come close to breaking even. How much will they actually have to charge to cover costs and even start to recoup their initial investment, all the way paying out to investors? I can see why jitneys went away initially, they just can’t compete long term with tax payer subsidized transit with established infrastructure. One of the only ways they could start to make money is to scale up vehicles on productive routes, and that is forbidden in these regs.

    In SF utopia where everyone gets along and moves toward mutual goals, Muni would franchise a few community style small bus routes out to a contractor, saving a bit on operating costs and allowing local small businesses to bid. Ideally in addition to saving Muni some money, the frequency of these community routes could be increased for the local residents.

  • Andy Chow

    Because some people are willing to pay more for higher quality things and others are very price sensitive and prefer to stick to the least cost option. Wonder why people buy at Whole Foods when they can go to Foodsco or Grocery Outlets and buy mostly the same stuff for less.

  • Ragazzu

    Deep analysis, man. Do you always miss the point?

  • Andy Chow

    And your point is???

  • Parque_Hundido

    Which businesses don’t use public infrastructure?

  • Parque_Hundido

    What about private automobiles that use the same public infrastructure? Shouldn’t we be regulating them more vigorously since they are a much bigger hazard?

  • Parque_Hundido

    That MUNI sucks.

  • Roan Kattouw

    If you think that two 60-foot buses pulling into the same bus stop on Geary during rush hour is “rare”, I have a bridge to sell you. I live next to such a bus stop and I see it happen every morning.

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