Open Thread: Does Chariot Foreshadow More to Come?

Chariot's service map. Bye bye. Image: Chariot
Chariot's service map. Bye bye. Image: Chariot

Chariot is closing down. Does this bode badly for other forms of ‘disruptive’ transport, such as Uber, Lyft, scooters, bike-share?

That was the implication of yesterday’s “Ford Axes its Chariot Shuttles, Proves Mobility is Hard,” a feature in Wired magazine.

From the article:

When Chariot launched in 2014, it joined a wave of Uber-inspired “microtransit” tech companies hoping to disrupt transportation services by providing faster, more efficient options for riders sick of—and underserved by—traditional public transit.

Less than half a decade on, most have gone the way of the Hawaiian tree snail.

This was already the talk around the electronic campfire with the editors of Streetsblog. Upon hearing the news that Chariot was officially kaput, Streetsblog LA’s editor Joe Linton remarked “But, but, but… Micro-Transit is the next big thing!!!!?!??!!!!! (sarcasm)”

Twenty years ago, this was a scene you'd see in almost any city park. Or other forms of micro-transit destined to be nothing more than fads: Creative Commons
Twenty years ago, this was a scene you could see in many a city park. Are forms of “micro-transit” destined to be nothing more than fads? Creative Commons

Nelson\Nygaard’s Terra Curtis warns against shadenfreude. “I think we miss an opportunity if we simply conclude ‘transportation is hard–I told you so.’ There are ways public and private can work together to improve upon the status quo, and there is significant room for improvement on both sides of that table.”

But perhaps any enjoyment of the failure is about the “distrupters” themselves, who often describe what they’re doing as revolutionary and “new” while dismissing the hard, detailed work of urban planning and mass transit. In reality, Chariot was no more than a jitney–a very, very old idea. Uber is just an unregulated taxi service. Kick scooters have been around for a long time too.

As to Elon Musk’s supposedly “new” ideas for hyperloop or small subway tunnels for cars–well, that’s all starting to seem like self-parody.

The Musk tunnel in LA. Wow, he invented a subway that you drive through? Image: the Boring/Silly Company
The Musk tunnel in LA. Wow, he invented a subway that you drive through? Image: the Boring/Silly Company

Maybe the key is for cities to ignore the silly stuff, fight offerings that run counter to the goals of sustainable transportation, and work with companies that offer products and services that are compatible with livable, walkable cities. “Government is best at managing transportation for the public good, and transportation tech firms can offer better customer service and an ability to test, learn, and adjust to find efficiencies. By continuing to work through the mess of partnering, we have an opportunity to elevate public transit, sustain private business, and serve all with a higher quality experience,” said Curtis.

So which companies are going to survive in the long run? Uber and Lyft are still not profitable. When the venture capitalists start demanding returns, will TNC’s shrink and disappear as quickly as they roseScooters are everywhere today; but so were in-line skates and hula hoops, once.

Hula hoops. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Hula hoops. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Fads and sea changes are notoriously hard to distinguish. On Streetsblog’s Facebook page, under the announcement about Chariot shutting down, Nick Mason of San Francisco quipped that “scooters are next.” And Pete Bigelow of Michigan wrote that “Chariot has been a mess. I still suspect the business model can work.”

Who’s right?

A drowned scooter near the West Oakland BART station. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
A drowned scooter near the West Oakland BART station. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

Where do you stand? What transportation “disrupters” will still be here in ten years? In twenty? Do you see traditional transportation and “new” transport options as competitive, complimentary, or some combination of the two? Leave your thoughts below.

  • thielges

    Wait, you’re implying rollerblades are out of fashion? They’re like strapping a pair of brakeless fixies to your feet. What could be hipper? Oh wait …

    But seriously I think it is a simplification to say that scooters have been around for a long time so what’s new about Bird, Skip, Jump, Wind, Lime, and all of the other 4 letter scooter companies? There are a lot of differences: electric power, lithium batteries, application of tech: GPS + ubiquitous smartphones + DB backed web services, and exploiting the gig economy. While I’m dismayed by the latter, the other three are truly novel in our era.

    My hope is that scooters survive as a last mile solution for those who don’t want to walk or bike (thus expanding the transit market), though as personally owned devices rather than rapidly depreciated assets that fuel consumerism, create waste, and exploit naive gig workers.

    I wish the XXXX scooter share companies the best of luck but hope that their business model can support paying their rank and file a living wage.

  • Jeff Gonzales

    My understanding is a number of bikeshare systems are profitable, if that is correct it seems like both bikeshare and scooters can stick around. Though maybe scooters may need to go docked to reduce labor costs of charging. Or who knows.

  • Joe Brant

    Scooters are good for suburban markets that are hard to serve with fixed route services

  • DrunkEngineer

    Chariot was not permitted to operate routes that directly competed with Muni. So this looks more like a case of using regulation to run them out of business. That seems to be the trend for a lot of transportation startups that go under.

  • Jeff Gonzales

    In NYC I don’t know of them having too much regulations and still it sounded like problems https://nyc.streetsblog.org/2018/08/02/fords-chariot-vans-are-mostly-empty/ . Also I think in SF preexisting muni-competitive routes were grandfathered in so in theory those should still have been performing as effectively as one would expect without market regulation.

  • Do Something Nice

    Have you seen San Francisco streets? The last thing we need are additional, redundant transit vehicles on streets served by public transit, further slowing down all traffic. Chariot and other private companies should be able to fill gaps in service but not replace Muni.

  • DrunkEngineer

    Then why have a non-compete policy just on Chariot and not all the private autos?

  • Ethan

    You may not trust Uber, but they’ve said they’re profitable in some cities. Their quarterly losses are significantly from other cities or countries where competition is fierce and losing money to gain market share is part of the battle. R&D into autonomous driving is another large cost not paying dividends yet.

    Chariot will be back or in a related form when autonomous vehicles happen. Even Jarrett Walker thinks autonomous fixed routes like buses or Chariot lines can be automated sooner because the routes can be 3D mapped in high definition. The vehicles only need capability navigating a more limited scope of situations. Private companies will profitably offer autonomous fixed route service with a guaranteed seat and more comfort than public buses.

  • Do Something Nice

    You are comparing apples and oranges. Private autos do not make several stops for passengers. There are other reasons as well, but if you want to ban private autos and Ubers from SOME of San Francisco’s streets, I good with that. Leave those streets to buses, taxis, bicyclists and maybe delivery trucks.

  • ZA_SF

    At risk of stating the obvious, it’s worth looking a bit more closely at why Chariot failed. They seemed to be providing selective ride aggregation and limited stops with all the overhead of fleet management, so were wedged in by traditional transit at the one end, and erosion of their basic model by a nimbler TNC carpool (like Uberpool) on the other.

    So no, it wasn’t (just) about cities passing regulations to protect traditional transit, it was a vanpool that didn’t have the anchor of a single corporate campus, didn’t have the defrayed cost of independent operators, and didn’t have the volume of traditional transit.

  • Marcin Jeske

    Scooters give a last mile boost to able-bodied commuters with no baggage … but they will never be a solution to those who most need the last mile solution … people who can’t easily walk a couple hundred yards.

    As for personally-owned vehicles versus networked … that’s the crux of the innovation … casting off the need for massive car/bike/scooter parking and worries about charging and securing *your* vehicle by leveraging technology. These sharing services are a better last-mile solution precisely because they are not personal … and allow a better transition to using local transit when that becomes available.

  • joechoj

    I doubt “scooters are next”. I see a far more diverse slice of people (in age & race) using them than anything else, not to mention they’re just fun.

    If anything, I bet bikeshares will fold next. Scooters offer all the benefits of bikes without the drawbacks. They’re more friendly to business attire & take up less space, for example.

  • thielges

    Docking/charging stations for scooters is an inevitable step due to the promise of reducing human workload by 10X or more. Scooter companies will still probably support the “drop off anywhere” mode but charge riders an extra dollar for the convenience of not having to seek out a docking station.

  • julia

    I agree. Based on my experience and what I’ve heard, the seat utilization on Chariot was very low, but their labor costs are fixed. I don’t think that scooters and bikes have the same fixed labor cost, and there are interesting things these companies can do with user incentives to help with supply repositioning, so don’t think that scooters or bikes are going anywhere soon if we’re just looking at business models.

    What other fixed labor cost business models are there? Getting rider demand to a place where the economics work is a tough thing to do so my assumption that these business models will struggle.

  • Flatlander

    I think that Chariot already had some lines that directly competed with Muni that were grandfathered in (maybe even most of their lines).

  • Bruce

    They did. Their very first route, Chestnut Express, competed (still competes) with Muni’s 30X Marina Express.

  • 🛴 Without any actual data, I don’t pretend to know what’s become of the scooters, but they don’t seem as popular in even the mild San Francisco winter as they were in the summer. Scööterdämmerung?

  • @thielges – All we need is a Xanadu remake to bring back inline skating.

    In all seriousness, skates are a fine calorie-burning last-mile solution if you’ve got a shower handy.

  • @Jeff Gonzales – Chariot was not prohibited from competing with Muni, only from impeding public transit at Muni stops.

  • Jeff Gonzales
  • jd_x

    I think Lyft/Uber are here to stay, but I think the difference between them and cabs (pre-Uber/Lyft) will revert to being minimal since the VC subsidy is going to run out soon and they will have no choice but to raise their fares, at which point their growth will slow way down. In other words, Uber/Lyft are just the next evolution of cabs. And once all this nonsense with VC subsidies dries up, their role will be the same as the cab’s pre-Lyft/Uber, i.e. they have an important role but they cannot replace good public transit, bicycling, and walking. The idea that Uber/Lyft are somehow more than an evolved cab and are the “future of transportation” is what will die. Not to mention that we are slowly waking up to the fact that cars are incompatible with cities and should only be used sparingly and at relatively high cost.

    I’m less confident that private bike share will last. Before GoBike introduced their e-bikes, Jump, Lime Bike, etc. had a leg up by being electric. Now that GoBike has massively increased their number of e-bikes, that difference is gone. I think it’s unclear if dockless or dockfull (word?) is the better philosophy (there are pluses and minuses to each) so that’s something I can’t make a good guess on which is better, but I feel like the momentum has swung back to public bikeshare, not private bike share, at least here in SF. I’d be happy with both (competition is good, and I think Jump, Lime, etc helped push/accelerate GoBike to go electric), but I’m not sure private companies can truly survive competing against a city-supported public bike share program.

    The e-scooter thing does feel fad-ish, and I do think a bunch of these companies are going to go under in the next year or two. But I think the general idea of alternative personal mobility devices (like e-scooters, Boosted Boards, etc.) is here to stay. Though I think the bicycle is ultimately superior (it works best for the most people the most often) especially since even the e-version requires expending your own energy (which I believe is very important to our health), all these types of personal mobility devices can give lots of options to driving. They also have the benefit of increasing demand for improved bicycle infrastructure since they essentially need the same infra as bicycles.

  • Luke Mellor

    There is a way to do microtransit/on-demand transit within the successful frame work of public transit: https://pantonium.com/initial-results-from-belleville-on-demand-transit/

    That is a shameless plug, but it is an example of an on demand service that improved the actual productivity and ridership of a public transit significantly.

    So it is not all dismal failures in this space you just need to do it in a reasonable way.

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