Privately owned transportation companies are popping up all around San Francisco. They say they can fill the void that public transit is not providing.

Consider Leap, a company that shuttles people between the Marina and Financial districts.

“Kind of think of it like a lounge on wheels,” Leap CEO Kyle Kirchhoff says.

Kirchhoff’s company is running a shuttle that follows the public bus route from downtown San Francisco to the Marina District. Kirchhoff says Leap provides a transportation alternative. Critics say these kinds of private services will hurt public transit and widen San Francisco’s class divide.

Leap’s shuttles have a startup feel to them. The outsides are bright blue with a big white jumping dog logo. The insides have wood paneling and polished grey floors. Soft music plays and the interior is sometimes lit with colored lights — they give the buses a kind of Virgin America nightclub-like glow.

The shuttles are refurbished city buses. They have no straps or bars to hold onto — the space is designed for seated passengers. Each bus fits about 30 people in either armchairs, banquettes or plush stools along a wooden counter.

Up front there is a mini-fridge with a selection of snacks and beverages for sale. Riders can order up things like Blue Bottle, Stumptown Coffee, Boxed Water and Happy Moose Juice — a crowd favorite.

The bus seems to cater to the kind of tech-savvy professionals in its promotional video, but Kirchhoff says it is for everyone.

“We built Leap to be for all of San Francisco,” he says, “not one particular group of people.”

Yeah right, says Ilyse Magy. She is a representative from the San Francisco Transit Riders Union.

“I get triggered when I think about all of the people who don’t have access to Leap,” she says.

Magy points to the price. A standard ticket costs $6 compared to $2.25 on a city bus. You need a smart phone to get on, unless you print your tickets, which means you need access to the Internet and a printer. There is no discount for young riders, no designated seating for the elderly or pregnant, and the bus is not wheelchair accessible.

San Francisco’s public transit system needs improvement says Magy, but services like Leap do not help. She says Leap segregates the well-off from the rest of the city; it allows more privileged riders to opt out of the public system she says, which will eventually weaken it.

“When you have fewer and fewer people taking public transportation, but still voting on how it’s funded and how it’s managed, you have a voter base that is out of touch with the system,” Magy says.

Leap CEO Kirchhoff says he is not trying to disrupt Muni, but to get more people on mass transit.

“When Muni gets overcrowded, people go get in their cars and use car services, and we think that is worse for the city overall,” Kirchhoff says.

A private bus appeals to Malissa Schiermeyer. She is trying Leap because she wants a more comfortable ride than public transport. She has also tried taking Uber, which Kirchhoff sees as a competitor.

“When I work late and I can’t take the express bus home — how do I say this — it’s uncomfortable the amount of passengers and the type of passengers. Sometimes I don’t feel safe,” Schiermeyer says.

Leap is one of many tech startups taking advantage of public irritation with San Francisco’s public transportation. There is another shuttle company Chariot, and car services like Lyft, Sidecar and Uber. Leap has received funding from big names in Silicon Valley, like Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen.

The whole startup approach to mass transit worries community organizer Erin McElroy. She runs the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project to fight for those getting priced out of the city by gentrification, and she would rather see more public approaches to issues like transportation.

“There is this libertarian philosophy that supports these private ventures, and that is really destructive,” McElroy says.

This is not the first time San Francisco has had private shuttles or jitneys. There were some back in the ’50s and ’60s, and there is still one shuttle that stops at the 4th and Market Caltrain station. But in the 1970s, San Francisco stopped the sale of jitney licenses. The rationale was to protect public transportation.

Right now it is unclear how services like Leap will be regulated. There have been complaints from residents and businesses about shuttles blocking driveways and causing congestion. City supervisors will hold a hearing on the issue, but probably not for at least a month.

New Luxury Bus Lines Roll Into San Francisco 3 April,2015Sam Harnett

  • The following sentence makes no sense: “The outsides are bright blue with a big and white with a jumping dog logo.”

  • John

    Sick and obscene.

  • eddie999

    Yeah! Let’s force people to get on stand-only crowded buses with smelly bums! Sit shoulder to should mashed against people who think washing once a week is plenty. If we allow people to pay a few extra dollars to avoid such awful buses then who will find the buses? The answer have mini make nicer buses and more of them! But when will that happen, 2050? Sure, force more affluent people to fund the buses for the poor. That’s the answer.

    • Tsuyoi Kuma

      “Sure force more affluent people to fund the buses for the poor. That’s the answer.” Yes, sweetheart that is. This is why America has things like public schools, public hospitals, public fire and police departments, publicly accessible infrastructure, public services, etc. You want an America where only the wealthy benefit from their oppurtunity and privilege go back to the Gilded Age. You get more from your experience in modern society, you better expect that you’ll have to put more back in.

      • Alia

        Why should I have to be near or around poor people if I don’t want to be? If there are services that cater to me, I’ll bloody well take them.

        • Tsuyoi Kuma

          Has someone forgotten their close reading skills since high school, or did you just not bother to read through both comments before getting in a tizzy? I wasn’t responding to the commentor’s “let’s force people to get-on stand-only crowded buses” comment. I was responding to the sarcastic “Sure, force more affluent people to fund the buses for the poor” comment. If you can afford better, by all means take advantage of your privilege, but don’t presume that in a modern western society you’ll be the only one who gets to benefit from your personal advantages. You get more out of society, you are expected to put more back into its betterment for all. If you don’t agree with this there are plenty of developing countries that would better suit your avarice and pride.

          • This argument is garbage, as it rests on the notion that society has a unilateral desire to see some sort of Marxist/socialist scheme being put into play, when in fact, a vast majority of society (especially the working class, to the chagrin of most lefties who are serius bizness) holds capitalist and free market values.

            Besides, most people who come from developing countries to here are rabidly pro-market; You try talking to a Cambodian or Tibetan refugee out of the wealth they made fair-in-square.

          • Omar Khan

            Anecdotal nonsense.

          • Tsuyoi Kuma

            I was just going to go with straight nonsense 🙂

  • April Mason

    I love it!!! As a business owner myself, you create a product or service that meets a need. This doesn’t mean everyone will be able to afford it. Heck, there are products and services I can’t afford. I don’t go complaining about it, I either don’t buy it or I find a way to buy what I want. This company tapped into a niche…brilliant!

  • Eric Douglas Crane

    “There is this libertarian philosophy that supports these private ventures, and that is really destructive,” McElroy says. That ‘libertarian philosophy’ is what made the United States great. If you leave the free market alone it will provide a better outcome than a government program 10 time out of 10. The problem is not private enterprise it is government and unions. What will likely happen is the same thing that always happens when a government program gets showed up by a private business – Government makes the better private solution illegal. Good luck Leap…. You’re going to need it if you hope to survive a fight with City Hall and their Union bullies.

    • Austin Rees

      What made America “great” is slavery and genocide.

      • Eric Douglas Crane

        Knee jerk much? What made the US great was innovation with a profit motive.

  • Carl Metzger

    I get “triggered” when I hear Ilyse Magy defending SF’s terrible bus system, one of the slowest in the country despite the fact the drivers are some of the highest paid in the nation and call sickouts when they want to strong-arm the city into giving them still more money. If someone has another option for getting people to work (on time for a change) bring it on. I won’t be taking it but I think it’s great someone is trying.

  • Charles G

    Kirchhoff, you are a liar. You did NOT build it for all San Franciscans. What about the little ole lady with two overflowing shopping bags who takes 4.9 minutes to board the bus, or the man in a wheelchair or the homeless person stinking to high heaven? No, you built it for the techie and business elites who could afford it and you should say so. That said, if it went anywhere near my house and was an alternative to the pit on wheels that the N Judah is, I would take it.

  • Alex W

    MUNI is horrendous. I take the 49/47 twice a day (or walk if I can) and it is literally scary. I’ve been physically assaulted and threatened. I’ve witnessed people smoking what appears to be crack, blowing the smoke out the window (and on me until I got off at the next stop….not my stop…). I’ve seen a man masturbate into a woman’s hair (a few of us kicked him off the bus, the drive did ZERO!!!!) I’ve reported my complaints to MUNI multiple times (through their website) and received zero responses. MUNI’s union prevents proper, systematic reform- why change when you don’t have to change? Unfortunately, my alternative of walking down Van Ness, Polk, or other tenderloin hotspots is possibly more dangerous than even MUNI. In the six years I’ve lived here MUNI’s prices rose from $1.50 to $2.25, there is less service, less frequent service, and fewer busses and routs. In what world does that make sense!?! I WELCOME this private service because it MAY spur MUNI on to actually make changes. Let’s face it, the people we fear the most are also the ones who don’t pay for their rides, so if we (the paying public) stop using MUNI, they’ll have to change to get us back. Uber made our taxis responsive (and take credit cards) because of competition, so perhaps this service will change MUNI. Now my question, when will there be a bus that goes up and down Van Ness (or Polk)?

    • Van Ness and Polk are a lot more bark than bite, rest assured. They’re not very dangerous whatsoever, as someone who has lived in the area for a very long time can tell you.

      However, I’ll just say it for you: The people smell, they’re strung out on dope, they’re irritating, and they’re ugly, and who wants to be around them?

  • Omar Khan

    SF loses more of its cultural identity to white suburbanites.

    • This city wasn’t built by people named ‘Omar Khan’. Go back to Pakistan if you don’t like it.

      • Omar Khan

        Funnily enough – Omar was a very popular name among the indigenous people who built the West Coast. I’m not from Pakistan, why would I go there? I can not like anything I want and stay regardless, that’s what makes me an American. What’s your excuse for being here? You’re clearly of an ethnicity that is not indigenous and you have such an anti-American attitude. If you don’t like freedom buddy – time to get out.

        • Gee, you’re not from Pakistan? That’s interesting, because I imagine that they’re not all white suburbanites.

          Pot, meet kettle–now haul your arse back to Peshawar.

          • Omar Khan

            Oh I get it – you’re a dumb troll from the suburbs with deep racial issues. Sorry if I offended you’re tiny, (and looking at your other comments), empty brain.

        • Guest

          As far as my excuse for being here…Russian immigrant parents, you try and make me leave, end up with a mouthful of teeth, aye?

        • As far as me being here…Make me leave, my parents immigrated here in the 80s and I’d remove anyone who’d try and remove me.

          • Omar Khan

            Tough talk from a troll behind a computer screen in his immigrant parents basement. Sort your anger issues out. Or maybe read a book now and again. May help with the nonsense you’ve spouted across this page.

  • David Thaler

    “… it allows more privileged riders to opt out of the public system she says, which will eventually weaken it.”

    EVENTUALLY? when was Muni ever “strong”?

  • Molly

    It is beyond alarming that these private transportation services do not comply with basic ADA guidelines. Private companies that serve the public are NOT exempt from providing reasonable accessible accommodations for people in wheelchairs, low vision, and other disabilities.

    • Tsuyoi Kuma

      Thank you for pointing this out.

    • Eric Douglas Crane

      Not all public buses are required to accommodate all disabilities. Neither of cabs, cable cars…. Are you seeing a pattern? But really ‘beyond alarming’ smacks of First World Problems.

      • Catherine

        Hi Eric. Are you not familiar with the ADA? Check out the specifics in regards to transportation here:
        http://civilrights.findlaw.com/discrimination/transportation-and-the-americans-with-disabilities-act-ada.html

        Transportation access inequality in this country is a HUGE problem – prevents people from being active members of their communities. Brings us all down as a whole. There was also a really interesting lawsuit you should look up of the National Foundation of the Blind vs. Uber. DOJ ruled that companies can NOT pick and choose what parts of the ADA they want to follow. Big win for transportation accessibility.

        • Eric Douglas Crane

          I deal with ADA every day and it is a massive disaster in our nation. It is enforced by civil litigation. The vast majority of the rules are arbitrary. Many are contradictory and all are written to the major benefit of one group. ….lawyers. With ADA the owner/operator is guilty till they prove themselves innocent which is virtually impossible. I walk into brand new public buildings and find ADA violations. A coat hook (or lack thereof) would require a judge find for a “victim”. A $10,000 judgment for not putting a coat hook at the right height is disgusting. I’m not saying we should not make accommodation for the disabled but the sue and settle model is just sick and wrong.

          • Molly

            what do you suggest as a solution to the ADA? Who should be the government body that enforces it? the ADA is definitely not perfect – but FAR from a “massive disaster”. People with disabilities account for nearly 20% of the U.S. population – making this group the largest minority in the entire country. The ADA is the largest piece of legislation protecting this vulnerable group of people. I work as an occupational therapist and access to transportation is consistently reported as the #1 barrier to being independent in the community. I wish universal design was used more consistently in public spaces.

          • Eric Douglas Crane

            How about just building code. We trust plan checkers to verify that buildings don’t fall down on our heads. We should be able to streamline the process and take the profit out of hands of the blood sucking lawyers. ADA has some truly idiotic elements. I’m all for developing adaption aids for people with need but to try and create a world that is adapted to all the issues any individual might have is unrealistic and inefficient. To allow lawyers to extort settlements that can (and have) crippled business, government and whole towns is nauseating.

  • dbreed

    I have no problem with this, but don’t sit there and tell me this is a service for everyone when it doesn’t accommodate the elderly, the disabled or the poor who don’t have access to technology.

  • jcgarza

    “A devel­oped coun­try is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use pub­lic trans­port.” – Enrique Peñalosa, for­mer Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia

  • ellie

    Although I agree that this service has problems that have been pointed out in this article, I would try this service. I have been a muni rider for over 20 years, primarily because there is no other public transportation alternative. I have consistently ridden the 1, 14, 19, 33, 38, 22, 10, T, J, and N lines throughout the years. I have personally witnessed the following problems on muni: drivers refusing to pick up passengers for no apparent reason, theft (once a bike off the from of the bus, another time a phone, and once a purse from a woman’s lap), a stabbing on the bus of a teenage girl (resulting in everyone being forced off so the police could come and take a report), more heated arguments and threats of violence than I count, blood smeared on and COVERING two muni seats, and a smell from a homeless man’s tumor that was so unbearable that the driver forced everyone off the bus bc the man would not leave the bus despite being asked to do so (but really, where could he reasonably go if he got off the bus? He was on his way to the Marina, not the hospital). While I appreciate the diversity and street theater that I get on muni, I’m actually on muni to get safely from A to B. I would be willing to try another service if there was the possibility that I could do that and reduce the threats to my safety and to my health.

  • rtokar

    I’d happily pay for this service. Please bring it to the Sunset. MUNI is over capacity in the mornings, this will only make the public transit system more pleasant and efficient as it will take stress off the system.

  • Zippy the Pinhead

    Horrid!

    Please, oh PLEASE bring on the next tech bubble crash.

  • JT Myers

    The San Francisco Dictionary
    Forcing people to conform to your way of life: positive.
    Allowing people to choose for themselves: destructive.

  • Alia

    Lots of whiny poor people here. Ouch. $6 for a bus ticket is minuscule (it’s about the same price here in Sydney, Australia) and it gives people who live a certain type of lifestyle to yes, opt out and go for something more suitable. Something cleaner, and something with like-minded people. It’s not their problem if some people can’t afford it; perhaps if the public system wasn’t so disgusting, more people would be willing to take it. But $6 for amazing transport with access to drinks and Wi-Fi? Hell yeah. I mean, we already give the poor all of our tax money, surely we can’t have our own bus? I’d literally pay to not sit next to a hobo.

    • Dave

      A bus is like 2-4 dollars in Sydney…

    • dbreed

      You sound like a disgusting person. I would literally pay to not have to be around you.

  • starship_captain

    If there’s no wheelchair access, does that mean LEAP’s lounge buses are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act? How is it a public service is exempt from the ADA?

  • Austin Rees

    Separate but equal right?

  • Typical. A “community organizer” hates a good idea. I can’t believe how the “progressives” in San Francisco continue to fight and attack things that are truly progressive.

  • J

    The voter base is out of touch with the system? Excuse me?! The system should be working for the voter base! That’s why we have elections, to determine what the majority of people actually need and want from their government. We should never discourage innovation or potential improvement in our society.

  • Some people deserve to be triggered for their stupid, long-held opinions. Leap is filling a market vacuum for people who can afford not to ride with disgusting urine-smelling human garbage, and give them an alternative. Leap is going to possibly put some under-educated MUNI drivers out of work, but so what? They can always eat flip burgers, they have hands…

    Alex W, I take the 49 twice a day too (we’ve probably seen each other and not even known it) and they really don’t care, the drivers or the riders. It is as crowded as Tokyo subway without the politeness and triple the stink.

  • For the record, 6 dollars is still cheaper than the price of a Cable Car ticket, which as part of MUNI, is funded with public money, yet only services touristy areas and downtown.

  • Erinn Butulis

    I love the “idea of this bus” sure its sexy, and hip, tech forward… and I adore the idea of not getting fingernail clippings hitting me in the eyeball at 8am on my commute on public busses… (this has happened on multiple occasions) or not getting slimed by a homeless persons piss filled sleeping bag as they stagger past me in a sardine packed smelly box on wheels. However… working in non-profit, I can hardly afford the public bus, I often ride my bike just b/c I don’t have enough money to ride the public bus. I would love to be able to afford this bus but it really doesn’t include everyone. It really caters to the upper echelon of tech savvy San Franciscans who are in a particular income bracket…which is not my income bracket.

Author

Sam Harnett

Sam Harnett is a reporter who covers tech and work at KQED. For the last five years he has been reporting on how technology and capitalism are changing the way we think about ourselves and what it means to work. He is the co-creator of The World According to Sound, a 90-second podcast that features different sounds and the stories behind them.

Before coming to KQED, Sam worked as an independent reporter who contributed regularly to The California Report, Marketplace, The World and NPR. In 2013, he launched a podcast called Driving With Strangers. In 2014, he was selected by the International Center for Journalists for a reporting fellowship in Japan, where he covered the legacy of the Fukushima disaster.

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