How SF-Based Shuttle Startup Chariot Crowdsourced Its New Commuter Route

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If you live in San Francisco, you’re probably well aware of how bad the public transportation system is here.* While the growth of on-demand transportation services like Uber and Lyft has eased some of the pain of traveling around the city, those options aren’t exactly cost-effective for the average commuter just trying to get to and from work.

A private shuttle startup called Chariot is hoping to improve transportation options for San Francisco residents, and it’s doing so by letting them tell it where they need service.

Chariot launched a beta version earlier this year to run a series of private shuttle routes between neighborhoods that are poorly served by current public transportation options in the city.

The company hopes to provide a service that will be faster and more convenient than public bus lines, at a price to consumers that is competitive with those options. It does this by running 15-passenger vans on regular routes users can sign up for through its website or a mobile app.

Passengers can buy pay-as-you-go or multi-ride packs of rides, or opt for a monthly pass for access to its service. Chariot’s most popular option is a 12-ride pack for $47, and also offers a $93 monthly option. For those who commute twice a day, 20 days a month, the monthly pass ends up costing only slightly more than paying for the Muni bus each day. The company also accepts all the same regular employee commuter benefits as other public options.

In 2014, Chariot launched two shuttle routes between areas of the city where commuters had pain points. That included a route between the Marina and Downtown SF (which it calls the Chestnut Bullet), as well as a line between the Marina and SoMa (called the SoMa Express).

Since opening up for business, the company has provided more than 50,000 rides, and has grown to more than 3,000 rides each week in January. According to co-founder Ali Vahabzadeh, due to demand it’s grown from five to 22 vans running routes since launch and is adding new capacity every 10 days.

Its most recent route, which opens up today, will offer trips from the Cole Valley and Haight-Ashbury neighborhoods down to Downtown SF and SoMa during commute hours. Vans will run between 7:00 and 9:30 am in the morning, and between 4:30 and 7:30 pm in the evening.

The so-called “Cole Valley Cruiser” came about due to demand the company saw from potential users, according to Vahabzadeh. “This is the first time we’re truly crowdsourcing a new route based on user input,” Vahabzadeh said.

Chariot has been surveying potential users who have downloaded the app but don’t live in one of its service areas to determine which neighborhoods could be better served by a private shuttle service than existing public options.

What it found was that, even though Cole Valley and Haight residents had nearby access to Muni trains on the N Judah line, those trains were so crowded during commute hours that they hoped for more convenient options. According to Vahabzadeh, “people even within steps of the train line were requesting surface transportation.”

For now, that means it’s providing a more convenient way for commuters in those neighborhoods can commute to and from work. As a result, Vahabzadeh says it has received support from SF city Supervisors in neighborhoods that it currently serves.

In the very long term, though, services like Chariot could end up funneling away revenues that would have otherwise gone to public transportation services. At a time when only 30 percent of public transportation funding comes from passenger receipts, squeezing those funds even further could have a significant impact on those services.

It’s still early days, however. Chariot hopes to continue expanding its service, with plans to add another two routes by late March, when it will participate in Y Combinator’s demo day.

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* If, like me, you moved to San Francisco from New York, you’re probably even more disappointed at the lack of good options for getting around.