Uber, Lyft, Sidecar and other app-based ride services several years ago zoomed into the taxi industry at a time when the market was underserved, and now that could be happening with late-night public transit.
Officially launched Monday, startup ride service Fleet offers private-vehicle trips along Caltrain's San Francisco-to-San Jose routes during the commuter rail's off hours. However, the company is doing so without state-issued operating permits for such ride services or minimum-liability accident insurance.
Fleet features shuttles, vans or personal cars seating five to 15 passengers, with stops at the San Francisco, Millbrae, San Mateo, Redwood City, Palo Alto, Mountain View and San Jose Caltrain stations.
It is the brainchild of Stanford University computer science seniors Isaac Madan, 21, and Shaurya Saluja, 20, who along with their friends were often at a loss to find an affordable means of transportation from San Francisco back to the South Bay past the 10:30 p.m. and 12:01 a.m. daily Caltrain departures. For example, Uber rates fluctuate depending on demand, so a ride from The City to Palo Alto can cost $55 to $80.
"There was this big gap between Uber and mass transit," Madan said. "Mass transit just wasn't open or available [late at night], so we decided to set up a shuttle service to fill that."
One-way fare pricing for Fleet is broken down into four zones just like Caltrain, but about twice as expensive -- $6 for travel within one zone, $10 for two zones, $14 for three zones and $18 for four zones.
Fleet has been running for a couple of weeks through a Web-based booking process and so far has at least 15 self-insured drivers using personal vehicles such as sedans, vans and shuttles. None have transportation network company licenses, Madan said, which is the state-regulated permit that app ride services must obtain. And Fleet does not have accident insurance for the drivers, either.
A California Public Utilities Commission spokeswoman said the state agency is looking into Fleet and determining whether it is a transportation network company or a passenger stage corporation. The latter is defined as a provider of transportation to the public on an individual fare basis and operating mostly a fixed-route schedule or on-call door-to-door like a shuttle to the airport.
"I don't think we really know what they are yet," spokeswoman Constance Gordon said, "but I'm sure we'll get our fingers in there somehow."
Fleet offers southbound rides at 1, 2:20 and 3:42 a.m., and northbound rides at 11:39 p.m. and 2:21 and 3:41 a.m. The company said it plans to crowd-source additional stops that could include filling the gap between the latest Caltrain rides.
So far, mostly Stanford students going southbound on Friday and Saturday nights and tech employees working late and heading back to The City have used the service.
It is not intended to operate like a party bus, Madan said.
"The same rules apply as taxis -- no drinking or smoking, and these things are up to the discretion of the driver," he said. "But we don't encourage it or allow it on our end."
Fleet also has no formal relationship with Caltrain.
The app is currently only available on iPhone and is being developed for Android.