On Guard: Is Leap Muni’s Uber moment? 

click to enlarge Leap buses have plenty of comfort, which could be attractive to hordes of riders. - JOE FITZGERALD RODRIGUEZ/S.F. EXAMINER
  • Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/S.F. Examiner
  • Leap buses have plenty of comfort, which could be attractive to hordes of riders.
Reclaimed wood tables. Leather seats. Iced tea and Wi-Fi. Stepping onto a Leap bus is like visiting the trendy, obnoxious coffee shop that displaced your favorite Mission hangout three years ago, only now it’s on wheels — don’t drop your coffee, techbro!

This is Leap, the upstart private bus running from Lombard Street in the Marina to the Financial District. It’s a tech-laden bus for a techie crowd, and as I board it, my mind turns to the political fallout of Leap and its sister buses may create.

The so-called Google buses, Leap and Chariot (another private bus provider) are all part of a movement in which techies separate themselves from our public-transportation services — like Muni — and create private alternatives. But haven’t we seen this before?

If you could swim in bitcoin, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick would backstroke through his billions like Scrooge McDuck. Uber and Lyft disrupted the taxi industry, and now taxi companies are teetering near collapse.

So will Muni get disrupted out of existence by private buses?

On a small scale, Leap competes directly with Muni’s 30-Stockton and 30X-Marina Express lines, which run from Chestnut street in the Marina to downtown. It’s also one of Muni’s oldest lines: Under a different name, the route was created for streetcars to ferry San Franciscans to the world’s fair in 1915.

A century later, Leap buses offer a service totally different than Muni’s 30X.

“I used to get the [30] express, but it was always full,” Stephan Archibald, who works at Citigroup, tells me as we ride Leap toward the Financial District. Because he’d catch it at Octavia Boulevard, the already-full bus would often pass him up.

“I think a private option is good,” he says, stretching out on a leather seat. “As a banker, I like private enterprise. In time, Muni might become obsolete.”

Though certainly a small sample size, all four of my fellow passengers on Leap this Monday morning were former Muni riders, like Archibald. Unlike Archibald, they work in tech.

As a society, we’ve already moved toward similar privatization in a few key areas, besides the noted fall of taxis. Most of San Francisco’s caucasian, affluent parents send their kids to private school, leaving the San Francisco Unified School District in droves. This plays out in terms of funding: Though locally we pour new funds into our public schools, statewide per-pupil spending is down.

So one way to measure whether Leap-like buses really will lead to the disruption of Muni is to see how voters choose to fund public transit, or choose not to. David Latterman, a political analyst, talked me through some of this. He’s a bit of a curmudgeon, but in a friendly, affable way.

“The Marina jitneys?” he barks, using an old-time term of for-hire vehicles that aren’t quite cabs but aren’t quite buses. The jitneys aren’t a threat to funding Muni at the ballot right now, he says.

“We can discuss whether we feel Muni operates efficiently, but it doesn’t matter, voters will throw money at it,” he says. Many voters who overwhelmingly approved Proposition A, to fund Muni to the tune of $500 million, were drivers, he adds.

So those who don’t ride Muni may choose to fund it.

But another voter analyst, who didn’t want to be named here, differed with Latterman. He drew a distinction: Private-bus riders may view Muni differently than drivers, he said. So if Leap-style jitneys popped up in the Mission, the Sunset and elsewhere, would it lead to less public support for Muni?

It’s an open question, he said, with no easy answers.

I asked SFMTA board of directors Chairman Tom Nolan if Muni might choose to meet this disruption head-on. Perhaps a fancy new 38-Geary bus with reclaimed wood, and onboard baristas.

“I haven’t talked to anyone about it at all,” Nolan tells me, and as far as being threatened by tech disruption, he says: “Muni will still be the backbone [of transportation]. We have a system that ferries around 700,000 people every day.”

Leap only has five buses right now. But co-founder and CEO Kyle Kirchhoff says the company may expand lines in as soon as a year. Nolan doesn’t have a crystal ball to see into Muni’s future, but he does know who would lose in such a scenario: The poor and marginalized in The City.

“So many people ride [Muni] who are low-income folks, things like this will never be available to them,” Nolan says.

And so far, he’s right: Leap’s $6 fare is only payable via smartphone app (no cash), has routes only in the affluent Marina and has no wheelchair accessibility as of yet.

“Muni is for people with disabilities, seniors, youth ... these [private] buses go for the higher end,” Nolan says.

The issue of the affluent fleeing for private services manifests in the real world. Tech workers eat inside catered offices and not local restaurants, Twitter workers may soon walk through a skyway instead of on Market Street, and they all increasingly ride in private buses allowing homogeneous 30-somethings to escape the diversity of public transit.

Yes, Muni is sometimes dirty and on occasion transports addled souls who scream at the top of their lungs. But it’s also a place where you can rub shoulders with your city: the poor, the affluent and those in the middle, little old ladies with pink thank-you bags and sweetly squealing children.

Public transit is where San Francisco meets itself. Isn’t that the point of cities after all?

If public transit is disrupted by services like Leap, those same people will have no option but to ride an increasingly underfunded Muni. The rest of us may lose out, as the fancy barista bus flies by.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at joe@sfexaminer.com.

About The Author

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Born and raised in San Francisco, Fitzgerald Rodriguez was a staff writer at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and now writes the S.F. Examiner's political column On Guard. He is also a transportation beat reporter covering pedestrians, Muni, BART, bikes, and anything with wheels.
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