If you see Google’s commuter buses as symbols of tech separatism, you’re going to love Leap Transit.
Just kidding – you’re going to hate it.
Leap Transit, as envisioned by its founders, is a private alternative to public buses. You book, track, and pay for your bus via a smartphone app, enjoy leather seats and wifi on board, and avoid all the occasional discomfort that comes with travelling by public transport, such as crowded carriages, odiferous strangers, and Jack Dorsey.
The service costs $6 per ride and you have to own an iPhone to use it (Android and mobile Web apps are coming soon). Yep, it’s the Uber for city buses, a tagline that perhaps helped it raise $2 million in venture funding from Andreessen Horowitz, Index Ventures, and IronPort founder Scott Banister. (Disclosure: Andreessen Horowitz partner Marc Andreessen is an investor in PandoDaily.)
The San Francisco-based startup recently completed its beta test, which started in May and focused on a single route in the city: the 30X, an oft-crowded route between the Marina and the Financial District that locals call the “Dirty 30.”
Now Leap Transit is calling for votes on which routes should be next as it prepares to grow its business across the city. For now, its focus is on commuters, with buses planned to run from 7am to 10am, and 4pm to 7pm on weekdays. Long term, it plans to take its service international. Its slide deck shows that New York, Seattle, and Chicago are high on its to-do list, with Sao Paulo, Brazil, flagged as an attractive overseas market.
When the Leap Transit buses are back on the road, they will be a step up from the beta model. Co-founder and CEO Kyle Kirchhoff is coy on details, but he says the service is going for something that is “a cross between a Starbucks and an Apple Store.”
Kirchhoff says Leap Transit is motivated by civic intentions. “We’re really passionate about San Francisco,” he says. “When we first set out to do something it was about how can we make the city work better.”
However, to run the service, Leap Transit has been using bus stops that are reserved for Muni, San Francisco’s public bus system. That pisses some people off. At the time of Leap’s beta launch, John Avalos, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, told the San Francisco Chronicle that Kirchchoff’s stated goals were a “crock of shit.”
“How does blocking a Muni stop make the city more efficient?,” Avalos said. “You’re trying to make money, and you’re creating a two-tiered transportation system in San Francisco.”
Leap Transit is not the only tech company hoping to transform municipal transportation. Fellow startup RidePal is offering a similar service for inter-city transport, focusing on such routes as San Francisco to Palo Alto. RidePal has raised $3.7 million in venture backing, according to Crunchbase.
A 2011 study commissioned by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors found that private buses such as those belonging to Google, Zynga, and Yahoo, are putting a lot of stress on public Muni stops, according to the San Francisco Bay Guardian. About 90 percent of the private bus stops occurred at Muni stops, often taking longer to load and unload than their public counterparts. The private buses often force the public buses to wait, the study noted.
Leap Transit says that its buses yield to Muni buses and try to load and unload passengers at each stop in the space of 30 seconds – which sounds like one of those promises that, while well-meaning, are ultimately impossible to keep.
Kirchhoff is wary of being seen as a symbol of societal separatism. People suspicious of the effects of tech wealth and excess in the Bay Area have pointed to the tech companies’ private buses, and services such as Uber, as classist instruments of divisions. The writer and academic Rebecca Solnit, for instance, has described the Google Bus as “like one face of Janus-headed capitalism.” The bus “contains the people too valuable even to use public transport or drive themselves,” she wrote.
Asked how Leap Transit might respond in the face of such criticism, Kirchhoff goes on defense. “We don’t want to become an icon for all of this stuff,” he says, “and we look forward to working with the community to make it better for everyone.”
That $6 per ride price tag might not always be so high, too. “We’re not trying to build this service just for tech people or just for rich people,” says Kirchhoff. “We’re trying to bring the prices down as far as possible.”
For its part, the San Francisco Municipal Transport Agency is so far proving to be agnostic. “We welcome private efforts to sustain public transit in San Francisco as long as they’re willing to follow traffic and safety rules,” a spokesman told the Huffington Post. In an effort to accommodate private buses, the agency has extended some of the loading zones at the busiest stops. “There’s a need for all of us to share the same roadway,” the spokesman said.
[Photo via Leap Transit]