No fan of the van: SFMTA Chariot permit endangers public transit

As a regular Muni commuter, I’m extremely disappointed with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s decision to move forward with its permit program for the Chariot private bus service. Far from “complementing” Muni service, the new rules essentially give the exclusive right for Chariot to compete directly with Muni. Of the 14 current routes competing with Muni, all but three would be “grandfathered” in — that is, they can run as is and even intensify in the future.

Many of Chariot’s operations are illegal; drivers have few legal places to pick up and discharge passengers, so they double park, pull into crosswalks and public bus stops and block driveways. In fact, Chariot has been observed blocking hospital entrances and preventing paratransit vehicles from accessing passenger unloading zones. Rather than “addressing traffic violations,” the regulations send Chariot the tacit message that traffic violations will be ignored.

Moreover, the SFMTA could be charging a lot more for the right to use city streets as places of enterprise, but it isn’t. In 2012, San Francisco cab drivers sued the SFMTA over the cost of medallions — a fee of $250,000 per vehicle — in Mounsey vs. SFMTA. The cab drivers lost. But the SFMTA is only proposing to charge Ford, which owns Chariot, $240,000 for the entire cost of its fleet, which around 150 vehicles now. Ford just received a 14 percent tax cut from the federal government. Why is the SFMTA consenting to another giveaway at the local level?

Chariot’s website states the core of its mission is “universal access to better transportation.” In reality, Chariot’s business model is about marketing a luxury brand to affluent city dwellers who do not want to mix with other San Franciscans. Chariot’s vehicle type, pricing and marketing are all set up to facilitate this experience. Its fares are high enough that it can effectively exclude riders it doesn’t want, particularly the 53 percent of Muni riders who live in households earning less than $50,000 a year. Unlike Muni, it doesn’t provide free or discounted fares to seniors, children or low-to-moderate income rider; Chariot’s rates range from $3 to $5 a ride. It also requires the use of a smartphone, an average cost of $567, and requires a service plan at an average monthly cost of $140.

In this way, Chariot’s price discrimination creates a barrier to many of the people most in need of public transit. Clearly, Chariot’s mission is not providing “universal access” but making a profit per ride on commuters who would rather ride in a segregated van.

Ford knows private cars sales are declining, so it intends to move into the privatized transit business. It found a willing market with new San Franciscans who don’t want to ride with people who are poorer, older or of a different color than them — and now they have found a willing agency in the SFMTA. This is Jim Crow 2.0.

Patrick Maley is a public transportation advocate in San Francisco.

Patrick Maley
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Patrick Maley

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