For as long as there have been autos, private “jitney” buses have operated on San Francisco streets. Jitneys carried passengers to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, and many Muni lines today run on former private bus lines.
By the 1970s, private transit by the Bay declined. The last known historic jitney driver in San Francisco who owned a single private bus, Jess Losa, reportedly hung up his hat last year.
But those private buses have since returned to their former prominence with the aid of tech apps — like Chariot, the Ford-owned private bus company that started in San Francisco.
Now more than a century after jitneys first appeared, The City is planning new laws to regulate them, updating patchwork regulations strewn across multiple city agencies due to historical accident.
Earlier this month, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency revealed its plans for private bus services at a SFMTA Citizens Advisory Council.
Chariot is the only private bus service left in San Francisco, SFMTA staff told the council, so for now the new laws would exclusively regulate just that company — but regulations would cover any similar services that may arise in the future.
Chariot did not respond to requests for comment.
To the council, the transit officials said regulating Chariot would help them garner data to ask a number of questions, like whether Chariot takes away riders from Muni buses, provides access for people in wheelchairs and how it addresses complaints from neighbors across The City, regulators said. Allegations that Chariot buses have blocked Muni buses and used Muni bus stops without permission could also be addressed.
“We have had a number of concerns about how these services have been operating,” Alex Jonlin, an SFMTA transportation analyst, told the council.
“We’ve seen a number of instances where they might stop in bike lanes, active travel lanes and crosswalks,” he said. “We’re concerned with making sure these are operating safely in our transportation system.”
The problems seem to touch many San Francisco neighborhoods. Chariot runs 11 routes in San Francisco, mostly ferrying passengers from the Richmond District, the Marina District, the Haight Ashbury and other outer-neighborhoods to downtown.
And for $3.00 a ride, the price is close to Muni fare, which is $2.50 when paid with cash.
“They’re directly competing with Muni’s express service, and I’m concerned about that,” Sue Vaughan, a member of the citizens advisory council, told the regulators.
In what SFMTA staff characterized as a historical accident, a patchwork of jitney regulations had existed that were divided between the San Francisco Police Department and the newly formed SFMTA in the late 1990s. With the rise of tech jitneys, new regulations are needed, SFMTA staff said.
Preliminarily, the SFMTA plans to instate a private transit vehicle permit with various requirements: to review private routes and stops, establish fees and administrative penalties, and to instate vehicle safety inspections, driver safety training minimums and reporting of bus GPS and ridership data.
Agreement with state labor standards and equal access for people with disabilities may also be required.
Additionally, unlike its regulation of “tech” commuter shuttles, the SFMTA said it would not allow use of Muni bus stops. Private transit would have access to white and yellow zones for pick-up and drop-off.
The SFMTA conducted its first meeting with Chariot on Thursday, so proposals may change moving forward, the agency said.
“Jitneys ceased to exist, and they hadn’t operated for many years,” Kate Toran, head of taxi services at SFMTA, told the council, “but as we know, there are new transit services popping up all over San Francisco.”
She added, “Popping up like weeds, sometimes.”