I’ll probably never need to use Chariot or other private bus lines that may want to operate in San Francisco, but I believe they should have the right to complement and compete with Muni, as long as they obey the rules of the road.
Like Patrick Maley, who recently penned an op-ed against the bus service, I’m also a public transit advocate. I sold my car a few years ago and mainly rely on Muni to get around The City.
As a school crossing guard for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, I can and do frequently use Muni for free. Muni has a great route system with frequent service in most parts of The City, at least in the daytime. The new fleet of buses and light-rail vehicles and historic streetcars on the E- and F-Line are clean and comfortable most of the time.
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But some of the most heavily traveled lines, like the 30 Stockton, 38 Geary and N Judah, are often jam packed in the middle of the route. Lucky passengers get jammed in like sardines; the less fortunate watch helplessly as they are left at the curb.
Sometimes, the ride is not pleasant even when there are plenty of seats. Some inconsiderate riders talk extremely loud on their phones, play loud music or eat and leave behind food and liter. Others carry huge bags of leaking cans and bottles, blocking seats and aisles on the way to a recycling center. A few drivers kick them off; others don’t.
It’s not polite to say this, but there are some scary and angry people who make riding Muni uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous. I don’t blame people who chose to pay a little more for a nicer ride, and I don’t believe Chariot and other operators have to take cash fares, offer discounts or allow people to ride for free.
Chariot is not Jim Crow 2.0. Luxury is not evil or illegal. Private companies should be free to set market-rate fares that will cover their costs and make a profit that is shared with investors and used to finance further expansion.
San Francisco was ahead of its time when it established the Municipal Railway as the first public transit system in the country to challenge and supplement the privately owned Market Street Railway more than 100 years ago. Back then, privately owned transit systems all over the country were losing money and abandoning routes, so it was appropriate for public agencies to take over and offer subsidized transit services for the benefit of the entire community.
Today, the SFMTA and other transit agencies are not able to afford to provide frequent enough services to offer everyone a seat at peak hours on existing routes and create enough new express routes to give everybody a faster ride to their destination.
Whenever the SFMTA proposes eliminating some stops to speed up services — like it did on the L Taraval — it is met with fierce opposition from seniors and people with disabilities, who legitimately complain that it makes it harder for them to get to their destination.
Services like Chariot are actually helpful because they reduce the burden on Muni. It’s unfortunate that Chariot and others are more expensive than heavily subsidized Muni fares and that they require the use of a smartphone, which is indeed too expensive for many people.
I know it’s insensitive to say, but the SFMTA can’t deny a company the right to operate a route because it’s too expensive — just as the Planning Commission can’t deny a developer the right to construct a condo building just because the homes are too expensive.
I agree that private operators are not above the law. They need to have proper permits, sufficient liability insurance and perform background checks on drivers. They should have the decency to treat workers as employees with benefits, not independent contractors. All private bus operators should respect their staff’s right to join a union and then bargain in good faith over salary and working conditions.
Chariot and others must only operate vehicles that pass inspections and meet appropriate Americans with Disabilities Act rules for transit operators. They should not be allowed to block driveways, double-park or pick up or drop off in red or blue zones and bus stops. (Good luck meeting that last requirement.)
If they don’t obey the rules, they should pay appropriate fines. Perhaps, Ford should pay a lot more than $240,000 to operate in San Francisco. That’s chump change.
Joel Kamisher is a retired radio news reporter and producer who worked at KFRC-AM, K101 FM, KCBS and Metro Networks.