In the 1950’s and 60’s plans were drawn up to build an extensive rail network that would create a ring around San Francisco Bay connecting all the towns and cities in the region. It was an ambitious plan fitting an optimistic era of large projects.Jake Coolidge
Below is a rendering of what that system would have looked like if it had actually been built.
But this was also the height of white flight to the suburbs. Cities were in decline. The middle class was keen to escape anything that even hinted at the urban crime, pollution, and racial strife of the day. Local opposition successfully stopped BART from being built in most of the proposed suburbs. Instead, funding was limited and public money flowed to a highway network that looks almost exactly like the old rail plan. BART was limited to a bare bones system that connects San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and a few eastern suburbs.
Fast forward to today. The horizontal growth of car dependent suburbs has hit natural limits in the form of water and mountains, yet market demand for more intensive development is insatiable. As the suburbs thicken with new corporate campuses and condo complexes the roads simply can’t accommodate the high volume of traffic. Highway expansion has not ceased for decades, yet still the traffic keeps getting worse. Local opposition now focuses on limiting new development which then causes real estate values to soar along with rents. The end result is a region that is actively forcing people and companies to relocate to entirely different cities in other states. The long term consequences of transportation policy and land use regulations are choking one of the most dynamic and productive areas in the world with no political solution in sight.
In the absence of sensible regional cooperation private companies are developing work-arounds. Employers had a hard time hiring and retaining highly skilled workers who won’t tolerate soul crushing commutes. So fleets of private buses were leased to collect workers each morning and drive them home each night. While on board there’s secure WiFi and a company-only ridership that allows people to be both comfortable and productive while on the road. These shuttle services work perfectly well, but only employees can get on a propriety vehicle. Everyone else is out of luck.
Enter Leap and Chariot. These services are being beta tested in San Francisco and nearby suburbs. As soon as the kinks are worked out they’ll be ramping up in new markets across the country. These crowdsourced buses are more expensive than traditional public transit, but significantly cheaper than owning a car or taking an Uber, Lyft, or Flywheel. They’re also more convenient because they’re tailored to the exact needs of a specific subset of the population. And because these are private companies they can add new routes and more capacity to new locations in keeping with market demand. They can also experiment more freely and retreat if the market isn’t ripe.
In a city like San Francisco this will be an augmentation of existing transportation options. But in most suburbs this may be the only viable form of non-car transportation that’s ever going to come close to functioning properly since it skips the usual paralyzed political process. Is it perfect? No. It’s a middle class model that (indirectly or intentionally?) filters out people lower down on the economic ladder. Low income people may not be able to afford the service or the bus companies may quietly avoid routes in low income areas. Will the people who can afford these private buses care? Will suburban municipalities want it any other way? I’m not holding my breath when it comes to social equity. But that’s just more of what we’ve always had in the U.S. Shrug.