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All aboard San Francisco's startup bus craze

All aboard San Francisco's startup bus craze


'Introverts in the front, extroverts in the back.'

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Late Friday afternoon, I was sitting in the back of a Leap bus with CEO Kyle Kirchhoff when the bus manager, a young blond guy named Richard, approached, holding his smartphone like a menu. Kirchhoff had just shown me how riders can use the Leap app to buy snacks. He ordered himself a bottle of Happy Moose Juice, a San Francisco-based brand that sells organic libations in saturated primary colors. Blue Bottle coffee and Boxed Water are also available for purchase. "Sorry sir, we’re actually fresh out of that particular flavor of juice," Richard told Kirchhoff. "Would you prefer a different flavor?"

Kirchhoff had ordered Tropical Roots, but settled for Strawberry Fields. At $7, the cold-pressed beverage was more expensive than the bus ride, but not by much. Leap, which has raised $2.5 million in venture capital, charges $6 for a one-way ride. (MUNI charges $2.25.)

The startup’s fleet consists of five vehicles, all heavy-duty transit buses that have been retrofitted with reclaimed wood, bar stools, USB ports, and Wi-Fi. The result feels like the reception area of a mid-to-large tech company. The kind that makes you sign an NDA on an iPad before they’ll let you in.

Kirchhoff and his four co-founders beta tested Leap in 2013, but launched officially in San Francisco last Wednesday. Its inaugural route is a 25-minute trip from the Financial District and the edge of Soma to the Marina. The buses run during morning and evening rush hours. The app displays their location in real time as well as the number of seats available. To speed up the process, Leap does not pick up customers during the reverse commute. That afternoon, riders got on as we headed to the Marina, but we rode empty on the way back downtown, toward the cluster of tech offices. In New York terms, it was sort of like going from Union Square to Murray Hill, bougie to fratty and back.

Bougie to fratty and back

I had hopped on board at a Leap stop located just outside the company’s headquarters. It was after 5PM, and the temporary Transbay Terminal across the street was crawling with public buses operated by MUNI. Skyscrapers under construction loom over the terminal, including Salesforce Tower, which got its new name after billionaire CEO Marc Benioff signed a $560 million office lease. Benioff is an investor in Leap, along with Andreessen Horowitz and Tim Draper, the billionaire who wanted to split the state into six Californias.

Another billionaire is also into San Francisco buses these days. Twitter co-founder Evan Williams is an investor in Loup through Obvious Ventures. Loup's drivers have pick-up and drop-off spots, like a bus route, except passengers hail a ride through the app. Then there’s Chariot, which came out of Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s version of a farm team. Chariot calls itself a "vanpool service," adding new routes depending on crowdfunding from riders.

All three companies argue that privatization can fill gaps in the public transit system. MUNI buses are notoriously slow, unreliable, and over-crowded. At some point, you’ll end up next to an unhinged individual or human waste. All three of these stop-gap startups, however, target the same northeastern arc of the city, "solving" commuting for a limited set of commuters.

Kirchhoff insisted the Marina was just the beginning. Leap picked that route "mainly because there’s a high concentration of people who work downtown and a high concentration of smartphone users." It was ultimately designed to complement MUNI by "handling some of the overflow." He positioned the service as the "low- to mid-tier" option. "Obviously MUNI is very affordable and that’s great, but really the next jump up from that would be taking a taxi or Uber and at peak times," he said. (On my way to meet Kirchhoff, surge pricing for UberX was 1.9x.)

Reclaimed wood, abundant personal space, and white people

I asked how Leap compared to tech company shuttle buses, those traveling symbols of class divide. "Well, Google buses are private, and that’s a pretty big difference," said Kirchhoff. Leap wants to be "the best way to interface with mass transit" and "help mass transit infrastructure expand."

I looked around at the reclaimed wood, abundant personal space, and white people. Wasn’t this more for elites than the masses? "We wanted it to feel like a coffee shop," Kirchhoff replied. "I don’t walk into The Mill and think this is some super elite place. It’s just, like, well-considered, you know?"

If I’d been drinking a Moose Juice, I might have spit some out. It was like gentrification bingo. The Mill is infamous for selling $4 toast. Like the buses, the toast is a signifier of the tech industry’s impact on income inequality, an effect rather than a cause. "Oh. Yeah, I guess," Kirchhoff said when I pointed out the conventional toast wisdom. "I mean they’re people who make really good, high-quality things."

It was hard to tell if Kirchhoff was soft-spoken or guarded. He seemed like he wanted to geek out about the design elements or local, organic offerings, but knew how a fancy bus fixing public transit might sound.

Leap had certainly built a better quality product than MUNI. San Francisco is hella inconvenient, which is why founders are focused on these kind of hacks. But Leap wasn’t interfacing with anything. Avoiding the public seemed to be the appeal. That worries some residents. What if the most influential swaths of society simply hopped on a Leap bus instead of demanding better public transit? MUNI, which is wheelchair-enabled, serves a diverse cross-section of the city, including low-income riders and the elderly or disabled. If the transportation gap for Marina dwellers is now padded with a bunch of premium options, the problem could seem less urgent and widen the gap for the city’s neediest residents.

Leap wasn't interfacing with anything

That fear is a little reactionary, or at least premature. It’s not like venture capitalists were going to add MUNI to their portfolios. Leap has a better chance of failing by fall than affecting public policy. The more pressing dilemma is that Leap offers a very attractive work-around, but buying a ticket makes the city more stratified. Some version of this bus feels inevitable and, right now, there's a market for it.

Leap isn’t trying to help the people who depend on MUNI, and as a private company, it has no obligation to. The startup caters to a different crowd. The first passenger that got on during my Friday trip was a dude wearing a hoodie just like Kirchhoff, in a similar shade of Zuckerberg gray. At the 45 Fremont stop, two blonde women got on carrying checkered Louis Vuitton bags in different shades of brown. At the Union Bank stop, a third blonde got on wearing knee-high leather boots. The fourth blonde was more J.Crew casual in a striped dress and white sneakers. It felt like the black female bus driver and I were the only non-blondes on the bus.

The riders congregated by the laptop table, not the U-shaped section of leather seats. Kirchhoff described the arrangement as "introverts in the front and extroverts in the back." We were the only ones in the back.

If Uber’s purpose was to make customers feel like they had their "own private driver," then Leap’s mission appears to be democratizing the coddled tech worker experience. Between the three bus startups, Leap is the shmanciest. With just $6 dollars and a QR code you, too, can live your best amenity-filled life. Press a button to have Richard bring you a beverage or a breakfast burrito. To fully optimize your commute, just pull up a bar seat and plug in.

I asked a couple of native San Franciscans about the Leap bus. One didn’t see the harm, pointing to the city’s history of "traffic buster" jitneys, which helped get urban commuters to Caltrain stops. The jitneys were driven out of business in the late 1970s because of the strength of public transportation, including MUNI’s "Fast Pass." The other native called Leap’s spacious seating "the luxury of inefficiency," before backing down. "I am okay with it as long as it takes riders back to the Marina before night falls and they turn into fratwolves."

"Before night falls and they turn into fratwolves."

The fact that Leap lets you travel as though Google was footing the bill is both enticing and sort of gross. I would use Leap again; I would not want anyone to see me using Leap. Rather than acknowledge that aspiration, Kirchhoff made his mission sound even more beneficent. This is a good marketing trick and a bad habit. Marc Andreessen tried to apply it to the sharing economy recently. It’s the same way Evan Williams talks about Loup.

Getting cars off the road reduces congestion and "makes the city work better," Kirchhoff insisted. Future bus routes to neighborhoods like Potrero, Richmond, and Sunset will help San Francisco "expand and grow."

Leap’s other raison d’etre is more personal. Kirchhoff grew up in Boise and went to Santa Clara University. After graduating in 2007, he said, "I was sort of shocked by the lack of community that existed" and dismayed that he didn’t know his neighbors in the real world.

"Whenever I get on Caltrain, for example, there’s just a certain electricity in the air — that maybe I know someone that you know and kind of uncovering those hidden connections," Kirchoff said.

Leap’s business model creates a safe space for fraternizing with like-minded people, just like college or, say, a tech company campus. A shared appreciation for Blue Bottle Coffee makes a good social lubricant. As Kirchhoff put it: "You live around all these people, you obviously work around them since you’re coming from and going to the same place."

Leap - Your daily commute. Redesigned. from Leap on Vimeo.

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