The demise of the private techie bus is a reminder that nothing will replace core transit systems.
If you blinked, you might have missed the Leap Transit era. The ridiculous luxury bus marketed toward San Francisco techies launched in 2013, quickly declared itself the death of traditional public transportation, hibernated through 2014 as it realized there are rules to a city, reopened to great fanfare in spring 2015, and filed for bankruptcy by summer. This month it auctioned off its remaining fleet—bringing in more from those sales than it made during service.
No need to shed any tears. In a post-mortem of Leap’s disruptus interruptus, Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times reminds us that the company denigrated San Francisco’s Muni transit service despite wanting (and ultimately being denied) access to its bus stops, reportedly removed wheelchair access for “plush leather armchairs,” and generally flew too far on the obnoxious wings of its organic juice options. Here’s Manjoo’s final take:
Leap, in retrospect, was a bold idea that might have had legs. Muni, San Francisco’s public bus system, is overloaded and underfunded, and the success of ride-hailing apps like Uber suggests a public willingness to try new tech-enabled options. But in its design and marketing — in its full-frontal embrace of the easily pilloried paleo-snack-bar techie lifestyle — Leap exuded a kind of bourgeoisie exceptionalism that fed into the city’s fears of gentrification and won it few fans. As I stood inside the abandoned buses, it became obvious why the start-up failed: Leap was created by and for tech bros. It was born inside the bubble, and it could never escape.
Manjoo is right that Leap was tone-deaf to its time and place, but that was only part of the problem. Sure, Muni is underfunded and often packed. It’s also a highly useful system that offers great access to a big city at low prices, with efforts underway to make that service even better. So Leap didn’t just target riders who don't necessarily want to take the bus—it didn’t necessarily offer a better bus. San Francisco’s willingness to embrace Uber, meanwhile, should be seen less as a sign that any tech-enabled transit will succeed and more that the city’s traditional taxi operation was the sort of mess Muni is not.
The start-up mindset is especially problematic for private transit ventures because there’s no way to make loads of money charging bus prices for taxi services—at least, not the type of profit that conjures Justin Timberlake’s line in The Social Network that a million dollars isn’t cool, but a billion is. There’s a reason taxis cost a lot more than buses: they provide a personal chauffeur who follows a customized route. And there’s a reason it takes public funding to keep transit systems afloat. A taxi ride at a bus price won’t pencil out unless you find a revolutionary way to connect riders and rides or artificially undercut your own prices to boost volume—and even Uber, which has done both these things better than anyone, is considered by transportation experts to be severely overvalued.
That’s not to say private transit has no role in U.S. cities. In the right situation these options can connect riders to core bus or rail routes, generate more revenue and riders for traditional transit providers, and nudge agencies to augment their fixed-route service with more flexible components. Alon Levy summarized that relationship very well in a recent post at his Pedestrian Observations blog that’s worth a full read:
Taxis are a niche; so are buses that can be run privately, to the CBD or to the public subway network. The core of transit ridership, in the cities where public transit usage is high, consists of a mesh of buses and rapid transit that cannot be grown spontaneously by the private sector. If the government can’t provide this, the city will be auto-oriented. Good transit advocates have to then work to make sure the government is more competent and can build this network, rather than hope successful private ventures will save them; there is no alternative.
At the end of the day, private transit services must be prepared to work with, not against, a strong public system. That, or be prepared to fail.