The question I get most often is, “How did you decide to start Chariot?” It’s actually a pretty simple answer: When I moved to San Francisco from New York in 2010, I needed to quickly find an apartment. I found a sublet in the Marina neighborhood and moved in on the spot. What I didn’t realize was that my commute from the Marina to my office in SoMa would soon become a nightmare.
Never having owned a car, my only options were two bus lines: one that was consistently packed and another that took almost an hour to transit 3.5 miles. I started taking taxis to work–before Uber or Lyft became ubiquitous–but quickly realized that my budget couldn’t handle the twice-daily expense. Needless to say, I didn’t renew my lease and moved to the Mission neighborhood where I was able to ride my bike to work every day.
Three years later, I started wondering if things ever got better in my old stomping grounds. I went back to the Marina one morning and not only had the commute not gotten better, it actually became worse: Muni riders were getting passed up not once, but several times in a row by buses that wouldn’t stop because they were full. I kept seeing commuters walking west on Chestnut Street in the hopes they could get on the bus earlier in the route.
I saw one particularly distraught would-be bus rider (let’s call her Veronica) and asked why she didn’t take Uber or Lyft to save time. She already had the Uber app open on her phone, and without saying a word showed me the 2.5x surge premium she would have to pay. She estimated that would be $25 just to get to work. I spent some time talking to Veronica and others on the street and learned that this was their daily experience. That night, I went downtown to see if things were better for commuters on the way home. They weren’t. In fact, express buses ended at 6:15PM, again leaving commuters only expensive alternatives.
That was February 2014. Eight weeks later, I had designed our first route, hired several drivers, rented four vans, procured commercial-grade insurance, acquired a gasoline line of credit, found a parking lot, threw up a single-page website, recruited some young and hungry “ride managers” to sell tickets and answer questions about the service on the street, and launched the first version of Chariot. On April 22, 2014, we launched the Chestnut Bullet, using 15-passenger vans to take people between the Marina and FiDi, arriving every 9 minutes, and proving we could accomplish a 20-minute commute with ⅔ less stops in half the time as the comparable bus line. Chariot ride managers used Square devices on their iPhones to sell single rides, 12-ride packs, and monthly passes. I was alternating between driving one of the Chariots, helping to recruit more passengers, and learning what we could be doing better from our early adopters.
Then June 2, 2014, happened. I woke up at 5am to my phone blowing up with text alerts from SFMTA, warning riders that Muni drivers were calling in sick that morning and to expect massive delays citywide. My old route in the Marina wasn’t immune, and that day Chariot grew 300% by convincing previously reluctant commuters that we were going to get them to work and home on time, for less than $4 a ride. We never looked back.
Fast forward 18 months, and we’ve crowdsourced eight routes in San Francisco, providing over 11,000 rides a week at an average of $3.50 per ride. Our typical route is twice as fast as the bus and a fraction of the cost of ridesharing; we’re even ⅓ the cost of the new Pool and Line options when you factor that our customers can use their pre-tax commuter benefits on Chariot. It’s especially gratifying to see that Chariot is being used 20% of the time to perform a first or last mile commute: 1 in 5 riders use us to get to/from a BART or Caltrain station.
The future for Chariot is an exciting one. More future riders are crowdfunding new routes in the city, and we’re now inviting companies to anchor longer routes that will take us outside San Francisco. It’s been an amazing journey so far, and I can’t wait for you to see what more we have in store.