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Are Transportation Startups a Harbinger of Social Inequity or a Transit Solution?

As urban populations continue to grow, cities will need to increase services and infrastructure. Yet, municipal governments’ budgets are already strained, and time and again, infrastructure funding languishes in Congress. One solution is public-private partnerships, in which private firms are retained to design, build, and sometimes even manage public infrastructure.

So far, this model has been used more or less successfully for toll roads and bridges. But this model remains controversial. One of the main criticisms of public-private partnerships (or PPPs) is that the fee-based models that provide profits for private investors in infrastructure out price the public, who infrastructure is designed to serve. High-visibility cases include the Indiana Toll Road, a privately run highway which went bankrupt in 2014.

Public Transportation Startups

The public-private controversy is being played out on a smaller scale with a handful of new bus transportation options in San Francisco. Several innovative services have sprung up; the one that has most recently made the news is Leap, a luxury bus services that CNN Money describes as “a café crossed with a Virgin America plane.”

Leap buses cost $6, and run only one direction, from the wealthy Marina district to downtown. In contrast, public buses cost $2.25, and cover the entire city. Leap customers have access to WIFI, high-end drinks and food, and a range of seating options. In a article on The Verge, CEO and founder Kyle Kirchhoff explains that Leap is a “low to mid-tier” transportation alternative between public transit and Uber, and that he sees this service as complementary to the city’s MUNI buses.

A Harbinger of Social Inequity or a Transit Solution?

These buses could easily prove a target for protests concerned with growing inequity in San Francisco, such as those seen in 2013 against the private Google buses that provide transportation from downtown San Francisco to Silicon Valley for tech workers. Like the Google buses, Leap uses municipal bus stops (although they are limited to particular stops and times.) The co-opting of public goods by a private company was a main complaint in the 2013 Google bus protests, with protesters pointing out how Google was capitalizing on city infrastructure to serve only the wealthy tech workers.

Leap buses may be out of the price range and location of those who rely on San Francisco’s public transportation. (And furthermore, as local blog 48 Hills reports, Leap buses do not accommodate passengers in wheelchairs.) But the benefits may outweigh the classist overtones. Quoted in CNN Money, Susan Shaheen, co-director of UC Berkely’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center, points out that these private options have the potential to reduce traffic and lesson strain on overcrowded public bus lines.

 Bus/Ride-Share Hybrids

Other startup transportation services focus less on the experience, and more on efficiency. Chariot is another San Francisco based company, coming out of Y Combinator, that bills itself as a “vanpool service” and adds new routes depending on crowdfunding. Ride, spearheaded by former Uber employees, is an app designed to make carpooling easier by matching employees traveling along similar routes.

Although any kind of transportation that results in getting cars off the road is a net good for shortening commute time and reducing emissions, there is concern that privately funded transportation for high end consumers will ultimately harm public transit. By removing elite customers from public transportation, there is a risk that their political support will fail as well. As Lauren Smiley writes on Matter,

…if Leap and similar private alternatives cropping up succeed and attract even more private transit players to the market, the public bus risks becoming the municipal version of Greyhound: a place for transients and the poor who don’t have access to an iPhone, or a printer, or a QR code.

Broadening Public Transportation for All Sectors

Public transportation is an incredible amenity, but extremely expensive for cities to build and update; the streetcar in Washington, D.C., is one example of a public transit project awash in bureaucracy and cost overruns. One solution is to open up the market even further. A fully diverse spectrum of transportation can include brands like Leap, but opportunities may also exist to develop transportation options lower-income populations that are not being served.

For example, the Royal Bus Line is a private bus service in Atlanta, Georgia which operates in a diverse, immigrant-heavy neighborhood that is underserved by existing public transportation. Royal Bus Lines uses the existing bus stops of the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit System (MARTA) buses, but it is not affiliated with the city’s system. In addition to providing more frequent busses, the company charges less than MARTA, and ensures that all drivers are fluent in both English and Spanish.

Transit Startups Lead the Way

Opening up the public transportation realm to innovative new companies will ultimately provide needed transit infrastructure in cities without increasing the number of cars on the road. If disinvestment of public transportation is the worst case scenario, then the best case would be public services increasing their amenities to compete with private transit solutions. Start-ups like Leap are paving the way for improvement of public transportation for all users.

Emily Brown

Emily works in urban planning, helping cities to become more competitive. She was named as one of 40 under 40 economic developers, and has taken part in a successful Kickstarter…