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A Chariot van is seen in New York, which is the latest city to be added to the San Francisco-founded, app-based commuter service’s operations.

App-based commuter shuttle in San Francisco offers a transportation alternative, but it's still too early to tell whether microtransit service can complement public transit or be a direct competitor

It's after work on a Friday night, and Clément Garnier is awaiting his Chariot.

"There was a baseball game and it was all gridlocked in SoMa, where all the startups are," said Garnier, 26, a software engineer who works in San Francisco's South of Market district. "There's no easy transit home and I can't do Uber or Lyft, because with the surging for the game, it's way too expensive – so it was Chariot or nothing."

Chariot is an app-based, rush-hour commuter shuttle service founded in San Francisco in 2014 and owned by Ford since last year.

Chariot calls it microtransit – think of a cross between Uber, traditional transit with fixed stops and an airport shuttle van.

Users choose an available Chariot on the app and wait at the nearest stop for the driver – a Chariot employee – to pick them up in a 14-passenger Ford van. Routes vary, but generally, they head into the core in the morning and away from it in the evening.

"We invite the public to tell us where they commute from and commute to and once there's a critical mass, Chariot launches a twice-daily service during a.m. and p.m. rush hours to provide a fast, reliable, accessible and comfortable commuting experience," said Ali Vahabzadeh, Chariot chief executive and founder.

Expanding to Toronto?

There have been other microtransit startups that failed, such as Boston-based Bridj and San Francisco's Leap, a luxury bus that offered organic, non-GMO snacks. Since Chariot was bought by Ford Smart Mobility in 2016 for a reported $65-million (U.S.), it has expanded to Austin, Tex., Seattle and, most recently, New York.

The next stop? Possibly Toronto – earlier this year, the company reportedly placed job advertisements for staff in Toronto and London. But Vahabzadeh said there are no "immediate plans" to move to T.O.

"I've spent time in Toronto; we think Toronto would be a fantastic market for Chariot," Vahabzadeh said. "Toronto reminds me a lot of San Francisco in that it's a fast-growing city where transit and housing shortages have become front-page news on a weekly basis."

The Toronto Transit Commission wouldn't say whether it had been in talks with Chariot, but it did say, in an e-mail, 1that it was "studying microtransit and its impacts." There's no date on when a report might be released.

Toronto's previous stab at microtransit was UberHOP, which quietly ended in 2016 after a seven-month pilot taking users to the financial district from CityPlace, the Distillery District, Liberty Village and Fort York.

Why take microtransit?

Chariot wouldn't say how many users it has (Vahabzadeh said "thousands"), but it said it has 300 vans on both public routes – which anybody with a Chariot account can use – and on enterprise routes used by companies solely for their employees.

Because the routes are crowdsourced – they're generally fixed routes, but they're based on requests from users – Chariot can add extra supply along popular routes and fill in deserts where there's no public transit.

"I moved to San Francisco three years ago and realized that even though it's a fairly small city, it takes a lot of time to get from point A to point B," said Garnier, who has lived in Paris and Montreal. "There's a reason why San Francisco is the birthplace of Uber, Lyft, Chariot and a bunch of transportation startups – it's because the other options here are really, really terrible."

Garnier takes public transit to get to work in SoMa ("It's more a pain to get out of than it is to get into"). It costs $2.50 and takes him between 45 minutes and an hour.

But at night, he had to walk a half-hour to catch the bus, which then took an hour to get to his house. So he takes Chariot, which charges $3.80 during peak hours and $5 outside them.

"I used to take Chariot to work, but I realized that it's not reliable enough to get to work on time – in the morning, the ETA would be off by five, 10, 15 minutes, which can be really frustrating in the morning when you have a meeting," Garnier said. "So I take it to get home, when it really doesn't matter if I don't leave right on time."

For instance, on the Friday night when he was trying to get home during the game, Garnier ended up waiting 50 minutes because Chariot's system was down.

"Still, I basically have a Chariot stop that's a block away from my office and a block away from my home and it takes me straight there," he said. "That's Chariot's big strength."

Because the routes are crowdsourced, Chariot can add extra supply along popular routes and fill in deserts where there's no public transit.

Potential hurdles

San Francisco has proposed new regulations for Chariot and future private bus services after complaints of Chariot vans stopping to pick up passengers in bike lanes, active travel lanes and crosswalks.

"We take any safety reports very seriously and will immediately investigate and take corrective action if something is brought to our attention," a Chariot spokesperson said in an e-mail.

And some wonder whether services such as Chariot could replace cheaper public transit entirely on some routes. That could shut out users who don't have a smartphone or can't afford the more expensive fare.

"Microtransit is likely both complementing and competing with public transit. We do not have studies that document the net effect yet," said Prof. Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. "The technology facilitating microtransit use could possibly be leaving some demographic groups behind."

It's not necessarily a choice between traditional transit or microtransit for all Chariot users – some need both to get where they're going. About 20 per cent of Chariot's riders combine it with public transit, Vahabzadeh said.

"It provides that first- and last-mile ability for people to get from their home or offices to transit hubs like the train station, bus terminal or ferry terminal," Vahabzadeh said.

Barriers to expansion

Right now, Chariot doesn't have permission to travel between counties in the San Francisco Bay Area – and that limits potential routes.

Chariot could face similar barriers if it expands to Toronto, said Sasha Sud, senior program manager of transportation and energy at Toronto's MaRS Discovery District.

"I did meet with their CEO and Ford and one of the challenges they face is how the system is organized," Sud said. "In the GTA, there are 30-plus municipalities and each one decides what the rules are for service providers and what kind of monopolies transit providers have."

Despite the regulatory hurdles, Sud thinks microtransit is one part of the way – possibly in partnership with local transit, ride-sharing and even bike-sharing – to ease congestion, cut commute times and reduce pollution by getting more people in fewer vehicles.

"People need to see an advantage in leaving their cars at home and using a shared vehicle," Sud said.

It's an option that might work in many Canadian cities – including sprawling areas such as Edmonton and Calgary – but there needs to be studies and pilot projects, Sud said. He points to Toronto Pearson International Airport, which has 300,000 employees going in and out every day. It's the second-largest employment zone in Canada, after downtown Toronto.

"Ninety per cent of them are using single-occupancy vehicles and getting stuck on the same road – so employers can't keep employees because getting there is such a waste of time," Sud said. "Public transit is needed, but to build it, it will take 10 years – so if we can get microtransit in now, we can help fill that gap until then."

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

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