Chariot prompts fresh look at ‘jitney’ rules

Most San Francisco “jitney” private bus services have been gone from city streets for decades, but transit officials are not taking any chances with tech companies that might want to enter the private bus service industry.

One company on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s radar is San Francisco-based Chariot, owned by Ford. Chariot shuttles riders in 14-passenger vehicle from neighborhoods that include the Richmond District, the Marina and the Haight-Ashbury to downtown. The company has been around since 2014.

Kate Toran, SFMTA director of taxis and accessible services, said last Friday at the SFMTA Policy and Governance Committee, that the transit agency is working on regulations that would require companies like Chariot, to apply for a permit with the SFMTA.

The jitney bus service regulations were regulated under the San Francisco Police Department, but is now under the SFMTA under the term “non-standard vehicle.” Officials are seeking to rebuild out that portion of the transportation code with new regulations.

Toran said staff will build out that section of the regulations under the context of principles that the transit agency is still developing. Those principles include safety, transit, equity, disabled access, sustainability, congestion, data transparency, labor and customers and financial impact:

“We’re using them now as a general frame so as we are moving to develop and building out this section, we’re going through our nine principles.”

Alex Jonlin, a data analyst with the SFMTA, said the there were concerns about the Chariot vehicles from the public in regards to safety, impacts to Muni, complaints from neighbors and accessibility.

Transit officials are hoping the proposed regulations would help address some of those concerns.

Under the proposed regulations, which are still the early stages, the SFMTA would review all routes and stops, establishing fees and administrative penalties and the permit conditions under which the companies must follow.

Those proposed conditions include restricting private transit vehicles on weight- and capacity-restricted streets, no traveling on transit-only lanes, allowing vehicles stop at white and yellow loading zones, and sharing data with the SFMTA to make sure companies are following the rules.

Other conditions would require vehicles to not be more than 25 feet long, vehicles must meet emission standards and requiring  drivers watch a safety video of driving a large vehicle in an urban city.

Cheryl Brinkman, chair of the SFMTA Board of Directors, said she supported the path the transit agency is heading in proposing regulations for private transit vehicles especially to help them find better routes to use:

“I’m very concerned when I see them using the red transit lanes, when I see them violating the no right turn onto Market Street.”

Brinkman added:

“If this gives us the ability to work with the companies to help them figure out a route that doesn’t require violating those restrictions that are there for safety and for efficiency then I think that would be a fabulous thing.”

Ali Vahabzadeh, co-founder and CEO of Chariot, attended the Friday meeting, said the public can email the company or call the company’s toll-free number to make file complaints with the company.  Both the email and toll-free number are on the company’s website:

“For us, being an outstanding citizen and contributor to the community is first and foremost our priority.”

Vahabzadeh also said the company takes driver training seriously. He said Chariot drivers spend five to 10 to days of training and following California commercial driver license guidelines.

SFMTA board Director Joél Ramos asked Vahabzadeh how the company is taking steps to train drivers on some of The City’s street restrictions such as on Market Street and having drivers avoid driving in red transit-only lanes.

Vahabzadeh said Chariot has a training department to make sure drivers are familiar with the traffic laws and restrictions such as on Market Street. He also said the company has been very responsive to the SFMTA in regards to issues that the transit agency has sent to the company.

Chariot is committed to working with the SFMTA, said Vahabzadeh:

“Whatever issues there are, we ought to talk about them … and go down the path together.”