SAN FRANCISCO — This city is home to a plethora of startups vying to disrupt all manner of ordinary daily functions. And that’s how I found myself boarding a bright blue bus, smartphone in hand, one night last week.
The bus was operated by a company called Leap that has raised $2.5 million from investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Index Ventures and Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. It’s far from the first company to offer an alternative transit service in San Francisco, but it’s one of the most noticeable.
Its massive cyan buses, with their luxury interiors, are immediately noticeable when you see them on the street — a marked difference from some of the shuttle buses for large tech companies, which often forgo any sort of branding in favor of a stark white, unidentifiable exterior.
I got on board at a stop directly across from the Charles Schwab building that’s kitty-corner from the temporary Transbay Terminal bus station. It was an odd juxtaposition, standing by a small, blue post that identified the corner as a Leap stop, watching people get on and off public buses across the street.
Actually stepping onto the bus was a bit like walking into a rolling Apple Store. There’s a long, wood counter running across one side of the bus with leather stools facing the windows, and the attendant (clad in a Leap logo t-shirt, of course) stood behind her own wood counter, right next to the bus’s fully stocked refrigerator. The rest of the bus is filled with leather seats in a variety of configurations, including a raised area in the back with benches, and a handful of rows of armchair-esque seats along the bus’s right side.
Rides cost $6 each way on Leap’s only route – an express between the Marina and the Financial District. People who buy passes in packs of 20 can get them for $5 each, and using tax-free commuter benefits can reduce that price to $4 apiece. One way or another, it’s still far more expensive than San Francisco’s Muni buses, which cost $2.25 a trip, with an allowance for transfers.
One of the things I noticed on the journey is how sterile Leap’s buses feel when they aren’t reasonably full. The clean lines of the seats and the wood counters are vastly more luxurious than Muni’s grimy plastic seats (complete with small holes in the middle to promote drainage), but they don’t feel nearly so lived in.
Overall, my ride was quiet. Even at peak ridership, the bus only had 6 people on it, and everyone seemed actively disinterested in interacting with other people. That’s par for the course for public transit, but the bus’s design and relative emptiness made it feel like a library. I hardly wanted to move for fear of disturbing my fellow riders, even though they all took advantage of the spacious bus to give me a wide berth.
When I ordered a snack from the bus’s snack bar ($2.50 for a tube of vanilla pomegranate cashews), I felt rather sheepish when the bus attendant brought it over to me. After all, I was sitting about five feet away from her. None of my fellow riders took advantage of the snack bar, which is hardly surprising, considering that the cashews were among the cheapest things on the menu. It also includes two different kinds of $4.50 iced coffee, and $7 gourmet juices.
Leap buses don’t run on any sort of a schedule. The company says they’ll come by about every 10 or 15 minutes, and allows users to track them on the Leap smartphone app to see where the next ride is. Leap clearly isn’t trying to differentiate itself from public buses by being more timely, and it’s instead leaning on features like reliable smartphone bus tracking and luxury food to differentiate itself.
My Leap ride came to a close outside a motel in the Marina, but my commute wasn’t over. I still had another Muni ride to go before I’d actually make it home. Lucky for me, my bus was late, so I was able to make a quick transfer from Leap to San Francisco’s public transit. I tagged my Clipper card (SF’s version of ORCA) on the bus’s reader as usual, spent less than what I had paid for the cashews, and grabbed a seat a few rows away from the older man who spent his time waiting at the bus stop ranting to nobody in particular.
It wasn’t pretty, but this was the Muni that I knew – a little bit grimy, rarely on a perfect schedule, but ultimately home to thousands of rides every day.
Will buses like Leap come to Seattle any time soon? It’s hard to say. Leap hasn’t even announced plans to expand beyond a single route in San Francisco, though the company is evaluating its options for growth. But if anything does happen outside the city by the bay, it seems like it will take a while.
One of the major reasons why alternate transit providers like Leap and Uber succeed in San Francisco is that our infrastructure for getting around is free of frills, for the most part. None of the city’s public transit is equipped with Wi-Fi (unlike Seattle’s RapidRide buses), and San Francisco’s buses are less clean than their Seattle counterparts in my experience.