Red and Ted Talk Private Transit in San Francisco

TED: Hey Red, sorry I’m late. Traffic was bad and Muni was lagging, as usual. While I was waiting I saw like three Chariots go by. I think I might sign up, at least they seem like they have their act together.

RED: Chariot? As in… horses and Romans and giant wheels?

TED: Hah! No, Chariot as in those teal-colored shuttle vans that suddenly seem like they’re always double-parked all over the place. It’s sorta like Muni and Lyft combined into one. Seems like it’s more expensive than Muni, but looks way more comfortable.

RED: Ooooh, right! Okay, I have seen those around town. And yeah, I hear you that Muni isn’t always the most reliable, but, I’m super wary of a service like Chariot. First, street traffic affects their shuttles too, it’s not like we’re teleporting from A to B. And second, it’s a for-profit transit company, and that’s a dangerous thing to introduce into the transit mix.

TED: What’s wrong with making a profit? If Chariot has to make a profit, doesn’t that mean that they have to do a better job than Muni to survive? Which means they’d offer a better service that people would actually LIKE? Nobody likes Muni these days.

RED: That’s the profit thesis in a nutshell, but I always see a couple problems with that logic. Public services exist to serve everyone, regardless of whether the service makes money. Private services exist only to make money, so that governs all their decisions. For a transit company, things like the routes they offer will be dictated by whether or not that route makes money, not whether or not it takes people where they need to go.

TED: Well yeah, but isn’t that fair? Does it make sense to have routes that nobody rides? Won’t Muni be there for those people anyway?

RED: It depends on what you think the purpose of transit is. It’s not like Muni has a ton of routes with no riders, it’s more that the number of riders necessary for *profitability* is so high that many Muni routes don’t reach it. People rely on Muni and public transit for all sorts of activities: to go to school, to see friends, to take kids to soccer practice, to visit the doctor. If you start using profitability as the measuring stick to determine who can get a ride to the doctor, that’s going to leave a lot of people shit outta luck!

TED: I see your point, but couldn’t they just take Lyft on those rare occasions? Or a taxi?

RED: That’s not really a good replacement. Ride-sharing services and taxis are a lot more expensive than Muni, and for Lyft you need a smartphone. Lots of people still don’t have those, like my grandma! And speaking of expensive, you said Chariot was pretty spendy, how much is it?

TED: I don’t remember exactly, but yeah, a monthly pass on Chariot costs a lot more than Muni.

RED: Right! And is it a start-up?

TED: Oh yeah, definitely a start up.

RED: Well, then it’s likely that right now the company is being funded with venture capital money, which means their costs are potentially subsidized for now. So the price could conceivably go up after a while! And imagine what happens if Muni goes away and Chariot has a monopoly? There’s no limit to how expensive it can get. Right now, Muni offers a bunch of options for low-income people, students, and seniors. For the very poorest, Muni is free entirely. What motivation is there —

TED: Wait, what? People are riding for free?

RED: Yeah! People who qualify get a free Muni pass. I doubt Chariot is doing anything like that.

TED: OK, OK, probably not. Sorry for interrupting, please continue! Profit is bad because…

RED: I’m not trying to get philosophical about the morality of profit, I just think that some social needs shouldn’t be subject to the profit motive. Muni drivers are decently paid, and they have union protection. Do you think that Chariot drivers will get the same job security and benefits? What kinds of corners might get cut down the road? We already mentioned how expensive it might get if they become a monopoly. AND that doesn’t even get into the issue of who they can deny service to. These public-private partnerships may be good for the private side of the deal, but almost always wind up being a bad deal for the public.

TED: So if these kinds of private services are such a bad deal, why do we have so many of them?

RED: One reason we have so many of these is because of a little thing called neoliberalism, but we’ll save that for another time! For now, let’s just say that it boils down to money. Taxes produce a lot of public spending power, and that’s an attractive target for privatization. Corporations come in with the promise of offering a better deal and saving money, but it’s a sham. They just reduce the quality of service, pay workers less, and skim profits off the top. In the end all that happens is these companies get a lot of taxpayer money and we get crummier services.

TED: I can always count on you to improve my mood, Red. Maybe sometime we can talk about something that’s not political!

RED: Hah! That’s impossible, my friend. EVERYTHING is political.