How Microtransit Can Help Solve the ‘Summer of Hell’

by Ali Vahabzadeh, Founder & CEO, @Chariot

As a native New Yorker living in Manhattan, then London, for the early part of my career, public transit has not only been a means of commuting, but a way of life. I’ve never owned a car, so I rely on transit every day, every time I leave the house. Coming from the Upper West Side, I took the B, C to my job in Midtown, or the 1, 2, 3 from Broadway to get downtown to meet friends. The M96 bus allowed me to get from river to river with ease. However, when I relocated to San Francisco in 2010, it was evident to me New Yorkers enjoy a public transit luxury few in the country experience.

In 2014, I founded Chariot to solve my own transit challenges and those of other commuters — people unable to board overpacked buses, or who can’t afford a $20 ride-share downtown at 8 a.m., or who live in a far-flung neighborhood like Outer Richmond. Today, Chariot is a microtransit service — operated by employee drivers — that is safe, accessible and reliable for everyday commuters. Using home and work addresses provided by our riders, Chariot maps out service areas and stops determined by demand, then picks up and drops off commuters using our 14-passenger Ford Transit vans — Chariots — twice a day. Our vision is to create the world’s most valuable transit experience by providing a journey that is for the passenger, by the passenger. That’s why today we’re excited to share news we’re bringing Chariot’s service to New York this August.

Mass transit is only as good as its accessibility. Communities in New York can be characterized as either transit-rich or transit deserts — places without easily walkable access to trains, buses or ferries. When I lived in New York, I learned residents and commuters on the Lower East Side, the Far West Side, large swaths of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx often resorted to driving alone in cars, hailing expensive cabs, or cobbling together inefficient and lengthy trips with multiple transfers. The numbers bear this out: While 94 percent of residential units in Manhattan are within half a mile of a subway stop, only 54 percent of units in Queens are, according to research by New York University’s Furman Center.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that real estate is more expensive the closer you get to a transit hub, so lower-income residents are often faced with the least number of transit options and the most expensive and lengthy commutes. This patchwork of access leaves our most vulnerable neighbors without reliable, accessible transportation they need to get to work and back home. Always running late due to delays, plus trying to manage the cost of car ownership has a material effect on people’s household incomes. Imagine if an alternative and affordable transit system could be deployed overnight in areas where residents need it most.

Enter Chariot in New York. Beginning today, we invite residents from the South Bronx to Far Rockaway, the LES, 11th Avenue and Staten Island — anywhere in the city — to let us know where they want Chariot’s service to launch. It’s as easy as providing your commute “from” and “to” addresses, whether you are taking Chariot to your office or to the nearest transit hub. This acts as a virtual vote for your commute, and when 50 of your neighbors help you crowd-fund the service area, we’ll launch our twice-daily service with 10- to 15-minute frequencies. Trips are priced at $4 per ride, and that price decreases further with a monthly pass or by using pretax commuter benefits, such as WageWorks. As ridership grows, we put more Chariots on the road — reducing wait times and increasing the frequency. In fact, in some service areas in San Francisco, Chariots arrive every three to four minutes at peak travel times!

My hope is that what the team at Chariot can accomplish — in New York and elsewhere — is a unique combination of providing a critical service at just the right time, and increasing the mass transit pie, not redistributing the slices. What public transit needs now is innovation and augmentation, not replacement. With our vision of perfecting the journey and working to enhance the massive infrastructure cities like New York have already invested in, Chariot and public transit can reach a level of equity and accessibility second to none.