Inside The Bubble Bus
Taking a ride on San Francisco’s latest private alternative to public transport.
By Lauren Smiley
By the time the very, very blue Leap bus rolled towards me during its evening commute, the press was already mocking it, and all who stepped aboard.
“San Francisco Gets the Ridiculous Luxury Bus It Deserves,” sniped The Atlantic, with a frame-by-frame breakdown of Leap’s promo video featuring rich hipsters inside a coach that not only could pass as a Wi-Fi café, but is one (Blue Bottle coffee and coconut water available for in-app purchase).
But Leap applauders were piping up, too. Tech can solve government’s ills, they cheered. Can we get a version in New York or Paris? One Twitter employee summed it up.
I could see why she was so stoked. Leap looks and feels like the Twitter office on wheels, right down to the animal logo, the finished wooden planks adorning the back wall, and the soft mood lighting. It’s a common visual shorthand, repeated in just about every coffee shop, artisanal bar, and co-working space popping up to satisfy the city’s ascendant tech class.
Tech workers have ridden private commuter shuttles from San Francisco to Silicon Valley campuses for years. But now, with Leap, white-collar workers have a bus that can do the same for them inside the city itself. A oneway ride — Leap Transit currently runs just one route, from the frat row of the Marina to the financial district, no other stops between— costs $6, although commuter benefits can bring that down to $4. The local bus, known as Muni, costs $2.25 for adults; the price is an even more affordable 75 cents for kids, seniors, and disabled (wheelchairs can’t ride Leap yet, but the company claims it will build out that feature as it expands).
As the bus stopped in front of me during its evening commute Wednesday, its first day of service, I stepped aboard and showed the app’s QR code to a tablet sitting at the front of the vehicle. Leap doesn’t accept cash — riders need to use a smartphone or bring a printout. But none of this was a problem for the handful of riders aboard, who looked more or less like the crowd in the promo video: preppy financial district workers, staring at their smartphones, no one looking a day over 40.
Two Leap employees in company tees (one designated a “customer experience manager”) welcomed riders. As we blazed down the road at a pace Muni could never match given its multiple stops, he checked in on our comfort: Were we happy with the onboard temperature? Did we want the windows closed?
A friendly commuter next to me in a Burberry scarf and khaki trench told me she usually takes the same bus line that this Leap route mirrors. Usually, the bus is pretty crowded at this hour, and she welcomes the privately run alternative.
“I’m happy to see businesses thrive and meet consumer demand. That’s what the US is about. The [Muni fare] price is always on the rise, but I don’t see many benefits. You’re not seeing shorter lines or cleaner buses.”
Here, the handful of early adopters had plenty of legroom. The interior is cleaned after each run by the staffers wielding a wet wipe. Just as intriguing as the luxe offerings was the marked absence of Muni mainstays. No fights to go viral on YouTube. No line chefs comparing the wages at different touristy restaurants. No homeless guy with an animal bone plastic-wrapped to his forehead who once told me “Just call me T-Bone.”
Leap makes the potential for a hermetically-sealed parallel city for San Francisco yuppies nearly complete. Other than the short trots on the sidewalks that still haven’t been disrupted by a venture-backed alternative, office workers can go nearly an entire day without touching public space. They can navigate a world never having to be around with anyone who doesn’t look like them, or dealing with the grime and the annoyances and the poopy stench that used to go with living in a city.
There’s no doubt sometimes public space sucks. Muni has capacity issues, particularly on the route Leap services (“That’s one of the reasons we’re expanding and replacing our fleet,” says a Muni spokesman). And in the eight years I’ve been riding these buses, I’ve had an iPhone pick-pocketed by a 300-pound guy, jacked off at by a young stoner, and had to change seats because of that poopy stench more often than I’d like.
But these things happen because a public bus has to serve everyone who pays the $2.25 fare (and many who slink aboard for free). An iPhone isn’t a target for pickpockets when everyone riding has one: On Leap, it’s simply your ticket aboard. Creating a private alternative to disrupt public transit is not so much the equivalent of Uber — which steals away cab customers, who were already people with means anyways; it’s more like private school. By culling out the wealthy clients to a slicker, faster, private alternative, the public option loses political will and a population with a collective stake in the system. Leap’s founder has said the bus is to complement overburdened transit, not replace it — and for now, it’s just four buses looping to the Marina. But, in the worst case scenario, if Leap and similar private alternatives cropping up succeed and attract even more private transit players to the market, the public bus risks becoming the municipal version of Greyhound: a place for transients and the poor who don’t have access to an iPhone, or a printer, or a QR code.
Blazing down the road atop one of Leap’s padded bar stools, I could see how Leap could be totally addictive. It’s a sweet ride. Muni’s annoyances were no longer my problem. I looked to the back of the bus, and there was no creepster jacking off — just dudes in button-downs reading their smartphones with ear buds in. There were no wheelchairs to slow down the loading process. No disheveled guy with a parrot poking out from under his jacket. No T-Bone. No kids (you have to be at least 18 to ride). But riding Leap doesn’t mean those people have gone away: just that $6 is the price for not having to see them.