SF Public Transit Largely Sucks, But You'll Pry My Ticket from my Cold Dead Staph-Hand

SF transit is an adventure in the smell of other humans and getting left behind at stations by half-empty buses for no apparent reason. To combat that, lots of innovators have launched alternative-transit apps -- and I kind of hate most of them.
Publish date:
March 20, 2013
san francisco, apps, public transit

As far as major metropolitan cities go, getting from one place to the other in San Francisco kind of sucks.

I mean, I'm definitely grateful that we have public transit, even though it gave me a staph infection one time. But since most of our transit systems shut down after midnight, getting home from a late-night hookup or a popular music event feels a bit like the Hero's Journey or something. A friend and I once hopped into a black shuttle that was lined entirely with fur on the inside rather than try to take Muni home from a bluegrass festival across town.

(The shuttle had runes written on the side. The people running it were actually really nice, for the record.)

I recently joked to someone that our faily transit system is trying to push me faster into a relationship with people in faraway neighborhoods, since I'm forced to either break my no-sleeping-over rule or brave the once-an-hour night bus that chugs all over the city.

And cabs are no better, really -- I myself have perfected the art of the two-lane drunken 20something taxi dash, but I recognize that not every San Franciscan has honed her skills in such a way. I've had many a friend from New York come to visit and bitch at me about how we just end up walking everywhere because I'm pretty sure catching a cab here after bars close requires a grimoire blood sacrifice. It's just that grim.

So it's no surprise that in a valley practically brimming with bright-eyed younguns panting after the Next Big Thing, our enterprising Startup Hounds have birthed several alternative-transportation services to deal with the inconvenience of dragging oneself around our fair city.

I go back and forth about these. On the one hand, I'm always in favor of increasing safe means of transport, especially to people in vulnerable populations or dangerous situations. On the other hand, a hell of a lot of them require both a smartphone and a lot of money to throw around -- implying, to me, that most of the people using the services are just uninterested in dealing with the unwashed masses (myself included) that fill the city's trains, which are available to basically anyone.

Maybe I'm a little sensitive about this because of the whole apartment situation breathing down my neck, but even in the two years since I've lived here, there's been an increasing sense of divide between the classes of San Francisco.

As far as I can understand it, the dirtiness and quirkiness that's pretty much epitomized by our weirdo transit system is an integral part of the city's culture, and to try to close oneself off from it is essentially to blockade oneself from the parts of SF that aren't quite so upper-middle-class. And frankly, that annoys me.

There's also the fact that as these services increase, it's becoming harder and harder for cab drivers in the city to make a living -- most of these services seem to recruit young, stylish, "hip" people to drive for them to make them, in turn, seem young and hip. Which, again, smacks of classism to me.

But I'll let you guys decide. In the interest of even-handed journalism, I've decided to round up a few of the more popular transportation apps. I'll try to be fair, but, uh. We'll see.


The Good: Um, basically everything? I'm cheating a little to start here, since it's not strictly an app so much as a highly organized texting tree, but that makes Homobiles even more appealing to me. It's a 24/7 donation-based queer car service that Lynn Breedlove started to keep gaymos safe from the streets and asshole cab drivers. Their drivers don't mind if you get glitter on the seats and/or are still wearing a bondage shirt made from electrical tape.

Homobiles is the best, and the reason why they haven't been slapped with an attempted $20,000 fine from the California Public Utilities Commission is because they're completely run by volunteers. And sometimes there are dogs in the car!

The Bad: Good luck getting to or from Pride, Folsom Street Fair, or El Rio on a Saturday using these guys. (I should add that, obviously, you don't have to be queer to ride with them. Just queer-friendly.)

The Ugly: Uh, one of the drivers played Bieber in the car last time I rode with them? But I'm pretty sure that was a one-time thing.


The Good: Lyft's motto is that they want to be "your friends with a car," so that you're supposedly not obligated to give your driver any money when they give your drunk ass a ride from the strip clubs in North Beach to your three-story in Noe Valley. (I mean, you do give them money, because you're not an asshole, but you allegedly don't have to.)

It's not much more egregiously expensive than a cab, and most of the drivers are youngish people hoping to earn some cash on the side. It touts itself as the safe alternative to shivering on the corner hoping the cab you called actually shows, which, yes, I can attest to that being the most tragic of heartbreaks.

The Bad: Because Lyft is run out of a cadre of privately owned cars, it's often not any more reliable than an actual cab. I've actually only successfully used it once, and while my driver was great and perfectly friendly, it wasn't worth the half hour of grumpily hitting "Request" on my phone while -- you guessed it -- standing on a corner in the Richmond District. And it's GPS-operated, which will totally drain your battery life if you're a dumbfuck like me.

The Ugly: All their cars have those Urban Outfitters car-moustaches on them. Ugh, Lyft, you're too twee to function.


The Good: Works just like a Zipcar, except you're renting a battery-powered scooter for the day! Which, by the way, is fucking terrifying. I don't have the greatest history with two-wheeled vehicles, so white-knuckling down Mission Street isn't my number-one idea of fun. But once I got used to it, the novelty of having a scooter at my disposal was pretty awesome. Plus, they have a handful of garages in the city, so you can ride from one to the other and just drop it off for the night.

The Bad: Pretty freaking expensive if you're like me and need to run anxiety-laps before even getting on one. The service costs $10 to sign up and is $5 per hour per ride, unless it's the weekend, at which point the price soars to Too High for Kates, Nice Try, Startup (I think it's $20 to take one out for the night or something). Unless you're going on a journey to the Sunset, probably easier and cheaper just to walk. (And less likely to send you to an early grave.)

The Ugly: Bright red scooters with SCOOT emblazoned all over them. Also, instead of an ignition key they require you to plug in your smartphone to start the scooter, which I'm sure William Gibson would love but makes me feel kind of gross.


The Good: I guess if you're the kind of person that requires a $40 black car ride from your house to your bro's house in the Peninsula, Uber is more convenient than calling a cab. Sometimes they'll even call a cab for you! Also, I hear tell that they have alcohol in their console coolers for the really special customers and the drivers sing along to the radio with you. Not making that up.

The Bad: $4 a mile. Four. Dollars. A. Mile, which is nearly double the rate of a city cab, plus a $7 base fare. Seriously, what the fuck is so terrifying about riding in a car that isn't sleek and sexy? You have to interact with other humans at some point! (PS, if you live in New York City, good luck getting Uber to come to get you in the Bronx or most of Brooklyn.)

The Ugly: Someone I know complained to me recently that the champagne she got from her Uber driver was flat. I then actively fantasized about smacking this person in the face with a wet gym sock.

So what do you guys think? If you live in a city, have you used these services or ones like them? Am I overreacting, or are some of these as obnoxious as I think they are? If anyone needs me, I'm probably be slowly trudging somewhere.

Kate is grumping on Twitter: @katchatters