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Transportation startup aims to improve transit across the Bay, once it's allowed to start
At about 1:30am, after a night out with friends, Kyle Nichols-Schmolze is waiting for the AC Transit 800 bus near Market and Van Ness in San Francisco’s Civic Center.
“[The bus has] one very obvious purpose,” Nichols-Schmolze explains, “which is that it crosses the bridge after BART. To my knowledge it’s the only option that does that.”
He’s right. The 800 line is the only public transit option after BART stops running around midnight. It has two San Francisco pick-ups, both on Market Street – but Nichols-Schmolze isn’t wild about these choices.
“I never hang out here,” he says.
The 800 line picks up every hour on weekdays and every half-hour on weekends, between one and five in the morning. A ride costs about $4. If you don’t want to wait, you can pay around $50 for a cab or about $25 for a car service like Lyft.
Oakland residents Alex Kaufman and Seth Capron weren’t satisfied with these options. About nine months ago, Capron says, “We were talking about it, and we thought, ‘Oh wow. This is a real problem. I wonder if we can do anything about it.'”
Their solution: Night School
Capron has a background in environmental studies, urban transportation, and education. Perhaps that’s why school buses came up when he and Kaufman were thinking of ways to get a lot of people back and forth across the Bay Bridge.
“School buses seemed like a great fit because there’s so many of them out there and they’re not used at nighttime,” Capron explains.
They thought they could put those buses to work. They saw it as a win-win-win.
“We’ve got the buses that no one uses. We’ve got the people who need rides and can get them on the buses. And we’ve got the school systems who are struggling with budget cuts – and this is going to put money back into the school system,” says Capron.
They came up with the name Night School. Capron’s partner, Alex Kaufman, says there was immediate interest.
“As soon as we'd mention the idea to somebody, the main response was: ‘When do you start?!’” says Kaufman.
Then they got serious. Kaufman, who used to be an economics researcher, started looking into the logistics. He looked up census data to find out where people lived and where demand for the service might be. He also priced buses. Along the way, he found out that most school districts don’t actually own their own buses; they charter them from private companies.
“The bus providers were excited about it,” says Capron. “They said: ‘We have these buses and they’re not used then. We could work something out.’”
Capron and Kaufman made a deal to rent the school buses from a transportation company and hire the same drivers that operate them during the day. Then they got down to the details.
They built an app to handle fares and schedules. A single ride would cost $8, or you could get unlimited rides for about $20 per month. They’d start with pickups every 25 minutes but planned to increase service and stop locations with demand.
They still wanted the win-win-win, so they decided to give five percent of the proceeds to an Oakland education non-profit called GoPublic. And they picked their first two stops, 18th and Valencia in the Mission and 17th and Broadway in downtown Oakland, because they're popular nightlife destinations in both cities.
Capron says it's not just a bus for partiers.
“People who are out partying might use this once in a while,” he says, “[but] people who have a job that consistently gets them off work after the BART shuts down are going to use this every Friday and Saturday night, because there’s going to be a need for that.”
Jared Olsen currently relies on the AC Transit bus to get home to Oakland after he gets off work at a San Francisco bar. He says he doesn’t actually mind the 800 but thinks the stop at Market and Van Ness is dangerous.
“I’ve had two guns in my face here,” he says.
Waiting for late night transit can be especially dangerous for service workers, who often leave their jobs with lots of cash tips. But it’s not just the night owls who are impacted by the transportation gap; it’s the early birds, too.
Not just a late-night problem
Karen Heisler, owner of the San Francisco bakery Mission Pie, says the lack of overnight transit limits who she’s able to hire for the all-important early shift.
“If a baker that we hire lives in the East Bay,” says Heisler, “she or he can't get here on BART because the first BART train arrives at the 24th Street station after the start time.”
Heisler says she would like to see better options for her employees, but she doesn’t think private transportation companies are the answer.
“A lot of private transit options are higher priced than public options, so we could drift toward having a very segregated – well, we already have a very segregated population – but we could drift toward a lot of segregation in who uses what kind of transit,” Heisler says.
Night School’s Alex Kaufman says their model allows them to be more affordable than other private alternatives like Lyft and Uber, because the school buses can move a lot of people at once.
“And that speaks to me as more of a mass transit option,” says Kaufman. “Not necessarily a public mass transit, but mass transit. And that's why we can be a lot cheaper.”
Still, Mission Pie’s Karen Heisler would like to see the city step up to fill the need.
“Maybe I'm old fashioned,” says Heisler, “but I believe that we, as we do in the Bay Area, boast of a very thriving and success-oriented metropolitan area, that in my mind includes an adequate public transit system that provides all people, regardless of their earning level, access to work. And it feels like a profound failing that we are shorting people at the lower end of the ladder.”
Seth Capron is aware of the issues private transportation companies are raising in the Bay Area, but he says he believes Night School is a net positive.
“There’s certainly places where privatization can be harmful, because the incentives lead to something that doesn’t serve the public good in the same way,” he says. “But I think if you kind of look overall at something like this, you can say this actually is making the Bay Area a better place to live.”
That is, if they can get off the ground. Night School hit a roadblock back in May.
“We were two days away from launching,” says Kaufman, “and the CPUC – the California Public Utilities Commission – decided that we couldn't operate in the way that we had been planning to operate. And so they contacted our partner and essentially told them not to charter buses for us.”
At the last minute, CPUC officials had decided Night School didn’t have the right kind of license. But Kaufman and Capron had anticipated something like this and had actually applied for multiple licenses from the start. They recently got the right one.
“And that was great. That was a huge step forward and means that we're really, really close to launching,” says Kaufman.
But then they hit another roadblock. The CPUC has some standard rules for transit companies: vehicles need to be insured and drivers need to be drug tested regularly. The company that Night School contracted with had already fulfilled these requirements, but now Capron and Kaufman are being asked to complete them again.
“[It] starts to eat away at the whole advantage of using buses that are already owned,” says Kaufman.
Faced with these obstacles, Kaufman says he’s frustrated, but not discouraged.
“I'm very sensitive to the need for regulation,” he says. “And none of what we're doing here is really trying to avoid being regulated. We want to have all our ducks in a row.”
And so they’ll continue talking with the CPUC until they can strike a deal or figure out how to comply with all the rules themselves.
Until then, the AC Transit 800 line might be the best bet for people without cars who want to get across the Bay on late weekend nights.