RidePal and the Private Bus Wars: Q&A with Founder Nathalie Criou

Aside from rent increases, few effects of the economic boom lifting up the San Francisco Bay Area (or afflicting it, depending on your point of view) have drawn more ire and resentment lately than the private buses.

These big, faceless, Wi-Fi-equipped vehicles crawl the streets and highways of San Francisco and the peninsula, shuttling tech workers to their jobs at Google, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, Genentech, and other tech giants of the region. The most common complaint: the buses add to congestion on city streets and block public bus stops when they pause to ingest or disgorge their lucky riders.

Tensions boiled over in San Francisco’s Mission district one morning last week, as protesters surrounded a Google bus and blocked it from leaving for about half an hour. The protesters waved signs saying “Public $$$$, Private Gains” and “Warning, Illegal Use of Public Infrastructure.”

And it’s not just street activists who have been taking a closer look at the private buses and their impact. In February, local author Rebecca Solnit penned a column for the London Review of Books that portrayed the buses as signs of growing inequality and the callousness of the city’s new rich; Longform.org picked her essay as one of the Web’s five best long-form sci/tech articles of 2013.

And this fall, Stamen Design, a San Francisco design firm, published dramatic data visualizations based on crowdsourced observations on the routes and schedules of the private bus lines. “It’s not news that these shuttles, and the big digital tech companies that run them, are changing fabric of San Francisco as we’ve known it,” Stamen founder Eric Rodenbeck wrote for Wired’s opinion site in September. “It’s clear that we’re looking at a reversal of the historical norm: The workers that used to live in residential suburbs while commuting to work in the city are now living in the city, while the largest technology companies are based in the suburbs and increasingly draw their labor supply from dense urban neighborhoods.”

RidePalAs long as Silicon Valley remains the center of gravity for the big tech firms—and as long as these firms want to hire hip young employees who prefer to live in San Francisco—the imbalance Rodenbeck described will worsen. What hasn’t begun yet is a coherent political discussion about the alternatives to the private buses.

Clearly, the competition among tech companies to provide the cushiest ride to work (and make no mistake, the buses are a big perk and recruiting tool in a hyper-competitive industry) is a net plus for other commuters. If all those Googlers and Facebookers suddenly decided to drive to work in their own cars, it would induce something like an infarction on 101 and 280, the peninsula’s already sclerotic arterial highways. But so far, city governments up and down the peninsula have only begun to examine the question of how to regulate the buses, and where they should be allowed to stop.

Into this hazardous fray steps RidePal. The San Francisco startup, a 2012 graduate of the Greenstart accelerator and venture fund, has jokingly called itself “the Google bus for the rest of us.” The company acts as a middleman, contracting with private transportation companies to provide bus transportation for the employees of corporations that don’t want the hassle of administering their own bus fleets, or aren’t big enough to afford them.

RidePal founder and CEO Nathalie Criou knows a thing or two about the commute to Silicon Valley; she lives in San Francisco (where, these days, she bikes to work) but spent years working as a product manager for Valley companies like Google, Admob, and Meebo. That experience, plus her background in technology and business—she’s got an MBA from the famed French business school INSEAD—gives her a pragmatic perspective on the private-bus question.

The way Criou sees things, it isn’t possible to stop people from living where they want to live, or to stop companies from building their headquarters wherever they see fit. Nor can cities or regional transportation authorities build new roads or rail connections fast enough to keep up with shifting population patterns. Under those conditions, Criou believes, buses are an ideal way to transport commuters: they can go anywhere, and fleets can grow or shrink on demand.

“If you want to change the roads, it takes a long time,” says Criou (pictured above right). “In the meantime, the new hip area will have moved somewhere else. So there will always be a mismatch between the resources available for these people, and where they choose to go. That’s why I like buses as a transportation initiative—because it makes use of an existing resource, which is roads, and it is much more likely to stay relevant as time goes by. It will be wherever it needs to run.”

Criou says she understands perceptions that private buses are the domain of a privileged elite. But she says the whole mission of RidePal is to scale up bus transportation to the point where it’s a practical and affordable option for a much larger cross-section of companies and workers.

“The whole idea behind RidePal, the vision, is that every single person who has to go to work should have a better alternative than driving alone,” she says. But “it’s very common that any new industry will start with the people who have a higher willingness to pay, because they have a need that’s tenfold that of the average population. Then you can start refining the product and scale up.”

In addition to easing freeway congestion, Criou points out, buses reduce the environmental impact of commuting. “If you take one person away from their car and put them on a bus, you reduce their carbon footprint by about 40 percent, on average,” she says.

RidePal, founded in early 2011, now works with more than 30 Bay Area companies. Criou says thousands of riders use the buses every month. The startup has raised $3.7 million in seed and Series A funding from Greenstart, 500 Startups, Amicus Capital, Claremont Creek Ventures, and Volvo Group Venture Capital, and has plans to hire more staff, improve its route planning and notification software, and investigate expansion to other regions in 2014.

I interviewed Criou over breakfast in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood last month—we both showed up on our bikes. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Xconomy: Would you say that the hypothesis you started out with a couple of years ago is proving to be true? In other words, that there is a demand for bus transportation below the level of an Apple or a Google or a Genentech?

Nathalie Criou: It is probably even becoming more true than I thought two years ago. What was very obvious two years ago was the need on the consumer side. Most of our riders were driving alone. We poll our riders regularly, and they all said they were either living too far away from public transit, or they were not able to afford the train. At least 90 percent of our ridership was just driving to work.

X: So those are people you have effectively taken off the highways.

NC: Exactly. So I think for these people—and a lot of the hypothesis actually came from those people—driving alone is not a good thing. The waste of time is the thing that people are very acutely aware of.

Then on the corporate side, I think we are seeing a lot more interest than we had anticipated initially, and particularly from … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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