For all its charms, San Francisco can fall short when it comes to getting around town. Sure, we're all squeezed into a compact square, but when it's 4:00 in the afternoon and you need to get from the Sunset to the sunny patio of El Rio to dance it out at Hard French pronto, your options can be limited.
Thankfully, the city is awash in alternative transportation options that can fill in the gaps left by MUNI and the city's decrepit taxi system. For girls and boys on the go (or the go-go platform), learning to navigate these services can be live savers, whether you're indulging in nightlife, or just scooting across town for a hangover brunch.
The most well-known of the new alternative transportation services is Lyft. Just fire up the app, and summon a nearby pink-moustachioed car to your location. Lyft rides are usually easy to come by, and the cars are cleaner than any SF taxi I have ever ridden in. Traditionally, riders sit in the front seat, and there's the near-obligatory fist-bump when you hop in.
There are often several cars nearby, and response times are usually under 10 minutes, except for peak late-night times. Lyft is cashless, perfect for nights when you started out with a wallet full of twenties and ended the night with a belly fully of beer, some fuzzy memories, and $1.75 in quarters in your pocket.
Instead of a set fee, Lyft works on "donations." And yeah, those are totally air quotes. To avoid running afoul of taxi regulations, Lyft works on a donation model. After your ride is complete, a message pops up on your phone with a suggested donation (including tip) which you can adjust up or down as you see fit. You can also rate your driver on a five point scale.
But don't get too excited, cheapskates. A driver explained that in addition to passengers rating drivers, drivers also rate passengers. Stiff your driver a few too many times and you'll earn yourself a low rating, and you'll quickly find yourself with fewer and fewer drivers willing to pick you up.
A jaunt from the Lower Haight to the far reaches of Potrero hill cost about 25 percent less using Lyft than the return trip did in a taxi. All the drivers I encountered were friendly and eager to chat. If anything, that's the one downside of Lyft-riding shotgun usually means you'll have to make small talk, rather than sit quietly in the back of a taxi.
On the other end of the spectrum is Homobiles, a queer-friendly option run by Lynnee Breedlove. Drivers are volunteers (Homobiles is working on their non-profit status right now) and riders are free to donate whatever they can to support the service. While Homobiles might seem like just another ride-share option, after riding around with Lynnee one afternoon, it's clear that he's got a bigger picture in mind than just driving people from here to there.
Lynnee Breedlove of Homobiles, with mascot J. Snow. photo: Ray Aguilera
Homobiles users range from drag performers on their way to gigs, to tourists on their way across town. Homobiles offers rides to anyone, regardless of their orientation, gender expression, or ability to donate. Breedlove sees it as a way for the community to take care of each other.
"If someone need a ride, we'll give them a ride," said Breedlove. "No one is turned away for lack of funds."
He told me several stories of Homobiles swooping in to pick up drag queens who suddenly found themselves in uncomfortable situations late at night. The goal is keeping people safe, and a nonjudgmental ride is what Homobiles promises (and delivers).
While Lyft drivers tend to be techies who can talk about app development, "disruption," and pissed off cabbies running them off the road, the conversation in the Homobile bounced from affordable housing to playing in bands and wild nights out at London's Royal Vauxhall Tavern. And if you're lucky enough to catch a ride with Lynnee, you'll be greeted by J. Snow, Homobiles' adorable canine mascot who rides shotgun. There's no app to summon a Homobile, but the service is available 24/7 by sending a text to (415) 574-5023 with your name, location, and destination.
If you need something a bit more upscale (or just bigger) check in with Uber. Using the smartphone app, you can summon a traditional black town car, an SUV, or an UberX, typically a midrange sedan that isn't quite as fancy as a black car, with a smaller price tag to boot.
Unlike Lyft or Homobiles, using an Uber is a more straightforward monetary transaction. Rates start at $3.50 + $2.75/mile for an UberX, up to $15 + $5/mile for an SUV. Those base fares are quite a bit higher than taxi rates but 1) your Uber will actually show up, and 2) the service uses professional commercial drivers (for Black Car & SUV rides). But keep in mind that those prices are starting points.
To regulate demand, Uber uses "surge pricing" which multiplies the cost when there is particularly high demand (read: most of the times you'd actually need to use it). Trying to get home from The Stud at three in the morning last weekend would have cost one and a half times the normal rate, while a ride from Golden Gate Park after Outside Lands ran two-and-a-half times Uber's normal rates.
Like Lyft, the Uber app handles payment, so you don't have to worry about having cash on hand, and the cars are nicer than taxis, with low-key pro drivers that won't bug you (or spend the entire ride talking into a cell phone). Uber rides can get costly, but the rides are reliable clean, and professional.
But is it legal?
That's a good question.
Lyft and Uber have been the subject of high-profile legal wrangling lately, including drivers being placed under citizen's arrest at San Francisco International Airport over the summer, and a more recent suit from drivers who claim that they should be considered employees, rather than independent contractors. All of that has left many scratching their heads trying to figure out where these services fit in.
They've been operating in a bit of a gray area, but things are looking up for ride-sharers. In September, the California Public Utilities Commission approved new regulations that allow these services to operate legally, provided they provide driver training, conduct background checks, and carry at least $1 million in commercial insurance coverage.
Taxi-starved San Franciscans will no doubt benefit, but the highly-regulated cab companies aren't happy. I asked one cabbie how he felt about his new competitors, and was treated to an expletive-ridden tirade about "unqualified drivers" stealing his customers. He got so worked up that he ran a red light. On the flip side, all the ride-sharing drivers I spoke with seemed unfazed by the complaints of the taxi industry, and confident that there's enough room for several options.
So which ride-sharing service is best? Frankly, it's impossible to choose. Lyft is fantastic (and nearly ubiquitous), but we love the community-driven focus of Homobiles, and the easy elegance of Uber. The next time you're stranded waiting for a phantom MUNI that never arrives, one of these newfangled car services might be just the thing to get you home safe and sound.