By Rachel Balik
Update: Since we ran this story yesterday Midnight Express has added a San Jose stop. It will arrive at 3:30 a.m. at the Diridon Caltrain Station.
Michael Horton, who lives and works in Santa Clara county but spends much of his free time in SF, was getting increasingly frustrated with his lack of late-night options. Caltrain, like BART, shuts down at midnight. There’s a late night public bus that travels to Palo Alto, but other areas in the South Bay are underserved. If Horton wanted to say in the city later than 11:30 p.m., he had to take a taxi all the way home, get a hotel room, or crash on a friend’s couch.
Following a precedent set by the likes of Uber, Lyft, and the tech buses, Horton decided that San Francisco’s public transportation issues could best be solved by the private sector. He partnered with his friend Cory Althoff and is launching the Midnight Express, a bus that will leave from the 4th street Caltrain station at 2 a.m. on weekend nights (mornings) and make stops in Palo Alto, Los Altos, and Mountain View.
At $12 a ticket, the Midnight Express is a far more cost effective alternative to an Uber or hotel room, and much safer than attempting to drive home drunk. The easy-to-use service even favors the (potentially) limited cognitive capacity of inebriated folks (or the lack of planning-ahead-capacity that afflicts many of us.) After buying a ticket online (or on your mobile phone), you simply need to arrive at the 4th street Caltrain station 10 minutes before the shuttle’s 2 a.m. departure and look for the Midnight Express sign on a “large comfy coach [bus] with restrooms, air-conditioning, a stereo music system, and video monitors.” To get on board, you only need to show a valid photo ID.
The first bus leaves this Friday night (Saturday morning) at 2 a.m. It will stop in Palo Alto at 2:40 a.m., Los Altos at 2:55 a.m., and Mountain View at 3:05 a.m. They’re starting simple while they test the service and build awareness, but Horton says that he and Althoff have already spent a few weeks interviewing Caltrain riders at various stations and received an extremely positive response.
“In Santa Clara county, there are thousands of young people that want to go out in San Francisco,” says Horton. Midnight Express is “grouping those people together in order to provide a way to get them back to their towns that same night.” Although Uber and Lyft now offer the ability to carpool or split the fare with friends, Midnight Express encompasses an even larger group of passengers, which means even more reasonable prices. Groups of five or more friends can also get a $5 discount per person on ticket prices.
In a way, Midnight Express is like a Google Bus headed the opposite direction. While these private tech buses have come under fire for being elitist, their defenders argue that real problem is San Francisco’s notoriously inadequate public transportation system. Like the Google buses, the Midnight Express will cater to a certain demographic; its target market is young professionals who live in Santa Clara county but “want to party” in SF. However, one can argue that there’s a glaring need to serve that market; Santa Clara’s population grew 1.5% in 2013, which translates in 27,600 new residents.
The area hasn’t been offered much in the way of late-night transportation options, unlike the East Bay. A similar private service attempted to launch earlier this year to ferry riders between Oakland and SF and AC Transit has recently launched a pilot to improve all night bus service. And while tech buses are controversial because they transport workers who drive up rent prices in the city while supporting economic growth in other counties, services like the Midnight Express will make it more appealing for people who work at South Bay companies to actually live in the South Bay.
Of course, in an ideal world, the public transportation would catch on and get up to speed on the needs of the Bay Area’s growing population. But until that happens, we’ve got party buses.
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Image from Thinkstock