SAN FRANCISCO - At the height of Friday afternoon's rush hour, dozens of turquoise Chariot vans sat parked in a lot under the freeway near 6th and Harrison Streets in San Francisco.
"It's definitely disrupted my day," Chariot rider Mia Kabasakalis said. "I have to figure out a new way to get to work."
Kabasakalis said she began using Chariot when she moved to a neighborhood without a direct route to work on public transit. The private bus service owned by Ford Motor Company cuts her 45-minute Muni ride down to just 15 minutes in a Chariot van, she said.
"The service that I normally ride wasn't available in the morning, so I contacted them and asked what was going on," she said.
Chariot replied with a pre-written letter, also sent to other riders who posted pictures of it on Twitter. It states that Chariot is "temporarily pausing (its) commuter service," which is, perhaps, a delicate way of saying that state regulators have suspended the company's license, and ordered it to cease operations immediately.
Since its inception three years ago, Chariot has been controversial. Riders love it for cutting their commute times in half, while neighbors and Muni drivers complain that the vans can clog streets and block driveways. At City Hall, there's a movement afoot to ban Chariot from driving routes that closely approximate existing Muni bus lines.
Chariot drivers and riders both told ABC7 News they suspect these issues are at play, but officially, they're not the reason for the suspension. The California Highway Patrol's Motor Carrier Safety Unit inspects companies like Chariot once a year, and says Chariot failed its inspections three times in a row because not all of its drivers had the right kind of license.
"The California Highway Patrol takes passenger transportation very seriously," said the unit's supervisor, Monica Christopher. "We tell them what they need to do to fix it, we tell them we're gonna come back within a certain amount of time, and we've done this three times."
Christopher said the CHP inspected Chariot's vans and driver records in December, March and August. Each time, it found a handful of drivers who didn't have the right credentials to operate what the state considers a bus: a vehicle that can seat 10 or more people including the driver. They would need to have either a Class B commercial driver's license, or a standard Class C license with a passenger endorsement, Christopher said.
Chariot drivers who spoke on condition of anonymity told ABC7 News that many of them are currently enrolled in classes to get a Class B license, and that Chariot has given them a deadline of December 1 to complete the training. Until then, Chariot has found a workaround:
"It looks like they actually reduced the seating capacity on some of their vehicles to get below that threshold level," Christopher said.
Indeed, several drivers told us Chariot has removed seats from a handful of its vans to bring their total capacity down to just 9 occupants. Drivers without the proper credentials to operate a bus will be allowed to keep working in those vans for the time being, they said.
But those drivers face a more immediate problem: On Friday afternoon, several people told ABC7 News they were asked to report for work, but then sent home after finding the service was still shut down.
Christopher said the California Highway Patrol will need to conduct a full re-inspection of Chariot, including a sample of 20 vans and a slew of personnel records, before its permit to operate can be reinstated. "It's just gonna take a little time to get those vehicles inspected, and that's what we're doing right now," she said.