Workspace, snacks, coffee, WiFi…will the bus of the future routinely provide all these services? This, at least, is what startup Leap has set out to do.

Leap reinvents the bus journey with work and relaxation space

In France, the state-owned public transport operator (RATP) is planning to provide 3G/4G coverage throughout the Paris network by 2017. If this seems an ambitious project, it could nevertheless appear almost outdated if you look at what US startup Leap is now doing. San Francisco-based Leap provides a WiFi connection, USB ports and workspaces on its buses. The startup is thus looking to completely reinvent the passenger experience on mass transport lines, with a range of extra services including – in addition to Internet access – the opportunity to order coffee and snacks during the journey.

At the moment Leap is running just one fixed route, with a 25-minute journey time, in San Francisco. This covers a limited trip to the downtown area where a number of high-tech companies are located. It has five buses providing a shuttle service that runs every fifteen minutes during morning and evening peak commuter periods.

A streamlined digitised process

In addition to the services on offer, the company has set out to differentiate itself in the way passengers access the Leap transport system. It all happens on your smartphone. Before heading to one of the pickup points, you can use the app to check where the buses are right now and how many free places are left.  And once aboard your bus you do not have to get your ticket or card stamped. Instead the Bluetooth-based system will automatically recognise you when you board and scan your pass. Everything seems designed to be highly user-friendly. Leap says its service will evolve according to users’ wishes – for instance the startup invites passengers to suggest routes they would like the bus service to cover. In this respect, Leap seems to have drawn some inspiration from the customised shuttle buses of MagicBus, another San Francisco startup.

Inside a Leap bus, rethinking space on public transport. Photo: Leap.

...but not affordable for all

So where’s the hitch? The price. A journey on a public city bus costs $2.25 – around €2 – but travelling by Leap bus will set you back $5 or $6, depending on whether you buy your tickets one-by-one or in advance in bulk. So the target market is clearly people who are relatively well-off. The company’s website also stipulates that you have to pay through your own pre-designated credit card/account and must be 18 years or older to ride. Moreover, the on-board catering provides locally-sourced organic foods and is therefore aimed at an urban, affluent and environmentally responsible clientele. So Leap is clearly targeting a relatively limited market. However, the founders are very clear about their aims: to set up additional routes in San Francisco before trying to reinvent the concept of urban public transport in other US cities. "Urban transportation is an area of extreme impact that still desperately needs fresh ideas," argues Scott Banister, an early advisor and board member at PayPal who is one of Leap’s major investors.

By Guillaume Scifo