“Can Alto succeed at employee-driven ride-hail?”
That’s the question a TechCrunch article posed in July just days after the San Francisco market launch of Alto — a ride-hailing app with a decidedly different model. Unlike Uber and Lyft, Alto drivers are actual employees with health care, sick leave, paid time off and even a 401(k).
Five years into Alto’s existence, the answer to that question seems to be yes — so far. The tech company is profitable in all three of its mature markets (Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles) according to CEO Will Coleman — who said it takes 36 months for a market to mature — and successful enough to expand into three additional major markets in the past 18 months, including San Francisco.
But the question of whether Alto can succeed in San Francisco specifically seems to be far more up for debate.
Despite a business model that you’d likely find overwhelming support for in the city — no California county voted more vehemently against Proposition 22 , which allowed Uber and Lyft to keep treating drivers like independent contractors, than San Francisco in 2020 — San Francisco’s slow recovery post-pandemic and onslaught of tech layoffs and real estate vacancies have left the market in neutral when it comes to Alto.
“San Francisco is recovering more slowly than other cities in the country; people are not in the office as frequently; there are fewer people in the city going out at night,” Coleman told SFGATE in a December interview. “We track OpenTable data they made public during the pandemic, and most nights, San Francisco is 60% below pre-pandemic levels. Miami is 6% above.”
And while Alto has 100 drivers in the Bay Area and around 50 leased cars (more on that in a minute), it still offers service only until 11 p.m. at night Sunday through Wednesday (until midnight on Thursday and 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday). According to a recent promotional email from the company that noted it was “banking” on riders’ support, Alto was also a customer of collapsed Silicon Valley Bank (Coleman said the company is “ going to be fine ”).
What’s more, it seems it’s likely going to be a long, long while before anyone can reliably use Alto throughout the Bay Area. There’s zero service anywhere from the East Bay, North Bay or South Bay, and despite the company’s proclaiming it offers “service to Silicon Valley,” Palo Alto is the southernmost city you can get service out of . Compare that with a mature market like Los Angeles, where its fleet is closer to 125 cars, covers 975 square miles (compared with just 187 square miles in the Bay Area), and offers service until midnight five nights a week and until 3 a.m. on Friday and Saturday, and San Francisco has a seemingly long way to go.
That isn’t great news for Bay Area riders or drivers.
Let’s start with the drivers. The Dallas-based tech company provides its drivers with newly leased luxury, six-seat, Wi-Fi-equipped SUVs with an “ALTO” decal on each side, meaning two things: You’re never getting a wild-card backseat covered in “Dexter” plastic, and drivers don’t bear many costs associated with driving their own cars (gas, maintenance, wear and tear, crashes) like they do with Uber or Lyft. Longtime ride-hailing service drivers I spoke with during rides over the past several months all said they were making more money driving for Alto, which offers $20 per hour in base pay in the Bay Area, with some shifts paying up to $28.50 per hour (usually during peak periods late night on a Friday or Saturday). A driver-led study of Uber and Lyft drivers from Nov. 1 to Dec. 12, 2021, found they net less than $7 an hour when costs associated with their vehicles are taken into account — a number that Lyft and Uber both refuted.
“We’re paying for our drivers whether you’re in the back seat or no one is in the back seat, so it’s really important to forecast correctly,” Coleman said.
This brings us to the riders. Alto essentially uses a hybrid cab and ride-hailing model — it has a traditional human dispatcher, who helps get the right driver to the right rider, and pairs that with a very familiar consumer-facing mobile app. There’s a $12.95 monthly membership fee, which initially is frankly off-putting but is useful for Alto’s business model; Coleman said knowing how many riders the company has allows it to dynamically put the right number of cars on the road every day. A fully mature market with 150 cars may have only 30 to 40 on the road on a regular Tuesday, whereas Alto will have all 150 on the road for something like Outside Lands or a Warriors game. As the number of members grows, the fleet grows.
“The vast majority of time, our competitors’ markets are oversupplied. Wait times are far too short — unsustainably short — and drivers aren’t earning enough,” Coleman said. “There are too many cars on the road, too many emissions, and it’s ultimately bad for cities.”
Even though Alto markets itself as a luxury service on its website (it has wild member perks from partners like $50 off a flight on the semiprivate JSX or 50% off a Soho House offering), I found that Alto’s prices are oftentimes as cheap as — or cheaper than — Uber or Lyft after several months of using the service. Here’s how a typical trip broke down: A short 1.5-mile ride in SoMa from 4th and King to 5th and Mission was quoted at $12 on Alto, $12.87 for a standard Lyft, and $9.95 for an UberX. Alto tacks on an 18% service charge (an extra $2.16 in this case) and doesn’t have an option for tipping. Lyft has a flat, all-in $3.60 service fee — plus, I usually tip a couple of bucks for a short ride. Uber has a bunch of fees (one of which includes a “Temporary Fuel Surcharge” you likely don’t know you’re paying) — plus, same deal, I usually tip a couple of bucks. The all-in cost of the Alto ends up being $14.16. A Lyft would’ve been $18.47. An Uber would’ve been $14.89.
Over the past few months, I tried to take a bunch of trips of different lengths to see how the prices compare, and the only time there was really any sort of major difference was on extremely long rides (a 26-mile ride down the Peninsula outside Alto’s core coverage area came to a heftier $86.69 — the Lyft would’ve been $57.56 and an Uber $67.14).
“Building supply to match the highest peak is very unprofitable. That’s one thing our competitors struggle with,” Coleman said. “Knowing how many members we have, we know how many vehicles and drivers we need to serve them.”
That variable fleet means you’re going to wait, though. Not by a great magnitude more often than not, but if you’re in a major hurry, a couple of minutes here or there is impossible to ignore. I eventually start calling cars further in advance to offset that delay, which works just fine since they won’t cancel on you and they will wait, but it’s definitely an adjustment — one that Coleman said he’s confident riders can make.
“You’re going to have to wait 10 to 15 minutes for an Alto and six minutes for Uber,” Coleman said. “But we’ll be there consistently. Nobody’s going to cancel because you’re in a place it takes longer to get to. If your meeting runs over, the driver’s not going to leave you. The driver doesn’t care; they’re getting paid regardless. When you call an Alto, you’re not calling someone else’s car. Ten minutes is just not that long, and it’s what’s required to make the model work.”
Will the model hold up in the Bay Area, though? Will the limited (at least for now) coverage map turn people off? Will a more ethical, luxury product paying people properly be enough for Alto to actually stick in the Bay Area?
In December, Coleman said it could depend on whether San Francisco continues to rebound. “We’re cautiously monitoring that situation, and we’ll expand as the city comes back to life,” he said. Reached in March, a spokesperson noted Alto would “like to continue expansion in the Bay Area to include the East Bay over the next year.”
Guess we’re about to find out.