Imagine you wanted new bike lanes in your town. You find that your mayor, City Council and transportation agency all agree: local biking could be improved. However, painting bike lanes costs money, and the town wants to make sure limited dollars are spent painting the right streets. A pilot program is launched to see when, where and for how long most people ride their bikes.
If San Francisco’s anti-tech activists get their way, launching that pilot program could take needless years and cost millions of dollars.
Anti-tech activists recently sued The City to block the commuter shuttle pilot program, arguing it must submit the pilot to an expensive and lengthy environmental review — a process normally reserved for permanent buildings and programs.
Forcing cities to produce environmental reviews for pilot programs would severely limit the ability of California cities to experiment with policies aimed at tackling complex problems. That’s why Mayor Ed Lee, the Board of Supervisors, SPUR, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and others recently opposed an appeal to force an environmental review of the shuttles pilot.
And the commuter shuttles, aka Google buses, are nothing if not complex.
By some estimates, the commuter shuttles represent the sixth-largest transit system in the Bay Area. Only they aren’t a “system,” but a goulash of hospitals and retail outfits, public and private universities, large and small tech firms, and mom-and-pop bus providers, each with unique vehicles, tracking systems, routes and riderships.
Faced with this panoply, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency concluded it lacked the information needed to simply invent permanent regulations. So it set out to get the necessary data through an 18-month pilot.
The pilot approves a limited network of shuttle stops, registers shuttle sizes and requires each shuttle to feed real-time GPS data to the SFMTA. Shuttles will be assigned identification numbers affixed to large placards to enable the public to provide feedback and identify bad actors. Convened through the Bay Area Council, shuttle operators have agreed to pay for the program.
Together, this information will empower the SFMTA to craft permanent shuttle regulations, which will be subject to the appropriate environmental review as required by California law. The pilot is a critical step toward the environmental review anti-tech activists claim they want, so why the lawsuit?
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Bay Area’s famous activist class has completely failed to grapple with what’s causing the housing crisis: a grossly under-built regional housing supply and inadequate regional transit. The Google buses are a product of this environment, not its cause, and are the predictable result of cities such as Cupertino, Mountain View, Palo Alto and San Francisco itself outsourcing local housing demand to the rest of the region. The shuffling has forced increasing numbers of workers to commute from increasingly distant locations. Against this backdrop, the shuttle system brings huge traffic and environmental benefits.
Providing more affordable housing means building more of it. But that’s a difficult debate to have, as it requires confronting at times deeply held beliefs about neighborhood density and character. But rather than demand that debate, anti-tech activists have surrendered the field to the failed housing policies of the no-growth clique that got us here in the first place, opting instead to stoke nativist hysteria against tech workers. If anti-tech activists put as much energy into supporting new housing starts at the Planning Commission as they do opposing shuttles at the SFMTA, or if they were as angry about anti-growth initiatives on the ballot as they are about plans to get people out of their cars, we might start to see some progress on keeping people in their homes.
Of course, in addition to twisting environmental law to attack mass transit, the great irony here is that eliminating the shuttles would likely accelerate tech’s relocation from Silicon Valley into San Francisco, throwing gentrification into overdrive.
The Bay Area is facing a wrenching housing and transportation crisis, and solving it will require unprecedented alignment between civic, social justice, environmental and business associations to build more housing. Let’s focus on creating real solutions, and let the commuter shuttles pilot program proceed.
Adrian Covert is a policy manager for the Bay Area Council and a San Francisco resident.