S.F. shuttles tread on Muni’s turf as pilot program aims to cut overlap 

click to enlarge tech bus
  • Chris Roberts/2013 s.f. examiner file photo
  • A San Francisco Examiner analysis indicates that several private shuttles shadow routes already served by Muni.

Mario Guerrero remembers a time during the first dot-com boom, before commuter shuttles became a fixture on San Francisco streets, when workers would drive to their jobs.

"They'd refuse to ride public transportation. Shuttles were a step up," said Guerrero, a manager for the private charter service San Francisco Minibus.

In the past decade, commuter shuttles -- those serving businesses and universities within The City and companies on the Peninsula and in Silicon Valley -- have grown in popularity. While some view the out-of-town bus trips as a symbol of economic disparity, they make up only 20 percent of all commuter shuttle activity in San Francisco, according to project manager Carli Paine of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. The remainder consists of shuttles serving businesses and medical and academic institutions within The City.

An analysis by The San Francisco Examiner determined that several intracity shuttles currently run routes that overlap with Muni lines, raising the question of whether the shuttles are necessary to reduce traffic and greenhouse-gas emissions or are merely a perk of the job.

Regardless, transit officials say a new pilot program charging commuter shuttles to use Muni stops is expected to prevent such duplication.

Under the 18-month pilot program approved by the SFMTA board of directors last month, only permitted commuter shuttles will be allowed to use a select network of 200 Muni stops for $1 per stop per day. The program is intended to address safety concerns and reduce delays and impacts on Muni.

"In order to get a permit, a provider would have to demonstrate that they aren't replicating a route," Paine said. "So once the pilot is started, we should not have shuttles replicating Muni routes that are part of the pilot."

A TENDENCY TO OVERLAP

The SFMTA has studied commuter shuttle patterns since 2011, when the San Francisco County Transportation Authority released a report detailing their impact on The City's traffic infrastructure, but the agency does not have a clear picture of which intracity shuttles take routes already served by Muni.

However, The Examiner's analysis found several instances where intracity shuttle routes overlap with Muni lines.

One South of Market tech company, for example, provides shuttles from its offices at Townsend and Seventh streets and Townsend and Fifth streets to the King Street Caltrain station -- which the 10-Townsend Muni bus serves. The company's shuttle from both office buildings to the Civic Center BART station stops at nearly the same places as Muni.

San Francisco Minibus has served companies by using routes that some existing Muni buses already take, said Guerrero, whose company has operated since 1978. The practice has been quite common over the years, he said.

"Some companies that used to provide parking passes now give passes for BART and the shuttles are free, so it encourages them," Guerrero said of the rise in shuttle usage.

San Francisco Minibus has been growing since the 1980s, Guerrero said, but it has experienced a "big jump" in riders in the past couple of years.

"It's crazy right now," he said. "We were the first ones to start the shuttle system and everyone started jumping on the bandwagon only recently."

The company often acts as the "last mile" between a BART station and workers' destinations, Guerrero added.

SERVING MEDICAL, EDUCATION SITES

Shuttles for medical institutions vary in similarity to Muni routes as well.

San Francisco General Hospital operates a shuttle between its campus at Potrero Avenue and 23rd Street to the 24th Street BART station that covers a nearly identical route as the Muni 48-Quintara-24th Street line, which picks up riders and Utah and 23rd streets a block a away.

Considering 6,000 people visit the campus daily, spokeswoman Rachael Kagan said, "The shuttle service is part of a broader program to reduce the number of employees that commute alone to the campus and reduce traffic congestion."

The hospital also uses a shuttle network run by UC San Francisco that traverses 16 routes, covers 1 million miles and carries 2.4 million passengers annually. Although the shuttles travel on some of the same corridors as Muni, none of the routes are identical, UCSF spokeswoman Elizabeth Fernandez said.

Kaiser Permanente's bus shares one stop with Muni at Market and Ninth streets, but rather than following public-transit routes, it makes adjustments according to traffic conditions, Kaiser spokesman Joe Fragola said.

For the California Pacific Medical Center, the commuting situation is similar to UCSF and Kaiser Permanente.

"Our staff can catch Muni probably within walking distance, but in my experience, the shuttles really do cut my travel time," CPMC spokesman Dean Fryer said.

The Academy of Art University provides shuttles of varying sizes for students and faculty going between campuses, studios and dormitories within the downtown area.

"They zigzag back and forth between facilities in a way that is very uncommon for public routes that stay on one avenue, so I would be very surprised if there was duplicity," said Adrian Covert, a policy manager for the Bay Area Council, of which the university is a member.

SHUTTLING FORWARD

The intracity shuttle system that appears to be the most underserved by Muni -- and already has in place a deal to share Muni stops -- is the service run by the Presidio Trust. While the 43-Masonic and 29-Sunset only go a short distance into the Presidio, the PresidiGo travels throughout the rest of the 1,500-acre area and connects to downtown.

The PresidiGo started in 2007 because Muni had just eliminated the only direct downtown bus connection to the Presidio, the 82X-Levi Plaza Express line, and was not interested in funding a replacement service, said Dana Polk, a spokeswoman for the Presidio Trust, which manages the national park.

"This makes it feasible for residents to live and work in the Presidio and access the rest of The City without taking multiple hours and transportation options," Polk said.

Although commuter shuttles, including those serving points outside The City, have been a key option for employees traveling to work, some activists argue that they provide the wealthy a privilege while the public gets stuck with a problem-plagued public-transit system.

The fee program will not prevent the shuttles from using the streets, transit officials say, but it could reduce conflicts with Muni while providing a transportation option tailored to workers' needs.

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Bio:
Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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