Tech commuter shuttles riding wave of controversy 

click to enlarge commuter shuttles
  • JUAN PARDO/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • The proliferation of commuter shuttles in San Francisco has inspired a pilot program charging shuttles $1 per stop per day to use Muni stops.

On weekday mornings, San Francisco residents, mostly in their 20s and 30s, many in jeans and hoodies, a few in khakis and tucked-in dress shirts, form a single-file line against a mural-graced wall by the Muni bus stop at the southeast corner of 24th and Valencia streets.

They know each other well enough to line up following a system that lacks public signage, but rarely engage in conversation. Here they wait to catch a ride to work, but this isn't a casual carpool line. This is an invitation-only club.

Some wear earbuds and almost all are engrossed in their smartphones until their free ride arrives, rarely more than a couple of minutes late -- a two-story white bus with tinted windows, plush seats and Wi-Fi.

Patiently, the residents wait to get on, and with the flash of their company badges are welcomed aboard. Then the luxury "GBUS TO MTV" shuttle shuts its doors and heads straight for Google's headquarters in Mountain View. The scenario repeats itself in half-hour intervals at the stop and at dozens of similar Muni stops citywide.

These commuter shuttles whisk workers to the land of tech gold in the South Bay, and many employees prefer them to driving alone or taking Caltrain, but anti-displacement groups have seized on the buses as a symbol of The City's growing economic disparity, a harbinger of skyrocketing rents, gentrifying neighborhoods and an eviction "crisis."

click to enlarge google_transit.jpg

On one recent morning, a Google-bound bus left The City with the words "just gentrified -- not evil" written in dust on its rear. Another morning, a bus had hearts drawn in the dust on its windows.

The Muni bus stop at 24th and Valencia streets was the site of an April 1 protest in which protesters with the group Eviction-Free San Francisco blocked a Google bus and handed out fake "Gmuni" passes, suggesting that any local should be able to board the luxury shuttle. The hoax highlighted the protesters' outrage that the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is pursuing a pilot program allowing commuter shuttles to use 200 public bus stops for $1 per stop per day, while the Muni system remains underfunded and unreliable.

A 2012 analysis by research firm ICF International for the Metropolitian Transportation Commission, which informed the SFMTA's commuter shuttle pilot program, estimated that shuttles eliminate 43.3 million vehicle miles traved and 8,600 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year in Bay Area counties. An estimated 35,000 boardings occured per day, based on information complied by the SFMTA that year.

"I imagine [the numbers] may have grown," SFMTA project manager Carli Paine said.

But such studies have not swayed anti-displacement activists who filed an environmental appeal against the pilot program allowing shuttles to use Muni stops for a fee. The Board of Supervisors rejected their appeal hours after the April 1 Google bus blockage, and some of the appellants -- including Service Employees International Union Local 1021 -- filed a lawsuit May 1 to stop the program.

The SFMTA still aims to launch the program July 1 and will start taking applications from shuttle providers in June, Paine said.

"Clearly, the companies have made a decision that [shuttles are] a wise investment of their resources," said MTC spokesman John Goodwin. "And I think that's all for the good."

For many people, the shuttles have become the manifestation of all that's right or all that's wrong about the new San Francisco. But for those thousands of tech workers who climb aboard every morning, they are something else, too, something a little less heavy and fraught -- a way to get to work.

In light of this, The San Francisco Examiner compared the morning commute time of the Google bus to taking public transit or driving. A reporter and photographer trailed the bus in the carpool lane one morning to Google's gate, and on other days made the same trip driving without the carpool lane and timed the trip taking Muni, Caltrain and the "last-mile" shuttle.

Taking a Google bus instead of driving alone from the corner of 24th and Valencia streets to the tech giant's headquarters 34 miles south saved a mere seven minutes, and public transportation including Caltrain took just 12 extra minutes.

The time gap between modes of transportation is notable, but not substantial. The civic argument for commuter shuttles is that they take single-occupant vehicles off the road and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

On its website, Google says about 5,000 Google workers take shuttles to work on any given day, and that the program hit 1.8 million rides in 2012.

"In addition to an ultracomfortable ride, real-time location information, and wifi, our shuttles have the cleanest diesel engines ever built," the website boasts. "In fact, Google is the first and largest company with a corporate coach fleet to exceed the EPA's 2010 bus emission standards. They run on 5% biodiesel and are fitted with filtration systems that eliminate many harmful emissions, including nitrogen oxide."

Google would not speak with The Examiner, and multiple calls to We Drive U Inc., the shuttle that provides the rides for Google staff, were not returned.

Google employees waiting for the shuttles also declined to comment.

Brendon Harrington, the tech company's transportation operations manager, told UC Berkeley graduate student researchers Danielle Dai and David Weinzimmer last year that shuttles are usually limited to three pick-up stops per route and up to five drop-off points on campus. Those that run express routes have just one pick-up and drop-off, the study stated, which contributes to time savings.

A faster travel time is one of the main attractions of shuttles, Dai said, adding, "People might consider shuttles as being in opposition of traffic, but we want to suggest that they're complementary."

Egon Terplan, regional planning director for San Francisco-based think tank SPUR, said the corporate shuttles are a key component of the region's traffic ecosystem. The highway system connecting San Francisco to the Peninsula would break down from congestion if it weren't for Caltrain, and also if everyone working at companies in the South Bay chose to drive solo, he said.

Instead of seeing the shuttles as a symbol of disparity, some say they are indicative of people's desire for alternatives to driving alone.

click to enlarge commuter shuttle
  • Mike Koozmin/the S.F. Examiner
  • A commuter shuttle on Valencia street stops at a Muni stop to drop off passengers during the afternoon commute.

"We as a region are better off by having a variety of ways to get around," Terplan said. "The shuttle fits into the equation of providing another alternative and it moves people more efficiently."

SCHLEPPING TO SILICON VALLEY WITHOUT A HIGH-TECH BADGE

Citing "security reasons," Google does not allow non-Googlers on its shuttles, but The San Francisco Examiner trailed one shuttle from the 24th and Valencia streets Muni stop as it headed east on 24th Street, turned right on Van Ness Avenue, left on Cesar Chavez Avenue, took the on-ramp onto U.S. Highway 101, exited at Rengstorff Avenue and made its way to the campus.

The bus left promptly at 7:52 a.m. and made its first stop at Google at 8:56 a.m. Sixty-four minutes.

On another weekday, The Examiner duplicated the journey, leaving at the exact time, but without the privilege of carpool lanes, and arrived at 9:03 a.m. Seventy-one minutes.

The same trip on public transit starts with the 48-Quintara/24th Street bus scheduled to depart at 7:50 a.m. According to Google maps, the bus should arrive at 8:17 a.m. at 22nd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, where a Caltrain baby bullet trip departs two minutes later on a 39-minute ride to the Mountain View station. A "last-mile" Google shuttle picks employees up at the station for a roughly eight-minute ride that should stop at the campus by 9:06 a.m. Seventy-six minutes.

Traffic and other variables may vary, but comparing these trips, the commute was seven minutes shorter by shuttle than driving alone, and 12 minutes shorter than taking public transportation.

Departure time makes a difference as traffic dies down after the morning rush. The commute on Highway 101 was even shorter departing 24th and Valencia streets at 8:30 a.m. A carpool lane begins about two-thirds of the way through the trip at Whipple Avenue off-ramp in Redwood City and requires two or more people per vehicle from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. only, so it is open to all vehicles by then. Fifty-five minutes.

And the trip is even shorter leaving at 9 a.m. Forty-eight minutes.

A travel time comparison conducted by UC Berkeley graduate students Danielle Dai and David Weinzimmer last summer used a different methodology but yielded similar results.

Their study, Riding First Class: Impacts of Silicon Valley Shuttles on Commute & Residential Location Choice, calculated shuttle travel times at the noncongested driving time escalated by 40 percent, plus seven minutes of walking to access the shuttle stop and five minutes for loading and unloading. A trip from a stop at 24th and Guerrero streets, a block away from the starting point of The Examiner's trip comparison, to the Google headquarters took the same amount of time -- 64 minutes.

The UC Berkeley study calculated transit travel time as seven minutes of walking to access the shuttle stop plus the travel time for arrival at the destination Caltrain or BART station by 9 a.m. on a Monday morning, plus a three-minute transfer and drive time for a last-mile shuttle to the corporate campus. It amounted to 90 minutes to arrive at Google, 1.4 times longer than the shuttle time.

For Apple, Facebook, Genentech and Google, the largest tech employer, transit plus a last-mile shuttle took on average about 1.3 times as long as shuttles alone, according to the study. While it did not include solo driving time in the comparison, Weinzimmer said it would be "very similar" to shuttle times because there aren't many carpool lanes heading down to the Peninsula.

CALTRAIN ISN'T WORRIED ABOUT LOSING BUSINESS

For more than a decade, Caltrain's Go Pass program has allowed companies to purchase annual unlimited-ride passes for its eligible employees. And some companies have long arranged for "last-mile" shuttles to ferry workers from the train stops to their corporate campuses.

click to enlarge Caltrain
  • Jeff Chiu/ap
  • Commuters board a Caltrain train at the Caltrain and Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Millbrae, Calif.

Google is not listed as a Go Pass participating company this year.

Commuter shuttles have not taken business away from Caltrain, and in fact the system has seen 58 months of consecutive ridership growth, spokeswoman Jayme Ackemann said. Baby bullet trains in the morning commute are running at 90 to 120 percent of seated capacity.

"I would say that if anything, [shuttles] may be keeping some people off of the trains who would otherwise ride, which makes a seat for someone on an already full train," Ackemann said.

Caltrain's capacity has not changed since 2012, when the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board boosted the number of trains operating daily to 92. Caltrain electrification, a proposal that would make the system run faster and is expected to increase ridership, still needs to get final environmental review approval at the state level.

Amenities can also make a difference for riders choosing between shuttles and Caltrain. Wi-Fi is not available on Caltrain, and would cost between $9 million and $11 million to install on the entire fleet. That is outside of Caltrain's budget. The agency welcomes project sponsors who would be willing to donate equipment, Ackemann said.

"We would like to be able to provide Wi-Fi, but it's not a core competency that we have as a company. Our core service is obviously transportation," she said. "With that in mind, more and more people have hot spots or their own data plan."

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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