SF approves tech bus fee program without changes despite calls for more compensation 

click to enlarge tech shuttle
  • AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
  • Members of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco and other activists protest outside of City Hall in San Francisco, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014. San Francisco officials are set to vote on a plan to start regulating employee shuttles for companies like Google, Facebook and Apple, charging a fee for those that use public bus stops and controlling where they load and unload. Private shuttle buses have created traffic problems, blocking public bus stops during peak commute hours.
In the two weeks since city officials announced an 18-month proposal allowing commuter shuttles to use Muni stops for a fee, support has been met with just as much opposition, including from elected officials. And the buses have for some become a symbol of the massive divide between the haves and have-nots of San Francisco.

But Tuesday, the chairman of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board of directors offered up the idea that doing something is better than doing nothing.

“Is the pilot program better than the status quo?” Chairman Tom Nolan asked. “In my mind, the pilot project is clearly better than what we have now.”

Fellow directors agreed, unanimously approving the pilot without any modifications.

That means commuter buses that have for years illegally used Muni zones to pick up tech employees, among other types of workers, and shuttled them within San Francisco or to cities on the Peninsula will get to use a select 200 of the more than 2,500 bus stops for $1 per day per stop. The program will launch by July.

Though the pilot still needs to go through a couple of town hall meetings where residents can give input on which stops should be included, and final approval by the SFMTA board in the spring, the major hurdle has been cleared.

It was “long overdue” for the agency to take a comprehensive look at the shuttles’ usage of bus stops and administering and enforcing a program, said Supervisor Scott Wiener, who represents neighborhoods that see high shuttle traffic.

“We need to stop demonizing these people who are just trying to get to work and recommit ourselves to addressing our housing crisis,” he said, in reference to skyrocketing rents that some attribute to wealthy tech workers invading The City.

Some have called for companies that use the shuttles, particularly tech companies, to do more than pay the $1 fee, even though under state law the SFMTA can only charge as much as it costs to run the program. The pilot will last 18 months and is expected to generate $1.5 million for cost recovery.

Supervisor David Campos, whose Mission district had two tech bus blockades last month, was the first official to publicly go against the current pushed by many other city and transit officials. He urged the SFMTA to send the proposal back to the drawing board.

“Give the tech industry and these communities the opportunity to have a real conversation, not only on the impacts on Muni but the impact it’s having on housing costs,” Campos said. “I think this proposal exacerbates the problem; it doesn’t solve it.”

Among the 27 public comment speakers were four Google employees who reside in San Francisco. On Monday, an email from the company with guidance on what to say at the meeting was leaked to the blog TechCrunch.

Whether as a result of or independent of the email, all four employees’ comments aligned with the talking points, which included: “I support local and small businesses in my neighborhood on a regular basis. My shuttle empowers my colleagues and I to reduce our carbon emissions by removing cars from the road. If the shuttle program didn’t exist, I would continue to live in San Francisco and drive to work on the Peninsula.”

City resident Veronica Bell, a public policy and government affairs manager for Google, said, “At this point in my career and trying to raise three children, even without the shuttles I would continue to work in the Peninsula. Moving is not a choice. Working in another job is not another choice.”

Google program manager Crystal Sholts, 34, said she moved to The City from Minnesota in 2005 in search of a better life and walks and uses public transportation on weekends.

“I’m not a billionaire,” she said, in reference to the perception that tech workers are wealthy. “Like many people, I’m still paying off my student loans.”

More support for the pilot came from the shuttle industry itself.

The proliferation of the buses signals the need for regulation, said Mike Albertolle, fleet manager for Bauer’s Intelligent Transportation, which until about five years ago had an account with Google and now serves Cisco, the San Francisco Veterans Administration Medical Hospital and Visa.

“We’ll play by the rules,” he said.

The pilot’s approval came hours after a protest by the anti-displacement group Heart of the City. They staged two shuttle blockades in December in the Mission and another Tuesday morning that targeted a Google bus and another shuttle at Eighth and Market streets. The group also staged protests Tuesday outside the San Francisco Association of Realtors office and City Hall.

Organizer Rebecca Gourevitch, 27, said they made their point. “The message today is that a dollar doesn’t stop displacement,” she said. “People are being evicted all over San Francisco. Rents around the shuttle stops have gone up.”

Tech buses in The City

200+ Locations where shuttles will be able to stop, mostly in Muni zones

35K Total boardings per day

6.5K Boardings for regional shuttles

28.5K Intra-San Francisco shuttles

Source: SFMTA

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

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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