San Francisco’s Vote on Google Buses Today Won’t End the Controversy
Few things have come to epitomize San Francisco gentrification anxiety more than private Silicon Valley shuttle buses.
Every morning, the sleek, unmarked double-deckers with tinted windows slowly slide down busy San Francisco streets. They pause every so often at public bus stops, picking up batches of tech workers and carrying them off in air-conditioned, WiFi-bathed commutes to company command posts in the Silicon Valley suburbs miles away. For some longtime city residents, these buses have become one of the most visible symbols of an us-versus-them culture war that they argue the industry has cultivated during this decade’s tech-fueled economic boom: the literal insulation of tech workers—often young white men—from the rest of a more diverse San Francisco.
The luxury commuter shuttles have long served as the rallying point for residents upset over a rift they say is being created in the city because of an influx of tech workers—and tech money. In late 2013, demonstrators took to the streets to block shuttles from passing, and other protests were even more aggressive. More recently, the protest movement seems to have cooled. But the question of whether or not the buses are officially legal remains unresolved. That could change today as the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Board of Directors votes on whether or not to approve the so-called Commuter Shuttle Program—a permanent version of the “Google bus” pilot program that has been in testing since last year.
But the program itself is not without its own tension. The SFMTA says it’s trying to prevent a “wild west” scenario in which corporate shuttles run by Google, Facebook, Apple, and Genentech continued to operate without any rules at all. The agency’s opponents, meanwhile, assert that the city has fast-tracked the approval of these tech bus operations without conducting a thorough study of their impact on the environment and how they might be pushing up rents—or even incentivizing evictions—in housing clustered around the shuttle stops.
It’s easy to view the controversy as just another skirmish between locals and aspirant techies. But the clash is about more than that. It’s a vivid illustration of how a city deals with the fast-paced changes tech culture is bringing to its doorsteps, and the kinds of compromises with which residents are forced to wrestle. Should a city follow all its rules by the book before opening the door to new technologies and ways of doing things—even if those rules are ill-fitted to the changes they didn’t anticipate? Or should cities be more open to change, even if tech barrels ahead before communities have had a chance to weigh the consequences?
In January 2014, the SFMTA approved an 18-month pilot of the Commuter Shuttle Program and exempted tech buses from environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act, arguing the program would not “result in a serious or major disturbance” to environmental resources. By August of last year, the agency had started the pilot, testing a set of regulations that strictly limited the zones where private shuttles could stop. The city also starting charged a fee to private shuttles to stop in public bus loading zones; ramped up enforcement; and began collecting data. Thanks to those efforts, the city says it has a sense of the scale of tech bus traffic: about 17,000 boardings on an average weekday.
Some community members were immediately irked at the approval of the program, and a coalition of transit and housing activists and union members filed a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court to try to block it. The suit alleges that the shuttle pilot program should be subjected to a full environmental review. The plaintiffs also argue the program is illegal anyway because state vehicle code prohibits the use of public bus stops by private vehicles.
Matt Dorsey, the press secretary for the city attorney’s office, disagrees. “We are convinced that San Francisco fully met its legal obligations to thoroughly consider the environmental effects of the commuter shuttle pilot program, including its many benefits,” he tells WIRED.
Susan Vaughan, a substitute teacher and a member of the Coalition for Fair, Legal, and Environmental Transit, one of the suit’s litigants, meanwhile, says that though the suit itself hinges mostly on a request for a more thorough environmental review, there are other essential issues at play. “We think that there’s a link between the availability of these buses in escalating housing prices in San Francisco and evictions and displacements,” Vaughan says.
“Even though these buses say they reduce vehicle miles traveled and get cars off the road… Well, not if lower-income people are being forced out of the city and forced into communities where they don’t have good public transportation infrastructure and have to drive longer distances.”
After months of delays, the suit finally had its day in court on Friday. Superior Court Judge Garrett Wong heard arguments from both sides. His decision could come as soon as early December, and however he rules, it has the potential to jumpstart the controversy all over again.
Dealing With the Data
Last month, the SFMTA published a report on its pilot program. Whether the tech buses stay or go, their impact on San Francisco is undeniable, according to the agency’s data.
“By all accounts, a shuttle ride to the job location has become an integral part of the working conditions of thousands of workers in the Bay Area,” the report reads.
According to the report, close to half of shuttle riders—47 percent—said they would drive alone to work if a shuttle were not available. As a result, the shuttles remove nearly 4.3 million vehicle miles traveled. The vast majority of community feedback centered on complaints about large shuttles on city streets, especially residential streets, though the report intimated that some of those may have come from a disgruntled few. “One particularly active community member, a resident of Noe Valley, provided…23 percent” of the total complaints the city received between October 2014 and June 2015, the report noted, or 69 of 296 comments.
Ultimately, the question of tech buses is a stand-in for the bigger question about the private sector’s responsibility as the tech boom strains the Bay Area’s transportation infrastructure and sends housing prices and rents soaring.
“We’re not saying, ‘Go away, tech buses,’” says Cynthia Crews, a transit advocate and a resident of San Francisco for 15 years. Crews says the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against merely want to extend the pilot program until the city can collect the necessary amount of data on those buses. “They’re vital, but they need to be even better regulated.”
But Paul Supawanich, a former transportation consultant and now an executive at transit-planning startup Remix, says tech doesn’t deserve all of the blame for the strains faced by the city. There have long been other types of shuttles in operation in other sectors, he says, including universities’ inter-campus shuttles and shuttles between different hospitals within San Francisco, among others. Those, he says, seem to have gotten less attention than the corporate tech shuttles. “The tech buses were the tipping point for the city to say, ‘OK, we really need to figure out a way to at least have some type of control,’” Supawanich says.
But even then, he says, companies can only do so much. With the housing market so tight, transportation is a quicker way for companies to ease burdens on their own workers. For the vote today, says Supawanich, the best thing city regulators can do is go with the data they already have. And he says the conclusion you have to come to is that Google buses do take more cars off the road. “Based on the data,” he says, “you just try to do the best you can.”
Update 11/17/15 7:00 pm EDT: The permanent Commuter Shuttle Program has been approved by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Board of Directors. “We look forward to keeping thousands of cars off the road and minimizing the impact of shuttles on San Francisco’s streets,” a Google spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement to WIRED, after the vote.
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