Technology

What’s the matter with “The Google Bus?”

Sven Eberlein
Written by Sven Eberlein

Yesterday I went to a panel discussion entitled A Story of Shuttles at SPUR, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. For those of you not living in SF (and the Bay Area), what’s come to be known as “The Google Bus” is a whole fleet of privately run corporate limousine buses that are shuttling employees in the tech industry from hundreds of pick-up places near their homes in SF to their workplaces in Silicon Valley. The premise, according to company representatives at the panel, is that their predominantly young, under 35 workforce is “nauseated by the suburbs” and would rather commute up to 80 miles round trip to San Francisco every day than live near their workplace, and so the companies’ job is to make that trip as comfortable as possible, to attract and retain their workforce.

According to the SFMTA, there are now almost 40 companies running these shuttles with over two hundred stops across the city. Google alone runs over 100 buses and 380 trips daily across the Bay Area, which has earned them the honor of being the poster child for the luxury liner phenomenon. However, the trend was first started about 7 years ago by some of the more established biotech companies in South San Francisco like Genentech. It wasn’t really a big deal when there were just a handful, but the last two years has seen such a rapid explosion of these behemoths into our neighborhood streets that it feels a bit like an invasive species.

googlebus-stops

Most of these buses are anonymous entities that often make everything and everyone else dwarf in comparison and clog up the streets…

google-bus_01

but some of them are a bit more ostentatious in their destination…

yahoos_2

They load and unload in the public transit (MUNI) bus stops, and quite frequently just double-park right in an intersection.

google-bus_04

Two deep, about to unload “customers,” cars honking and pulling dangerous maneuvers to get past.

They are pretty much everywhere now, even on Valencia St, which has been transformed into a bicycle highway and people friendly walking corridor in recent years, but as a cyclist during rush hour you now have to contend with these guys turning on and off at random intersections. I guess this is one way to get big corporate billboards into a neighborhood that prides itself on protecting its small local merchants from chain store invasions.

google-bus_05

There are some much touted benefits of reducing automobile trips on Bay Area roads, and I definitely appreciate and applaud the good intentions behind these buses, but as someone who has written quite a bit about sustainable urban design, these buses, while addressing one small transportation sliver of the whole livable city ecosystem, raise a whole range of other social, cultural, economic, and environmental issues that are basically being treated as externalities by the people who are enabling the flooding of these private “yachts on wheels” deep into city neighborhoods, without much public discussion.

SPUR’s description of the panel had me excited because I thought it would delve into some of the broader ramifications of this transformation:

Those big buses are tough to miss. As employer shuttles sprout up across the Bay Area, what do they tell us about our region, its workers and its employers? What are the benefits and challenges that accompany their increasing presence? This forum will take a closer look at how and why some employers manage worker transportation.

Alas, it did not live up to its billing, and my hope is that this letter will spark further discussion and perhaps another panel where this issue can be addressed on a more meaningful level, perhaps inspiring more integrative solutions to the unsustainable way of life we’ve created for ourselves.

o~O~o~O~o~O~o~

Dear SPUR,

Thank you so much for putting together the panel on the corporate limousine buses with the folks from Google, Genentech, RidePal, and SFMTA today. I appreciate you trying to address this new phenomenon that is so rapidly changing our city and our neighborhoods, giving us a chance to listen to Daniel McCoy, Brendon Harrington, Dominic Haigh, and Carli Paine’s side of the story.

That said, I felt that the way this panel was set up and the treatment of the topic was pretty shallow and far from integrative thinking. Right off the bat, Ms. Paine, who I suppose was the lone representative of the public interest on the panel, proclaimed that the discussion would be limited to transportation issues exclusively, not about any social concerns that may be arising from what Mr. Haigh coined the “collaborative consumption for corporate commuter shuttles.”

With all due respect, but for anyone who has seriously thought about livable cities and sustainable urban planning, having thousands of wealthy young professionals (and growing) escorted en masse into vibrant, often working class neighborhoods in supersized luxury coaches is more than a transportation issue. I say this partly as a concerned Guerrero Street resident who has seen the neighborhood I have lived in for over 15 years morph into a pricy boutique destination over the last couple of years — coinciding with the ascent of “The Google Bus” — but also as a core advisor of the International Ecocity Framework & Standards Initiative that outlines 15 diverse conditions that need to be addressed for any city to consider itself ecologically healthy.

IEFS-standards-system

5 of these 15 conditions fall into the socio-cultural category, from an equitable economy to community capacity building, and that is no coincidence. Pretty much anyone who has seriously thought about environmental issues in the last 10-20 years knows that solving the problems of climate change and resource depletion are as much, if not more, about social, economic and justice issues as they are about counting carbon or taking a few cars off the road without looking at the effects on people and the commons. There is a reason why the UN has put all its climate change and environmental policies within a sustainable development frame: you cannot solve environmental problems without addressing poverty, inequity, social injustice, and the well being of the most vulnerable among us.

In the context of The Google Bus, what does it say about these companies that they’re so fixated on reaching 30, 40, or 50% customer rates (Yes, both Mr. McCoy and Mr. Harrington kept referring to their employees as “customers”) while rents and housing prices in the neighborhoods that they’re encouraging and actively recruiting their “customers” to live in have risen by the same percentages, if not more (I see small 2 bedroom apartments rent for $4000 a month on my street, and the 1100 sqft condo next door is currently on the market for $900,000 (update 5/6/13: the condo sold for $1.2 million), with literally hundreds of buyers lining up). Perhaps even more puzzling to me is that the city, who is supposed to be serving its residents and not “customers” from corporations headquartered in the suburbs (presumably because it is so much cheaper for them than to operate in the city), is bending over backwards to accommodate these private luxury liners on its public streets.

google-bus_02

Muni meets The Google Bus.

During the Q&A, we were basically told that there is nothing that can stop the rapid expansion of even more buses on more streets. The suggestion that maybe there could be only 10 pick-up and drop-off points was quickly dismissed by Mr. McCoy, who openly admitted that his only concern was with the growth of his private enterprise that would suffer if his “customers” did no longer have the convenience of door to door limo service. Furthermore, the suggestion that perhaps Google build a thriving ecovillage on their campus or invest in making Mountain View more livable pretty much got a non-response. The question whether these corporations should pay the city fees/taxes for road maintenance and using Muni stops wasn’t asked, but it would be an interesting one.

Basically, the Googles and Facebooks of the world are going to keep using San Francisco as a recruiting tool to attract the brightest and most expensive minds in the world but will invest nothing in any kind of public infrastructure to support civic life beyond their own corporate interest. The message here seems to be, tough luck for the old-time residents, the artistic and cultural backbone of the Mission, who are the very reason all the young and hip tech wizards want to move here in the first place; don’t worry about all the traffic every morning and evening, backed up behind growing fleets of diesel-spewing behemoths loading and unloading throngs of headset-clad twenty somethings staring into their gadgets, you’ll soon be priced out of the neighborhood anyway.

yahoos_1

New kids on the block, waiting for The Bus.

I can understand the very narrow and self-serving motivations of these corporations — they are, after all, primarily in the business of making money. I don’t even question their good intentions in terms of wanting to reduce their carbon footprint. I just don’t think they’re quite as smart as they think they are, as their thinking seems to be painfully linear rather than rooted in a deeper whole systems analysis. And even their single-minded focus on transportation is not really yielding the kind of success their powerpoints claim, seeing that last year the Bay Area was one of the worst three congested urban areas in the U.S., on par with L.A.

I have a much harder time though understanding why the city is so single-handedly fixated on transportation stats instead of looking at sustainability from a broader cultural and socio-economic perspective, and why SPUR would fail to get anyone with a deeper knowledge of urban development on this panel. It feels like nothing was resolved at all, and the conclusion of the event was that this is just the way things are and how they’re going to be in the future, just more of it with better apps.

Not to sound too NIMBY about it, but for me as a long-time Mission resident with a starving artist income, that means not only more tinted-window buses double parked outside my house, but more expensive restaurants, more boutique shops I can’t afford, and never being able to move again if I want to continue to live in my city. As far as the highly touted reductions in CO2 from the corporate commuter buses, has anyone at Google ever done an analysis of the type of carbon footprint that comes with the expendable income of someone who can afford a million dollars for a tiny condo? Imagine all the stuff people with a million bucks can and will buy, and the fossil fuels burned to manufacture and ship it. That’s the kind of question I would like to hear addressed on a panel like this.

My hope would be that this discussion could be continued and broadened, talking about the broader social, environmental, and economic effects, a discussion about the meaning of the commons and shared civic responsibilities, the class division between the lavish luxury buses and scrappy old muni buses, the effects of the buses on Caltrain and other public transit, and other things of a more meaningful holistic nature. For example, why not invite someone like author and San Francisco native Rebecca Solnit, who has written a very eloquent critique about the socio-cultural and economic ramifications of The Google Bus? Or perhaps BART Board Director Tom Radulovich who could offer some very valuable livable city insights?

Just some thoughts from a concerned citizen and resident.

Sincerely,
Sven Eberlein

Update, 6/17/2013:

Commenter ML decided to write the Transportation Manager at Google, Kevin Mathy. Below is the response he received, adding “I am going to follow up with the SFMTA but I think the response really says it all.”

On Mon, Jun 17, 2013 at 10:16 AM, > ML wrote:

Hello

I have read a few of the reports of the impact that Google transportation services have had on the environment. Reduction of cars and the reduction of CO2.
Have any studies been published on the impact that the transportation services have had in the different neighborhoods and city’s that they travel into?

Thanks

::::::

From: Kevin Mathy
To: ML
Sent: Monday, June 17, 2013 10:20 AM
Subject: Re: Google transportation routes

Hello,
Here is a report commissioned by the city of SF that was done a few years ago. I hope this helps
Regards
Kevin Mathy
Transportation Manager, Google Inc.

:::::::

On Mon, Jun 17, 2013 at 6:28 PM, > ML wrote:

Hello Kevin
Thanks for this publication. This is a great publication and it seems to cover any legal aspects that may come up because of these routes.

I am thinking in more expanded terms and something more recent. This was created 4 years ago. Do you have any documentation that looks into the following questions?

This document is missing quite a few stakeholders. It looks like you spoke with SFMTA and a few other local business associations, I did not see any Mission District, SOMA neighborhood related organizations, any outreach done with local residents who may not speak English, local religious organizations or local residents who may not have access to the internet.

Re-adjusting SFMTA Muni restrictions to fit the need of these routes and what SFMTA will cost benefit because of this?

Are there any community improvement projects around the areas affected by noise and pollution?

How do these buses imperil or affect bicyclists as they travel up public bus routes and non-public bus routes?

How these new transportation routes affect the cost of living increases to the people already living in these neighborhoods? Do these routes change the makeup of these neighborhoods?

What type of research was done on the affect of neighborhood expansion that has happened in communities these routes travel through?

The image of Google in cities other than its headquarters. Do the buses communicate that they’d rather seal their employees off from a City that is drawing so many of them? Does it communicate that they don’t care or don’t see themselves as part of larger public or actual place?
This leads into how invested in neighborhoods are people living in these areas who make use of company resources and do not have to deal with issues that their neighbors live with? For example if a city decides to post new parking meters in a neighborhood and even activate current meters on Sundays. Half the people may not care because they work for a company that provides them with transportation, while other people may have to care because they need cars to get to and from work.

The impact of how these routes affect the rising cost of public transportation for people who do not work for this company? Google buses segregate significant portions of the community from public transit, skewing the demand for certain routes (e.g. to Mountain View), removing fares from the system, while still utilizing public infrastructure. Transit systems always have well-used routes and funds subsidizing other routes. The system of private buses effectively removes the source of income and further impoverishing the equipment, routes and infrastructure elsewhere in the City that everyone, including Google employees, needs and uses.

How many of the steps in the “Recommendations and Next Steps” portion of the study have been implemented or put into motion?

I am trying to find documentation that shows that you have looked into some of these items and what are some counter measures that are being planned or being investigated. Anything you can pass on would be very much appreciated.

Thanks

::::::::

—– Forwarded Message —–
From: Kevin Mathy
Sent: Monday, June 17, 2013 6:54 PM
Subject: Re: Google transportation routes

I would suggest you contact the SFMTA to see if there is any recent information they can share with you
Regards
Kevin
Kevin Mathy
Transportation Manager, Google Inc.

Update, 10/11/2013

A good friend who lives in SF and has been commuting to Palo Alto for years sent me an email that speaks to the meme often heard that it’s simply too difficult to commute via public transit to the south bay.

I commend you on your work on behalf of those of who do not ride luxury buses to work. Having commuted from the SF Mission/Noe district to Palo Alto for 15 years I have found this phenomenon offensive on many levels. Throughout these years I have used bikes, rollerblades, muni buses, BART, Caltrain and shuttles, often mixed in with challenging day care/school drop offs. This kind of commuting requires discipline and creativity but I have always felt it to be part of an urban dwellers responsibility to stay out of the car. I don ‘t mean to sound like a martyr because it’s fun- sometimes. On various legs of my commute, I’ve met people who have become treasured friends, witnessed some unusual behaviors, and had some great bike rides on otherwise bad days.

About the author

Sven Eberlein

Sven Eberlein

91 Comments

  • Bike blockages of those damn busses! That’s what I see! Get all those starving artists to clog up the streets by blocking those busses, day after day for a while and maybe that will bring attention to something, that as you say, is a MUCH bigger issue than the panel you attended addressed. Excellent feedback and concrete solutions, Sven. Runnin’ for Mayor anytime soon? 😉

    • that’s funny, Naima, someone else suggested the bike blockade to me, so maybe that’s what needs to happen. I definitely think it would be kind of a fun statement. Thanks for the encouragement, I’m not sure I’d survive my first year as mayor, I don’t do well in dull policy meetings and shaking hands with all the important people. Then again, I wouldn’t have to because I’d be the Mayor and I could do whatever the hell I want, right? 😉

      • Please do not entertain such bike blockage suggestions even in jest. Bike blockages and other such shenanigans are the ugliest, most reprehensible demonstrations of selfishness and are not consistent with the democratic principle. Ive seen bikers on the Friday rides as a pedestrian and driver and they turn into nothing less than mean thugs, nit a care in the world.
        Continue to advocate your concerns through meetings and other public transport panels.
        As for your Caltrain suggestion, I think you might want to give the market a little more credit. No one would take the time and effort in getting a (very eco friendly) bus transport solution together if Caltrain was a viable solution. It takes up to 40 min for a lot of people to get to Caltrain. Trains aren’t efficiently, sometimes because some poor soul decides to , selfishly again, use the train as a method to his/her life. Caltrain is terrible, I’ve tried it several times and it is not a good solution. Bay Area public transport is probably only better than LA’s – it sucks big time for anything down the peninsula and to the South Bay.

        Some of the problems you are highlighting can only be solved through changing large scale development priorities of the government – acting out against bus operators and commuters is unnecessary and will instantly discredit anyone as not being a serious participant.

        You can’t tell anyone where to live and work any more than they can tell you sell your place at a profit and get out if you don’t like how things are going.

        Just what exactly is your short to mid-term solution?

        • I think the bike blockade idea was a joke, so no need to get worked up about that.

          As far as mid-term solutions:

          How about some of the bigger companies opening branches in SF? I hear mid-Market has vacancies.
          How about picking 10-15 locations for big bus pick-ups, and having smaller shuttles run into the neighborhoods?

          • I think you need to do your research. Most of the companies you speak of have offices in the city. LinkedIn, Salesforce, and Yahoo all have satellite offices of varying sizes in SF. Google, in fact, has a very large office near the Embarcadero. That covers about 1,500 people. Now what?

            • You should leave Salesforce off that list, since they’re headquartered in SF. As far as LinkedIn, Yahoo, and Google, I’m aware that they have satellite offices in SF, but they’re obviously not big enough to fill the demand. From what I’ve heard, city jobs are the most coveted among employees of these companies and nearly impossible to get. Which brings us back to the original problem that these companies aren’t located where most of their employees want to be. Now what?

  • This is all new to me. My mind is so boggled with answers to your headline question, I cannot formulate a response. Thank you to you and Rebecca for painting a clear picture and drawing the connections between so many dots.

    Just when I think America is waking up, someone figures out a way to put them back to sleep, confusing them into a stupor by spinning such self-promotional hypnotism as environmental consciousness.

    It reminds me of when curbside recycling came to our rural communities in Pennsylvania. Where residents once dropped off their collections at the township building or other convenient location for free, we suddenly saw giant, million dollar, gas guzzling recycling trucks spewing and idling through every tiny street and back road neighborhood, canvasing on a weekly schedule. And each homeowner was forced to pay a fee for this mandatory atrocity. I’m an advocate for recycling, same as you are an advocate for transportation and community in this story, so figuring out the words to speak leaves me with only dumbfounded silence.

    • Ruth, it’s both overwhelming but also kind of exciting to think about how “loaded” a simple bus can be. While the complexity and all the potential false choices inherent in it can really make one despair at times, I think it’s also a good reminder how important it is to accept and explore all the intricacies and nuances that life on earth presents to us. One of the biggest issues I have with this age of technology worship we find ourselves in is that despite all its brain power manifest in complex mechanisms and algorithms, the actual outcomes and results seem to be so one-dimensional. It’s a bit like performing surgery on a broken heart, spending all this money, intellect and resources on creating the perfect equipment and functionality, when a simple touch, an open ear, a hand in the soil, or a book of poems would just do the trick. I’m not saying those things would get tech workers from SF to Mountain View, but with a little bit more self-reflection and soulful vision by the people in high positions we would never build things in the styles and locations they currently are.

      • Thank you, Sven, for always looking at the deeper picture. The activity on Daily KOS in defense of the buses shows that one-dimensional result at work. Wouldn’t it be nice if folks spoke out so passionately in defense of truly PUBLIC transportation?

        • Yes Ruth, some of the comments there were pretty brutal, weren’t they? But I think as a whole, I’m really happy with how the discussion has gone, with so many different folks chiming in and I think furthering the conversation. I still haven’t heard back from SPUR, but I hope that ultimately they will host another panel with a more diverse representation of stakeholders.

        • That’s a pretty empty comment. You’re basically saying that one is not allowed to discuss problems with a particular technology if one is using it. Seems to me a recipe for boredom and stagnation.

    • they are, quite frequently (blocking lanes and bus stops), but the city has taken a really lenient approach, betting on communication with the companies rather than punishment. From what they all said at the panel, they are very receptive to specific complaints and supposedly move away from trouble spots when too many complaints come in. I think that can work as long as you have a limited number of buses, but since the plan is to rapidly expand these fleets I don’t see how they can possibly coordinate so many vehicles of that size to not block bike lanes and muni buses. The City says it is afraid of adding new regulations and bureaucracy, but my feeling is there comes a point at which you’ve reached a critical mass that requires some sort of rule enforcement. If I can get a ticket for running a stop sign on my bike (which I did a little while ago) I feel like the corporate bus should also be fined for blocking a muni stop or bike lane.

      • My point is that if they are breaking laws that impact bikes and buses, SFPD shouldn’t have to wait for complaints. If the buses decided to stop on the freeway, they’d be getting ticketed the first time.

        • oh yes, they certainly could but right now they don’t, because they choose not to. Why exactly that is I don’t know. My hunch is that they’re instructed not to, but I don’t know for sure.

  • Very thoughtful. Thank you.

    My question is, if these kids can afford $1M condos why wouldn’t they also purchase $70k cars if there were no buses? Wouldn’t that be worse? In other words, what if people will live here anyway?

    I’ve driven behind these busses and they most certainly spew a lot of nasty fumes! They also speed to about 75 and block the left lane.

    Tough issue nonetheless.

    • well, I think the reason they don’t buy the 70k car and take the buses is two-fold: 1) it’s much more relaxing sitting on a bus for 3 hours a day than driving (plus they can work on their laptops which the companies say they don’t require but encourage) and 2) I honestly think a lot of these younger folks understand the general environmental problem with single occupancy vehicles, and so riding the bus probably gives them the feeling of doing something good for “the environment.” My question though is, if indeed environmental values play a role in employees choosing to take the bus rather than driving a car, then why wouldn’t they also be willing to take the Caltrain, if the companies were to run a few smaller UCSF style shuttles from the western side of town? And this goes to my larger point that if Google, Facebook, & Co are so heavily invested in having their workforce live in SF, then why not put their huge resources and wealth behind making the whole public transit system better for everybody? Sure, it may lose them a few prospective recruits, but that would also relieve some pressure from the rental and housing market and correct this bubble that the shift of all the wealth towards the tech industry has created. It would be the kind of Nobel Prize thinking and action that would show a true commitment to making the city and the world better for everybody, not just their employees. As it is, they’re not really behaving much differently from any other old school corporation, looking to maximize their short-term profit, despite the rhetoric about being different and not evil and stuff.

      • As someone who rides the bus … Caltrain is hard to get to (I live in the southern Mission), runs infrequently, and doesn’t have internet access.

        According to Google Maps, getting to San Jose via Caltrain from my home would take 2 hours, plus a shuttle to my office. My shuttle bus takes about an hour, door to door. While I totally understand the issues with the busses, we’d need a massive increase in public transit infrastructure to replace them (or an exodus of tech workers out of SF).

        Caltrain + BART would also cost something like $20 / day, which adds up fast!

        • Thanks so much for stopping by and chiming in from your perspective, Miles, I really appreciate the dialog. I guess I’m curious to know whether SF is really that much better a place to live in than San Jose to justify an 80 mile commute every day, bus or not. And what would you have done a few years ago before there was the bus option? Would you not have taken the job in San Jose and perhaps focused on finding work closer to SF? Moved to San Jose? Bought a car? Or bit the bullet and do the Caltrain plus shuttle commute? I guess my concern is that the buses are actually encouraging people to live far from work, and if they weren’t there, people would just naturally want to live closer to work, which to me seems most in line with living sustainably and locally.

          I’m a big proponent of a massive increase in public transit, but what’s the incentive to push for that if everyone is getting comfy on this expanding privatized transportation system? Do you know of any tech company that’s actively involved in lobbying for and investing in public transit? Do you think there’s a limit to how many limousine coaches can and should be on the streets of SF? Either way, I personally think that SF to SJ simply is too far of a daily commute, and the “Google Bus” only creates the illusion that it isn’t.

          • SF is the cultural, political, and geographical hub of the entire region — it’s where the food, music, governance, and _culture_ really happen. I lived in San Jose for about a year, before I fled its car-culture and moved up to SF.

            The buses definitely distort things. It removes the incentives for (generally wealthier) tech workers to advocate for improved public transit, and probably is a powerful force to keep SF as the center of culture. I’m not sure of the solution — it seems to me that, short of government intervention, the buses just become more common, and start to expand south more.

          • I’m another SF resident who relies on a shuttle to get to work in Silicon Valley. My significant other works in SF, and without the shuttles, we’d end up living somewhere on the peninsula and driving on a fairly regular basis. With the shuttles + Muni, we can live in SF and don’t own a car at all. Much better for the environment and much better for our stress level. I’m not alone – many folks who ride the shuttles do so to solve similar problems.

      • I’m about to move to SF from Berkeley. I work in Silicon Valley and yes, I ride the bus.

        I think your concerns are serious and important. I don’t have any answers, but I thank you for raising the questions.

        Oh, btw, I drive a $1000 beater car. I have neither the money for a Silicon Valley status-mobile, nor the desire to spend hours driving every day.

        • Thanks for sharing, fivetonsflax. No easy solutions here, I know everyone is trying to do the best they can and I try not to judge or stereotype people who are just trying to get to work as easily as possible, though I admit it’s hard sometimes when I see what’s happening to my neighborhood. But that’s why I think it’s important to have this dialog, the best way to resolve conflicts is to communicate openly and evolve together. Just holding it all in and breeding resentment has never been good for anyone’s health or the furthering civil discourse.

  • While the holistic view should be dominant and is excellently addressed here (in its absence), I wonder if we are taking the transportation benefits as a given. Is the assumed advantage of these corporate shuttles vs. all those people driving themselves, or combining several modes (walking or cycling plus bus and train)? Would the employees live on the Peninsula? Though the shuttles have replaced that multi-modal journey, for people who have communicating to these companies going back a few years, is there solid information on how they can be replaced? What would happen if the money used for these shuttles was put directly into the truly collective public mobility system? What is missing? WiFi? Yes. Electric-assist bike share at the south end of the journey (not using the BAAQMD-funded Alta Bike Share scheme, but something more like OV-fiets in the Netherlands (where people have a bike all day that uses much, much cheaper technology.) Massages? Food?

    In sum, I suppose the question is what have Bay Area public transport actors done wrong that makes the Google Buses more interesting by comparison? (Leaving aside building the various campuses in bad spots… and clearly no “bicycle highway” would have bikes crossing paths with any big motor vehicles — not just GB’s. Hmm… perhaps an alternative, less obvious protest would not target the Buses, but the fake bike hwy…)

    Were results of any studies or analysis incorporating these issues part of the discussion the other day?

    • These are all such excellent questions, Todd. I am not sure if any such studies or analysis were done by anyone, at least nothing of that sort was mentioned at the meeting. It felt to me that SFMTA is basically just trying to keep up with the rapid spread of these buses, hoping there won’t be a big collision, keeping a very low-profile and non-confrontative attitude simply because they wouldn’t even have the staff and funds to enforce any kind of regulations or sponsor more in-depth studies or discussions. That’s why I felt like I had to write this letter, because my sense is that basically nobody but the tech companies is driving this — excuse the pun — bus, and the public has basically not been asked or involved because nobody has said anything. It feels like the start-up mentality at work here — do it now, ask questions later — which is fine, I appreciate that sort of go-for-it pioneering spirit, but I think the “later” has arrived now and it’s time to ask some questions. I would nominate you for the next panel if anyone asked me. 😉

  • I would guess that many people, me including, would prefer thousand times railway transportation than bus (European here:) . There is nothing to be compared with the speed and comfort of trains: imagine a train easily accessible from most of the neighborhoods of SF, running over several lines covering most of the Bay Area, running every 15 min or more often and crossing the whole area in 20 min. Well, this the reality in many Asian and European countries. The busses are a poor private replacement of an extensive public transit, reaching far outside the city…

    • Hi Alex, I hear you. I’m from Germany originally, and every time I’m back there I have to think about how smart it was to have invested in an extensive rail system a long time ago. The problem with the automobile infrastructure is that it’s very hard to undo once it is established, and that’s one of the biggest challenges in the U.S. when it comes to expanding public transit routes. That said, we’re actually doing quite well in the San Francisco Bay Area compared to a lot of other places. Also, I don’t know anyone in Germany who does or would want to commute 120km every day, train connection or not. There would be too many interesting and vibrant towns to live in along the way to justify such a huge time and money commitment.

  • The first Google shuttle (a single route in SF picking up from a park’n’ride) was organized by my then cubicle-mate in the summer of 2003, a few years ahead of the 2006 date you mentioned for Genentech. It was unrelated to her job (engineering project management), she just wanted to make the commute easier for herself and a few coworkers and convinced the execs to pay for the experimental shuttle scheme. It was very popular and the logistics of adding more routes/buses/stops was quickly taken over by a dedicated transportation team.

    • Thanks for the info Paul, I think Brendon actually mentioned that during his presentation. It’s certainly come a long way from that first shuttle, hasn’t it? I can totally relate to how and why it has grown from a Google employee and company perspective, and I hope that the same well-intentioned spirit will shine through as the company (hopefully) is beginning to address the shift of what used to be a private, internal matter into the broader town square which all the rest of us inhabit as well. I for one would love to see some real engagement with the SF community.

  • Why don’t they just build an actual high-speed commuter rail down to the South Bay? And even “air trains” from the HQs to the train stop…better than Cal Train which is quite slow especially if you’re not express—with all the technology you’d think there would be more focus to get off the roads all together.

    • they’re working on the High Speed Rail from SF to LA which will include a couple of stops in Silicon Valley and San Jose. It won’t be for a while, but my hope is that the companies will plan around the projected launch of HSR with exactly the kind of shuttles you suggest, and perhaps financial incentives for their employees to use HSR. Especially from a tech perspective, HSR should be pretty exciting. Even if it adds a little extra time to your overall commute, what techie wouldn’t want to be part of the future like that?

      • My company already has shuttles to Caltrain. It just takes forever to get to the nearest Caltrain station. It would be great if this could change — very much looking forward to HSR (though is suppose I’ll be doing something different by the time it is finished).

          • If I were to bike + Caltrain …

            20 min bike to Caltrain
            80 min train to San Jose
            20 min shuttle to office
            120 min total vs. 50 minutes on the shuttle (or 4hr commuting per day vs. <2hr commuting). They aren't really comparable.

            Miles

            • so the benefit of a 40 minute workout built into your day does not outweigh the 60 minutes you save in time? Just out of curiosity, did you see the bike as a benefit when you did it or was it mostly an inconvenience?

  • 1st correction, the “Google bus” commute distance one way is nowhere near 80m(120 km). For Google it is 1/2 of that (check any mapping software) and for others not much further. Any serious discussion factually wrong 100% lacks credibility.

    Mr. Miles and Mr. Toshev quite summed it up : public transit is great but at BEST would take twice as longer.
    any suggestion that Google etc, should instead (coaches) invest into public transportation fund are unrealistic. it’d be a huge investment to bring SFBA rail or/and bus transportation anywhere close to European efficiency and speed. It’d take decade or more to complete. Nobody knows whether those big employers would be around by then, let alone get any return on their investment. While their investment into private coaches in limited, targeted and brings results immediately.

    Prices going up due to influx of wealthy pros is nothing new to SF, SFBA or other parts of the country and world. Private busses probably contribute the least to it, while may be the most visible. Thus, stopping private coaches is the least effective way to mitigate its down sides.

    • I wrote “up to 80 miles” but I just added “round trip” which is of course what I meant and the number that was given at the panel discussion. It also wasn’t specifically referring to the distance from SF to the Google campus, but a quick Google search yields that the distance from SF to San Jose is roughly 40 miles, and as Miles writes in the comments, his company is located in San Jose.

      I don’t think anyone is calling for a complete stop of these buses and I know that’s not going to happen. But just because we can’t make the broader long-term solutions happen by tomorrow, does that mean we can’t even try or at least talk about it? This is not a simple good/bad issue, many shades of gray here, but if all we’re going to say is that supply and demand will take care of everything and it’s none of anyone’s but these private companies’ business we may as well just get rid of rent control and any other social services that don’t make profit.

      Anyway, a good question I think would be: Is there a limit to just how many of these buses can operate safely on the streets of San Francisco? The operations managers for Google and Genentech said that this was just the beginning and they are planning to add a lot more buses in the coming months and years. So what will it take to actually have a public discussion about this? Perhaps a bad accident?

      • I don’t believe regulating number of buses will solve anything in the long run. The main problem of bad transportation in the Bay Area will remain, and by limiting the number of buses the people who can’t use them will start finding their own suboptimal solutions. I could imagine, Sven, instead of the big coach you posted a picture of above, a year from such regulations you will see 50 cars of all the people who can’t be served from the bus. Then probably one would have to regulate something else?! I don’t see an improvement.

        I think one should think about the big picture. The Bay Area is lucky to have a booming economy, far luckier than most of the rest of the country. And despite some downsides of this growth, e.g. 100 more buses on the streets of SF, there are way bigger opportunities. Have you considered, Sven, contacting your local representatives and inquiring how they plan to improve transportation in the area 5, 10, 15 years from now. Perhaps one could use the 5+ Billion surplus in revenues from the beginning of the year, which the governor announced recently, to improve the transportation opportunities for both you, Sven, your family, friends and Google employees. This will make a real difference in a long run, don’t you think?

        • building better public transit sounds like a good idea, Alex, I’m all for that and I’m in support of projects that are already being built, like HSR or the Central Subway line, and lobbying for new ones to be added.

          My question is this: Will people for whom door-to-door shuttle service has become the new normal be willing to use these new public transit lines to get across the city and to Silicon Valley? What do you think is the percentage of folks who would accept a longer commute to support an improved public transit system?

          You really think there should be no cap whatsoever of these buses? 100 more is okay, how about 200? 500? 1000? I’m also not sure that the equation “more buses = less traffic/cars” works quite as neatly as you say. Seems to me that while the buses get some of the existing SF residents out of their cars they are also designed to attract many new recruits from around the world that don’t have cars in the first place. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that, but I’m just not fully convinced of the big claims made about car reduction. At least from my vantage point on Guerrero St, traffic has never been worse than it is now. Maybe there is a statistical reduction in numbers, but when you have two buses dropping off people on a busy artery like Guerrero in the middle of rush hour commute, the backup is immense.

          You’re probably also right that this is just part of the current overall boom, and no matter what we do, people are going to feel the crunch. The same thing happened during the dot com boom a decade ago, it came and went. But my feeling is that this wave is much bigger and here to stay for a long time, so I think it’s in everyone’s interest to figure out long term solutions that work for everyone, including those that aren’t so much part of the boom. I also know that a lot of the people who work down in Silicon Valley have lived in SF for a long time and are part of the community, so it’s not this us vs them thing. So let’s keep talking to each other, if we listen to each others’ concerns we’re more likely to come up with ideas for solutions that everyone has a stake in.

          • I think people would prefer public transportation if it is done right. Because, if done right it should be more convenient than buses. When I say train, please do not think CalTrain. A moderately good train should travel the 40 miles from SF to SJ in less than 30 min which would be way more faster than bus or car (buses are not only slower than trains but have less space and shake).

            So one should not think of the “Google bus” as “luxury coach” but more as a poor and suboptimal replacement of good railway system, which would be the first choice for everyone.

            Regarding the point you make about recruits who don’t have cars, since I am one of these people I could tell you out of personal experience that if the bus becomes inconvenient for me I will simply buy a car. The reason why most of the people commute, including me, is the fact that the companies are in the Valley and we like to live in the city. So if no bus, there will be car since Caltrain is too inefficient 🙁

      • San jose would be 50 miles still far cry of 80, but if you meant round-trip than all was correct.
        We can certainly discuss impact of the coaches, but while doing so it is important to discuss impact of lack of thereof, how many of those riding them now would find another employer, move out (with their taxes) or start driving (even if some would carpool 4 in a car, it takes 10-15 carpools to replace a single bus @ 80% load factor (buses have 50-75 seats, depending on # of decks, 1 or 2).
        surely, the city and “google bus” should (and do) cooperate to locate additional bus stop to minimize interference with MUNI operation. But any talk about “regulation” in SF, at least for me, is associated with money grab expedition with little problem solving benefit.
        Again, if downside is traffic confession and MUNI interference, it could be analyzed whether it is real downside or upside (in case 1 less bus would bring more than 3 cars on a road) and mitigated.
        If most downside is impact on incumbent residents due to wealth influx, yep, I’d agree, it is the real issue, but efforts would be better spend to address it directly rather via a limited proxy (private coach), let alone a bike block action a-la occupy WS.

        p.s. what happened to all occupy WS movement? People were fed up and came out to show it up, but could not come together to propose any real demands let alone solution.

        • well, the Occupy movement got taken off the streets as you may remember, but it continues to live on and thrive in the form of many community groups that are involved in making their local neighborhoods more equitable, one issue at a time. While the mainstream media has lost interest in it, it’s still happening. Check out http://www.obau.org/ or http://occupysf.org/ and get involved, there are many people out there doing the hard work of at least trying to change a system that seems rigged to make the rich richer and the poor poorer. It’s not even so much about what you call yourself, I personally don’t consider myself a “member” of Occupy, but I go to gatherings with my neighbors to brainstorm and advocate for making our neighborhood, and perhaps by extension the world, a better place.

  • I don’t work at Google, but I will commend them on one thing. In Mountain View (where I live, to be close to my own place of employment) they fund a shuttle from the Caltrain station to their various MV buildings. Except here’s the kicker, it’s a fully Google funded, free-to-the-public bus in conjunction with VTA. Sure, it’s only one direction and peak times, but if you’re commuting in the same direction as it’s employees, Google’s got your fare. I take a corporate shuttle from the Caltrain station to my own place of employment, but I would be extremely proud if my company opened that up to anyone going the same direction.

    • that is cool indeed, Troy. I didn’t know that. What do you think of the idea of having perhaps only 10 or so stops for the big coaches in the city and then companies running these free smaller shuttles into the micro hoods? I guess at that point you could just call it “public transportation”…

  • For what it’s worth, it’s not just the new kids. I work for a company that provides a commuter coach service (and not just from/to San Francisco!), and I was living in San Francisco LONG before I started working there. I’m committed to living in SF (and have been for a long time), but it’s not always where the jobs are. Public transit is not a viable option for some (as has been mentioned already), and this is a great way to move SF’s “transit first” policy forward. It may not be public, but it’s certainly mass!

  • Looks like this post hit home with lots of folks…congrats on that Sven. Two things come to mind. Everyone I know (mostly professionals) who have moved to the Bay Area to work has been appalled by how expensive it is to live there. The profit from selling their Midwestern homes buys them next to nothing two to three hours away. Why anyone would want to commute that long is a mystery. I also think you make a good point that if these high tech companies were also interested in their communities…they might try working within the existing transit system to improve it rather than sidestepping the issue with this perk for employees.

    • Yup, Al, personally I have a hard time relating to that long of a commute too, but that’s why they make it so comfortable that it doesn’t feel like a commute anymore to people and they can count it towards their work hours, like telecommuting on a bus. The question is whether it’s a good thing that a 2+ hour daily commute doesn’t feel like a commute anymore even though that’s what it still is.

  • Some musings from a GBus rider who also reads urbanism/city planning blogs for fun:

    On replacing private shuttles with public transit – the more governments and agencies that need to sign off, the less likely it is to succeed. By the time you’ve made enough compromises to satisfy everyone, I’d be very surprised if the commute time would be short enough to be appealing. Even if you get past this hurdle, there’s a high chance of death by a thousand NIMBY cuts. See CAHSR vs Palo Alto for an example. The large-scale corporate campuses of the companies that run shuttle services typically aren’t near transit hubs, which are themselves a rarity in the south bay. Changing that won’t be easy. It would be great if it wasn’t so hard to build new things in SF. Changing that won’t be easy either. A major draw of the shuttle bus is that you don’t have to spend 8 hours in the office – you can do 6.5 or 7 hours in the office, make up the rest during your commute, and still get home at a reasonable hour. Secrecy is a big deal for companies of this size, and chances are they wouldn’t allow employees to work in public if there was a chance a competitor’s employee could be peeking over your shoulder. Remove the ability to work during the commute and people will just revert to driving.

    On land use in general – SF is dense, peninsula and south bay are not. Attitudes towards more walkable land use patterns are improving, but it’s going to take a long time to undo the last 30-40 years of the suburban development model. Even SF has problems here – even as demand for walkable urban centers has grown drastically, the housing supply hasn’t. Rampant NIMBYism towards new construction, rent control without means testing, and a “we’re the most progressive city and to keep it that way, nothing is allowed to change ever” attitude – it’s like the city tried to freeze itself at a particular moment in time, but in actuality has self-selected for massive gentrification because that’s the only crowd that can pay the high cost of entry.

    • while I support private coaches, your argument for it would move public the other way as the argument is so weak it’d cause resentment:
      1) counting 2h RT commute + 8h at work, one can still get home at reasonable hour (8am-6pm, etc)…of course “reasonable” is subjective.
      2) not all big employers are secretive, let alone all their commuting employees are involved into secretive projects.
      3) even most secretive employers would not physically (and thus as a matter of policy) prohibit where theirs, even most secretive employees, can login to VPN and do work. I’m sure working from a cafe is no less dangerous than from CalTrain (do I remember correctly that baby bullets have Wi-Fi?).
      4) many people would continue to NOT drive even if they cannot work during commute. There are many other great things people are able to do while not driving : reading, watching videos, etc.

      On side note, “Gbus” operations to/from SF are ~1/2 of those of whole SFBA. If public transit to/from SF is so doubtful, other SFBA location have no hope, so private coach ops would not be abandoned regardless of SF.

      Finally, I’m against shaming (or otherwise forcing outside of legal framework) large SFBA employers to contribute to public transportation (I hate hidden taxes). If SF and/or SFBA electors decide they want better public transport and fat cat corporations need to contribute to it, they should vote to tax (all of) them. That’s process should be transparent and all-inclusive, no need to invent a wheel here, it’d only cause more corruption.

    • gongalong, thanks so much for chiming in. First of all, I’m assuming your second comment which is only slightly different from the first one is the one you wanted to leave, so that’s the one I’m responding to here.

      Good to hear more viewpoints from “the other side of the windows.” What’s really encouraging to hear throughout this thread is that almost everyone realizes and acknowledges that the situation is less than ideal, even though comprehensive solutions are difficult to come by. In a sense, we’re all thrust into a long history of shortsighted urban planning decisions and left to choose between “bad” and “less bad,” which then usually creates even bigger long-term problems. Big, bold, but long-term intelligent planning decisions are hard to come by, and as far as finding fault, I would say it’s probably a combination of factors that ultimately include all of us as a society. Yes, there is plenty of NIMBYism, as well as political risk aversion in the civic/government sector (some would call it cowardice) to keep the status quo, as well as a lot of greed and quarterly profit motivation in the private sector. When I feel particularly emphatic I try to put myself in a 1950s state of mind before the knowledge of peak oil, climate change, and clogged up highways, when cars and sprawl where the symbol of progress, and I can see how we got ourselves into this fundamentally unsustainable infrastructure and way of life with only the best of intentions.

      About the shuttles: I think it is plenty obvious that from the perspective of both employees and employers in the burgeoning tech industry the buses are by far the most efficient, comfortable, and sensible way to go. No doubt about that, and if I were working in this industry I could see myself feeling compelled to sign up for a commute like that. (although my #1 consideration in all the jobs I’ve had in my life has always been that it was accessible by public transit or bike, even before income or career considerations). I think there are individual circumstances like family or home ownership or other things that leave some people no other choice but to commit to such a mammoth commute every day, like some previous commenters described earlier, and I’m totally sympathetic to these individual situations. So as long as this is being presented as something the tech giants are doing to take care of their own employees and their bottom line, that’s okay, we can just have a discussion about the legality of private buses using Muni stops and double-parking to load and unload passengers. But since this is being presented as a solution to transportation and environmental problems and the companies also want to reap the goodwill and benefits that come with the image of appearing like they’re doing good beyond their corporate self-interest, I think we need to have that bigger discussion, because in my view the most benevolently I could look at this is as a small band aid, if that.

      Yes, the solutions are difficult. Yes, governing and going through zoning meetings and the civic, democratic process can be tedious and frustrating. Believe me, corporations aren’t the only ones who can despair at the foot-dragging and small-thinking that happens in city halls across the Bay Area and the country. Ask Ecocity Builders how long it took to get one pedestrian block in Berkeley (answer: 15 years for Center Street Plaza). But it ultimately is the only process we’ve got to make change on a systemic level that includes and affects everyone. The notion that the private sector could solve all these problems if only there were less red tape is not reflected in history and reality. Sustainable civic ventures are about more than profitability, because they have to take into consideration all stakeholders, even those with little means or voice. So I do think that to achieve any of the meaningful long-term changes that would enable people to live closer to their work (which I think we can agree is what we all want and what’s the most ecologically sensible urban design, either having more companies move closer to their workers or vice versa), we have to go through the democratic process, warts and all.

      So that’s my proposition: Let’s not settle for 80 mile daily commutes, bus or car, as our vision for the future, saying we’re just going to run as many buses as we can until everyone has a comfortable 80 mile commute and many more people are attracted into the same situation by accepting this kind of a commute not only as the new normal, but as something that’s considered a good environmental deed. Let’s do the difficult work of both educating why we need better public transit and urban design based on access by proximity, as well as better incentives for companies to be closer to their workforce, while figuring out the best way to run these buses with minimal impact on the neighborhoods they serve in the interim. Seems to me that a lot of the people who choose to live in SF and work in Silicon Valley do so because they value the ability to walk, take public transit, or party in the street, so to me that seems like a really good basis for participation in and support of more holistic urban solutions, perhaps with just a little bit of willingness to stretch beyond personal comfort and convenience that will be necessary to go through this transition.

      As far as corporations becoming the kind of entities whose intentions to do good would be more trusted, I’d be really happy to see one of the big ones register as a California Benefit Corporation. Patagonia did it last year, so why not Google or Facebook. It’s the ultimate cred in being truly concerned beyond your bottom line.

      Rent control: That’s a whole ‘nother discussion, and there are certainly problems associated with it. But one thing I know for sure is that if we all of a sudden abolished rent control in SF, it would be a blood bath, on many levels. You may have that kind of faith in the goodness of the free market, but boy, I don’t think SF landlords have evolved enough towards being that humble and generous to not just turn this town into a, let’s just say, very monolithic cultural and economic cluster of people.

  • Hi Sven
    This a great article!! I decided to write the Transportation Manager at Google, Kevin Mathy. Below is the response I received. I am going to follow up with the SFMTA but I think the response really says it all.

    —– Forwarded Message —–
    From: Kevin Mathy
    To: a>
    Sent: Monday, June 17, 2013 6:54 PM
    Subject: Re: Google transportation routes

    I would suggest you contact the SFMTA to see if there is any recent information they can share with you
    Regards
    Kevin
    Kevin Mathy
    Transportation Manager
    Google Inc.
    1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
    Mountain View, CA 94043
    http://www.Google.com

    On Mon, Jun 17, 2013 at 6:28 PM, > wrote:

    Hello Kevin
    Thanks for this publication. This is a great publication and it seems to cover any legal aspects that may come up because of these routes.

    I am thinking in more expanded terms and something more recent. This was created 4 years ago. Do you have any documentation that looks into the following questions?

    This document is missing quite a few stakeholders. It looks like you spoke with SFMTA and a few other local business associations, I did not see any Mission District, SOMA neighborhood related organizations, any outreach done with local residents who may not speak English, local religious organizations or local residents who may not have access to the internet.

    Re-adjusting SFMTA Muni restrictions to fit the need of these routes and what SFMTA will cost benefit because of this?

    Are there any community improvement projects around the areas affected by noise and pollution?

    How do these buses imperil or affect bicyclists as they travel up public bus routes and non-public bus routes?

    How these new transportation routes affect the cost of living increases to the people already living in these neighborhoods? Do these routes change the makeup of these neighborhoods?

    What type of research was done on the affect of neighborhood expansion that has happened in communities these routes travel through?

    The image of Google in cities other than its headquarters. Do the buses communicate that they’d rather seal their employees off from a City that is drawing so many of them? Does it communicate that they don’t care or don’t see themselves as part of larger public or actual place?
    This leads into how invested in neighborhoods are people living in these areas who make use of company resources and do not have to deal with issues that their neighbors live with? For example if a city decides to post new parking meters in a neighborhood and even activate current meters on Sundays. Half the people may not care because they work for a company that provides them with transportation, while other people may have to care because they need cars to get to and from work.

    The impact of how these routes affect the rising cost of public transportation for people who do not work for this company? Google buses segregate significant portions of the community from public transit, skewing the demand for certain routes (e.g. to Mountain View), removing fares from the system, while still utilizing public infrastructure. Transit systems always have well-used routes and funds subsidizing other routes. The system of private buses effectively removes the source of income and further impoverishing the equipment, routes and infrastructure elsewhere in the City that everyone, including Google employees, needs and uses.

    How many of the steps in the “Recommendations and Next Steps” portion of the study have been implemented or put into motion?

    I am trying to find documentation that shows that you have looked into some of these items and what are some counter measures that are being planned or being investigated. Anything you can pass on would be very much appreciated.

    Thanks

    From: Kevin Mathy
    To: a
    Sent: Monday, June 17, 2013 10:20 AM
    Subject: Re: Google transportation routes
    Hello,
    Here is a report commissioned by the city of SF that was done a few years ago. I hope this helps
    Regards
    Kevin Mathy
    Transportation Manager
    Google Inc.
    1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
    Mountain View, CA 94043
    http://www.Google.com

    On Mon, Jun 17, 2013 at 10:16 AM, > wrote:

    Hello

    I have read a few of the reports of the impact that Google transportation services have had on the environment. Reduction of cars and the reduction of CO2.
    Have any studies been published on the impact that the transportation services have had in the different neighborhoods and city’s that they travel into?

    Thanks

    • wow, ML, what a fascinating exchange! The questions you ask are spot on, and his punt back to SFMTA reminds me a bit of what happens so often in the age of the internet when a bunch of authors link back to one article as their source that is either outdated or itself unsourced.

      If you don’t mind, I’ll add your exchange as an update to my post. Oh, and if you’d like to see what the SFMTA has to say, you can get in touch with their Transportation Planning Manager Jerry dot Robbins at sfmta.com, who my partner has been communicating with regarding bike lane obstruction by the buses on Valencia St. He has a very open ear to particular concerns by residents about bus routes and stops, but my guess is he’ll punt just like Kevin Mathy on the larger structural and social problems.

      I guess the really smart guys with actual solutions to the problem must be working in different departments. 😉

      Thanks so much for digging a bit deeper. Keep me posted on anything else you hear.

      • Please use it Sven. Thanks I am going to include the SFMTA Transportation Manager in my conversation with the Google Transportation Manager. I am not sure what to make of the dismissive response from the Google Transportation Manager.

        • I’m not sure if his answer was purposefully dismissive. I think it’s more likely that he simply doesn’t have any good answers for your questions. Which goes back to the original point of my post that these companies are trying to market themselves as the smart solutions people for larger problems when in actuality they are only solving their own transportation and recruiting problems, serving their own bottom line. Of course, other than the buses pulling into Muni stops and bike lanes there’s nothing illegal about it, but they shouldn’t expect us to love them for making the world — or even just San Francisco — a better place.

  • Thanks for laying out some of the complexities of this issue– The bus blockage at 24th and Valencia caught my attention this morning and I was confused as to why shuttle buses– who purpose appears to be getting single occupancy vehicles off of the roads– would be worth protesting. Thank you to Sven for providing the spark igniting this dialogue and to all of the commentors for their contributions!

    • Thanks for taking the time to check into this, Hannah. I happened to be there this morning, too, and thought it was a very creative way to bring more attention to the issue. I was talking to one of the organizers and said it would be really cool to have a community forum inviting all the different parties and figure out solutions. I think part of the problem is that the City didn’t really communicate very well with local residents about what it was doing when it allowed the tech companies to ramp up this private service. I’m hoping that there will be more constructive dialog due to actions like these.

      Btw, here’s a photo I snapped this morning with my dumb phone…

      warning-2tier

  • Are you people kidding? If a business or group of businesses’ operations constitute a public nuisance, the public doesn’t have to get used to it. The analogous situation from recent history is the dog walking business, which went out of their way to stay in business. That is precisely what the private shuttle industry and their customers need to do. Designated areas for private shuttles to do their business can be created but there is no good reason for those areas to coincide with public bus stops, unless you mean terminuses or depots. This is old business politically going back to the days of horse drawn carriages, which were a public nuisance, too.

    • not sure if they can be limited to one terminus at this point, Randy. It’s almost like that horse buggie has left the station. In a sense, the tech companies used the classic disruption method, throwing a boatload of these buses at SF streets and asking questions later. What makes it hard to undo and start from scratch is that the SFMTA greenlighted it all, without any kind of public discourse. Now that the gears are grinding at full speed and there are hundreds of buses pulling into over 200 stops they can’t just make them all go to one depot, so the compromise seems to be at this point to split the difference and work out 100 stops. Not a bad deal for Google & Co, since they would have never gotten that many if this had gone through any kind of public review process from the beginning.

    • Sounds like somebody might be drinking the kool-aid. You’ll notice I used the plural, terminuses and depots, so the selection of designated spots is not a counter argument but an opportunity. The dog walking business and problem arose in the same way; these are just bigger dogs and businesses. Saying that the ship has sailed is not an appropriate starting place for a reasoned argument, if it isn’t your ship. Here, you know you have motivated people who are willing to fight for the cause, so there is not much reason to infer weakness. If the captive SFMTA does not act to correct this nuisance, I suspect the affected residents will show their pronouncements the same regard. My theme is the problem does not have to be looked at from the POV of the dog owners or the dog walkers who are running wild, and everything that follows is a fait accompli. That is a strategy that can work with politicians, bureaucrats, and sophomoric “market fundamentalists,” but it shouldn’t with real people. The politicians and bureaucrats will have to answer to public opinion sooner or later, even if the companies have their ear now.
      Its the rule of parsimony: reframe the problem to arrive at a solution that conforms to public norms, not the mayor’s industrial policies and corresponding corporate lobbying efforts.

      • Randy, sorry I missed the plural part (looking at John’s comment below yours), that makes all the difference. Agree with everything you said thereafter. So if in fact the tech companies agreed to the terminal proposal (which I personally doubt they will) the question would become, how many and where? I’m just trying to imagine where in the Mission for example there’s a space big and central enough for dozens of buses to pull in and out of during rush hour.

        • Let’s back up again and call these buses what they are in labor market terms, namely land ferries. The advantage/disadvantage is that land ferries have the ability to seamlessly extend their reach beyond sea lanes, ports, harbors, and marinas. Well, nice try but a lot of features of the natural environment are good models for businesses, and I suggest this is one of those cases. So, in addition to public norms being more than a match for dreaded market forces, nature and traditional practices can be good examples for businesses. The destination of passengers on these ferries represent a classic last mile problem for the employers, which they are trying to “externalize” to “host” neighborhoods. I’m saying no one in their right mind would accept that on the scale that has been imposed here. These people have been taken unawares because it happened fast and they expected something from their supervisors, law enforcement, or whatever. Point is, how the employers get their employees from Candlestick, for example, to the Mission, is much more a cost of doing business, and less a social cost. In addition to regular transit and bikes, can use Lyft and Uber for all I care, and without increasing the number of cars on the freeway, buses on city streets, work from taxi services, or taking up parking spaces. The Bay is vastly under-used – they can sail that barge back and forth. They can and should travel during nonpeak hours, almost invariably.
          Sorry, I don’t know where to stop. This is such a no-brainer IMO.

          • Randy, I think the boat idea is great. Google is already in the business of building mobile barges and floating them on the bay, so why not a more speedy hovercraft for their employees? They could even use the existing docks at the Ferry Building for an SF launch, that would put everyone within one easy transit stop to their boat. Then they could run short-distance shuttles from various South Bay docks, the way shuttles were intended.

            • It’s something. I have to insist the agreeability of these firms is overdone, however. You may not be aware that Microsoft and others have been running 100s of shuttles in and around Seattle without using a single public bus stop. Anyway, the federal government loves Google so they should contact their people in DC about the federal water infrastructure bill in the meantime. Need links?

  • Why not have a depot for the buses to pick up their “Customers”. A location near a freeway for easy access. Customers could bike or take public transportation to the depot. It will solve some of the problems , but aleast they will be out of the residential areas. The location could have bike racks or lockers. Some space could be inclosed, with coffee and snacks and internet access. It could be shared with the many companies down south.

    • John, I think that’s a reasonable idea, but one that was uniformly rejected by the company reps at the meeting in April when it was brought up. The reasoning was that the employees would not use the buses unless they had quick and easy access from anywhere in the city. However, since then the tide has changed a little bit, and thanks to some of the public pressure in recent weeks the conversation has shifted from the tech companies’ private turf to the public turf. The SFMTA that initially gave the tech companies whatever they wanted without ever asking what SF residents thought because it presumably thought that this was simply a zero sum traffic issue has changed its tune at least a little. The latest I’ve heard is that there will soon be a pilot program that will limit the number of Muni stops the shuttles can use to about 100 — half of what they use today. It’s a step in the right direction, but personally I would prefer your solution — a central depot for the buses to pick up their “customers.” Then again, that depot already exists, it’s called CalTrain.

    • that’s interesting about Microsoft being able to pull it off without public bus stops. I wonder if they’re the same size luxury double deckers or the more light-weight traditional type shuttles like the ones UCSF and a bunch of other educational institutions run throughout SF without complaint (at least not that I’m aware of). The problem is that SF is so densely populated and a lot streets so narrow, that the big liners really clog up the streets, and especially having over 40 companies stuffing an ever-growing number of them into small neighborhoods is simply not sustainable, even if they weren’t pulling into public bus stops (I see them pull over on curbs and unload right into the bike lane all the time, which is dangerous). I bet if the tech companies had decided to run a bunch of smaller, electric or natural gas powered shuttles a la UCSF to get their employees to CalTrain quickly, nobody would complain. But the idea of a regional door-to-door shuttle service in huge diesel-spewing buses going 40 miles each way is not only spatially unsustainable for a dense city like SF, but it runs counter to the stated claim of reducing emissions. As one woman wrote me in an email, the whole BAAQM emissions goals that the companys are often claiming they’re working towards meeting were intended for short-distance shuttles getting people to public transit stops more easily on both ends of their commute.

      Here’s what she wrote… I’d like to find out for sure whether they’re still getting the tax breaks…

      Great article about the problems with the google bus….we live near the google bus depot in san jose actually royal coach tours.

      One issue you might not be aware of is that we as tax payers are actually subsidizing the google/apple/facebook etc buses. The governor and baaqm district and metropolitan transit commission approved that all
      companies with more than fifty employees must offer alternative transit to reduce our greenhouse gases….well one of those options is a shuttle… well the shuttle used to be like the way my husband used to do it – is take caltrain and a short shuttle for 2 miles to Redwood Shores… well now the shuttle is going 70 miles up to San Francisco and beyond and bringing their workers down to San Jose and they’re calling it a shuttle and they’re getting payroll tax breaks all these companies for offering alternative low green house gas alternatives… problem is no oversight on diesel buses and how clean they are and all diesel is bad and now they get tax breaks and still destroying our air and quality of life for neighbors.

      • More dithering and parsing. No how you slice it, the story doesn’t float. The urgent right now is not only the 4500 round-trips using public bus stops in neighborhoods where they are not wanted but the urgent move to legalize the practice via SFMTA, SPUR, and the new consortium led by Conway, Wiener, et al. Time is of the essence.

  • Re the beginning of ferry service from Redwood City:
    There are two branches of normative political theory with specific application to regulatory politics and economics, public interest and public choice. If you believe in the former, Google does not want to be a nuisance to San Franciscans; if the latter, Google is counting the reputational cost. There is also a “third way,” which evades normative conventions by appropriation, etc. According to that theory, Google is pinging your blog!
    Whatever theory we choose, the fact is corporations and government workers (eg, supervisors) are sensitive to heat. The moral there is do not not neglect your supervisor because of where he sits. I hope you will distribute those map links to your subscribers, followers, and email contacts, and that you will write Wiener.

    • here’s another elephant in the room that I didn’t know about:

      Bay Area Commuter Benefits Program

      What?

      Legislation (Senate Bill 1339) signed by the Governor in fall 2012 authorizes the Air District and MTC to jointly adopt a regional commute benefit program. Pursuant to SB 1339, the Air District and MTC are developing a Bay Area Commuter Benefits Program (Program) to promote the use of alternative commute modes such as transit, ridesharing, biking and walking. The Program would require employers with 50 or more full-time employees in the Bay Area to offer one of the following benefits:

      Option 1 – Pre-Tax Option: Allow employees to pay for their transit or vanpooling expenses with pre-tax dollars, as permitted by current federal law;
      Option 2 – Employer-Provided Subsidy: A transit or vanpool subsidy to reduce or cover the employees’ monthly transit or vanpool costs;
      Option 3 – Employer-Provided Transit: A free or low-cost bus, shuttle or vanpool service (operated by or for the employer); or
      Option 4 – Alternative Commuter Benefit: An alternative method that would be as effective as the other options in reducing single-occupant vehicle trips (and/or vehicle emissions).

      It’s hard to go against pollution reduction measures, but Option 3 at least the way it’s currently practiced by the big tech companies seems to carry with it enough unintended adverse consequences that there should be a broader public discussion. Unfortunately, the comment period is over.

      I’ll write Wiener again, it can’t hurt to try.

      • I think the tide might be going against this program. Yesterday, reporters were questioning the $1 price tag on stops, there were remarks from experts that SFMTA was only nominally equipped to regulate the practice, and Reiskin was confessing that they had never considered the options of a tax. Conflicts in law are endemic begging the question of how they may be resolved. The solution offered by the mayor on Monday, coinciding with Google’s announcement that it was starting limited water ferry service, put the general public on notice that something is rotten here.

        • Thanks, very interesting. This is the key line:

          It does not, however, bar local government from taking a tax on commuter shuttles to the ballot. With the pilot program two weeks away from being heard before the SFMTA board of directors, a tax is “something that we haven’t at all discussed and I don’t think has been on anyone’s radar,” Reiskin said.

          I’m very much in favor of putting this on the ballot. It’s what should have been done before they ever sanctioned the disruption in the first place. We’ve certainly voted on much less consequential stuff in SF in the past. So is this ballot measure something Sup. Wiener has a say in and what I should urge him to support? Or is it best to comment straight to the SFMTA?

          • Well, that may not be an either/or question, first of all. Local regulatory bodies like the SFMTA are tools of local politicians at the same time they are public servants. Wiener should be warned against cheerleading for a process that ignores years of preferential treatment for corporate interests when the general public coughs up, what, half a billion a year for using curb space? And now wants to add insult to injury by making it all legal, retroactively?
            Prop 218 has been referred to the budget analyst for its application to the shuttle buses.
            http://www.sfbg.com/politics/2014/01/07/why-muni-won%E2%80%99t-earn-dime-tech-buses In front of a ballot proposition, a complete legislative analysis would be commissioned. Etc. Just keep agitating, I would say, to the extent you can but I would also say to resist the efforts by interest groups to hijack the specific violations of law and public nuisance claims to conflate them with eviction actions, for example.

  • ALERT: The Examiner has posted a brief article about the Environment Commission taking up the SFMTA proposal TODAY at 5pm: http://www.sfexaminer.com/sanfrancisco/commission-on-the-environment-to-address-sf-plan-to-charge-tech-buses-using-muni-stops/Content?oid=2676033. The agenda and rules for public comment are posted here: http://www.sfenvironment.org/about/taskforce/environment-commission-subcommittee-policy/agendas/january-13-2014-policy-committee-meeting-agenda. We shoud hope it will be well-attended by community members.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: