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Google and Apple shuttles will pay to use San Francisco's public bus stops

Google and Apple shuttles will pay to use San Francisco's public bus stops

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The shuttle buses that transport workers for huge tech firms like Google, Facebook, and Apple between San Francisco and Silicon Valley every day have come under heavy fire lately, but today a vote was passed unanimously on a pilot program that the city hopes will help ease those tensions. In front of a meeting room packed full with journalists and citizens, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) just approved a proposal that will see commuter shuttle buses pay to share approximately 200 spots with city buses.

Companies that operate the buses will soon have to pay $1 for every stop they make, every day, to the SFMTA — amounting to about $1.5 million over the 18-month pilot (set to start in July 2014). The agency won't earn any profit from the money it collects, though; instead, it'll use the fees to cover the new permit program, enforcement, and further evaluation of the pilot. Prior to today, Silicon Valley shuttles typically would use SFMTA bus stops throughout the city without express permission, leading to potential traffic snarls — as well as a sentiment that these companies were taking advantage of the city without giving anything back.

"We need to be able to keep [the shuttles] honest."

Carli Paine, a project manager for the pilot, gave a number of details on what the SFMTA hopes to accomplish in her opening remarks. "The commuter shuttle sector has grown very rapidly, and its created some impacts on Muni (San Francisco public transportation). Our approach has been to resolve the problems in an ad hoc way," she said, "but the sector is so large now that that's not really a sustainable approach." Aside from collecting money from commuter shuttles, those shuttles will now be equipped with GPS so their impact on traffic and the buses that typically use the Muni stops can be better measured. "We need to be able to keep them honest, and this data will allow us to do that," said Payne.

Vehicles will also have to be clearly identified with a new permit that will allow them to use the Muni stops — those without the proper permits will be ticketed, just like normal vehicles. As for when this program will get underway, the SFMTA will spend the next few months doing more research, getting data from Muni stops and shuttle services to find out which stops make the most sense to roll this program out to.

Whether that'll be enough to quell the sometimes-violent protests against tech shuttles remains to be seen — just hours before today's vote, protesters in San Francisco again blocked two buses from Apple and Google. Things didn't get violent this time, but it seems likely that tensions between the bus-users and other San Francisco citizens could remain high. This tension was acknowledged right at the top of today's meeting — While the Silicon Valley companies will now be giving back to the city more than they have in the past, a formalized shuttle system won't fully address concerns that the tech industry is causing class warfare in San Francisco. Housing prices in the city are skyrocketing out of the reach of ordinary citizens, and many are blaming the high-income individuals employed by companies like Facebook, Apple, and Google.

"We're very concerned that the tech industry is privatizing public transit."

Despite these concerns, there were no protesters lined up outside San Francisco City Hall before today's vote — but there were plenty of objections to the plan voiced prior to the vote. "We're very concerned that the tech industry is privatizing public transit," said Jane Martin. "We think the tech industry can do more." A common refrain from objectors was that the buses should pay far more than a dollar per stop to make the income collected more equal to what those paying for public transportation have to pay.

An animated citizen Steve Zeltzer said that "this is a class warfare" and questioned why these commuter shuttles were allowed to park in bus spots for years without the city doing anything about it. Indeed, a number of citizens commented on the fact that if they parked in a bus spot, they'd get smacked with a ticket for hundreds of dollars — but the commuter buses parked there without incident for years.

As for data in favor of the vote, the SFMTA's research showed that nearly half of all regional shuttle riders and 27 percent of all intra-city shuttle riders they surveyed said they would drive alone if not for the shuttles; 59 percent of regional riders said they either sold their car or put off buying one because of the shuttles. Without shuttles, the companies argue, there'd be more cars on the road and more congestion in San Francisco itself.

Without shuttles, the companies argue, there'd be more cars on the road

San Francisco supervisor Scott Wiener also came out to support the measure, saying that he was "here today in strong support of the staff recommendation relating to employee shuttles." Wiener also attempted to keep the issue focused specifically on transportation rather than sprawling out to encompass housing. "Blaming employee shuttles, blaming tech workers is not a solution to our housing problems," he said.

While the naysayers seemed to outnumber the supporters, there were a number of Google employees (as well as other citizens who don't use the shuttles) who showed up in favor of the pilot program — not to mention an employee of one of the shuttle bus programs who noted that his San Francisco-based company employs plenty of working-class citizens. "I just wanted to say that not everyone at Google is a billionaire," said Crystal Sholts, a project manager at Google who rides the shuttle. "Like many people 10 years after the fact, I'm still paying off my student loans."