Google Buses Now City-Approved

There was an unusually well-attended transportation board meeting at San Francisco City Hall yesterday, as the topic of debate for the evening was the new pilot program for Silicon Valley commuter buses. The San Francisco MTA board of directors approved the proposal unanimously, which means that companies can buy passes to use city buses at cost, which come to about $1/stop per day, or about $100,000 per year.

But, as Kevin Roose at NYMag’s Daily Intelligencer points out, “the Google bus wars have never really been about the Google buses.”

For concerned locals, the shuttles symbolize their collective fears about the rise of the tech sector — that rents are spiking, that long-time residents are being pushed out by coddled 22-year-olds with Stanford BAs and venture funding, that a great American city with a rich countercultural history is turning into a staid bedroom community for Silicon Valley. It’s hard for people to put these feelings into words, and even harder to get them heard in front of cameras and policymakers.

It does seems wild that Google gets to commandeer city buses for a year for about the annual salary of a single entry-level engineer, but state law prohibits the MTA from charging anything higher than cost (since you know, PUBLIC transit, not a private corporation that can charge market rates).

Roose argues that the bus thing was a foregone conclusion, more or less, and calls for “massive citywide reconciliation effort” that focuses on the larger cultural clash at hand:

…perhaps starting with a series of town hall meetings – that can serve as a venue for tech workers to hear, in moral terms, why their proliferation is worrying residents of San Francisco, and for anxious locals to better understand, in utilitarian terms, that the city’s development rules and the basic laws of supply and demand are doing far more to cause displacement than the Google buses.

I think Roose is right that this is part of a bigger issue of gentrification, but I do think the bus issue is germane, if not emblematic, and justifiably frustrating to longtime city residents. After all, do public policy, city planning, and government resources not typically serve as mitigating factors to the “basic laws of supply and demand”? Why should policy allow “the market” (Google, its employees, then effectually the real estate market) to be unnaturally bolstered through access to public resources, outside market rates (cheap buses)?

Whether some mitigation is in order is up for debate, but I do think residents/activists (or “tech resistors” as Roose calls them) are right to look to local government for policy change on the issue, even if it ends up coming off as one big “venting session.”

Photo: david.orban

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13 Comments / Post A Comment

Allison (#4,509)

I think I saw that they are paying to use the bus STOPS not the buses themselves (shuttle buses are way nicer/have wifi!). So it’s more of “you can tell people to wait in the Muni shelters/use the trash cans we empty” thing than a “here’s one of our buses” thing.

Meaghano (#529)

@Allison You know, that makes a lot more sense. Ha! I guess still infrastructure but not as bad as I was imagining.

sea ermine (#122)

@Allison Is there a reason why google employees can’t use the public buses like everyone else? Since they can use the stops, that suggests that there are existing bus stops near googles campus/their employees homes.

maiasaura (#924)

@sea ermine The Google busses run down the peninsula from San Francisco to Mountain View (40-60 minutes drive each direction). The MUNI system only serves the city of San Francisco. It’s possible to take public transit from San Francisco to somewhat close to Google’s campus, but it takes a lot longer (roughly 2.5-3 hours each direction) and involves several busses and a train.

sea ermine (#122)

@maiasaura Ohhhh ok that makes sense. So I’m guessing they’d pick them up at a city bus stop and then carry them out straight to the campus. For some reason I thought google was inside of San Francisco (oops!)

Eric18 (#4,486)

The buses are not the problem. They are just something for people to vent at/throw bricks at.

One of the biggest problems in SF is the lack of housing. The city is trying to play catch up as the amount of new housing in the city has been negligible for a long time.

So SF citizens should really be demanding the city government to get going on building new housing. Only they won’t. Why? Because while they may come around to the fact that new housing is necessary, they will fight tooth and nail to make sure it doesn’t happen in their neighborhood in order to preserve it’s “character.” NIMBY. And you are back to square one.

Molly (#5,809)

@Eric18 I can reread this and easily replace “SF” with “Austin”. I hear people complaining daily about being priced out of central Austin and in the same sentence bemoaning how new build multi-family housing is destroying the neighborhood’s character. Local forums and policy should discuss plans for rectifying the two – but then we’d need to live in a fantasy world.

moreadventurous (#4,956)

@Molly I had the same thought about Austin. It drives me crazy that people complain about high rent and all the “terrible” condo buildings. Although here, I think there is a lot of hate in general for new-comers. It’s frustrating because I feel like this is just starting in Austin and we should use the physical space we have (as compared to SF) to really be crafting a more dense, livable city. With public transit!

hoorayllamas (#4,179)

@Eric18 Exactly! I forget the exact prop number, I believe it was prop B or C, but it reversed a 7 year process to build housing on the Embaracdero. Whether or not you were in favor of this new condo/residential development on the SF waterfront, you have to remark how ridiculous it was that after following 7 yrs of procedure to get this project off the ground it was stopped by a city wide proposition. NIMBY indeed.

Susan Tidebeck (#5,691)

What is the reason Silicon Valley employees can’t take regular mass transit?

Allison (#4,509)

@Susan Tidebeck it involves 2 (or 3) transfers from muni/bart to caltrans to …something? between the caltrans station and the office.

hoorayllamas (#4,179)

@Allison @susan tidebeck The commute from SF to Mountain View can be pretty gnarly depending on traffic. I had a 10am meeting at Google yesterday, I left SF in a car at 8am, dropped off my husband on the way and didn’t make it to Google’s campus until 9:50.

From where I live I could have taken a MUNI bus to Cal Train for $2 and then paid $10-$12 per direction to get to Mountain View (and then of course hopped on another bus or took a taxi to get to the campus), and it would have taken at least the same amount of time, if not more.

I’m glad to see that the city is charging for use of the stops, but I also don’t think that the Google, Facebook, EA, etc. buses are the problem. In fact I think they do a great deal to keep cars off the road and make the commute to the South Bay easier to on everyone.

What really drives me nuts is that the city of San Francisco offers huge tax breaks to companies like Square and Twitter to have their offices downtown, but they won’t offer tax breaks to incentivize builders to make low and middle income housing. So we end up with people getting evicted to build luxury million dollar condos.

Anyhoo, that was tl;dr, but just my impression as a SF resident.

Allison (#4,509)

@hoorayllamas I did forget the sentence that said “with that many transfers you might as well drive, so charter buses are better than that!”

My summer job in college was on the UCSF campus and i got there via a bus that went from Fairfax to UCSF and it was great! They also had one from somewhere in Sonoma. I think they’ve trimmed the number of buses to just one that goes up 101, but no one ever complained about those.

The Google (et all) buses are just the effigy of all the problems bubbling up right now. In the mean time, I’m in Chicago wondering if I can ever afford to move back home.

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