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EDITORIAL: S.F.’s tech shuttle deal yields progress

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Demonstrators block a Facebook and Yahoo bus at the corner of Valencia and 24th streets bringing awareness to wealth inequality in San Francisco on Tuesday, February 9, 2016. (Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco must promote efficient and robust public transportation options. In today’s city, that means promoting the oversized private shuttles that deliver thousands of residents each day out of The City to, well, yes, mostly tech jobs, at various points on the Peninsula.

The commuter shuttles that ferry tech workers to companies like Apple, Facebook and Google in the South Bay have become potent symbols for the fight over growing gentrification and loss of affordability in our neighborhoods.

Part of the reason the buses have become so vilified is that they pick up commuters at local Muni stops, leading to charges that the program is guilty of raising rents, abusing public resources and disturbing the neighborhood vibe. The giant, tinted-window buses also are undeniably conspicuous, providing an unmistakable target for the fury against often amorphous forces responsible for the changes to our ever-less affordable city.

But the shuttles have become a key part of The City’s transit infrastructure and they should be championed. They do, after all, take workers to their jobs, and if they didn’t exist, the result would be far worse for the individual workers and The City as a whole. The shuttles, even opponents agree, keep people out of cars.

A San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency report last October found that about 8,500 passengers make round trips each day on the shuttles, and the program has only expanded in the months since then. The agency also reported 47 percent of riders said they would drive to work if the shuttles stopped running.

As Supervisor Scott Wiener wrote this week to the SFMTA Board of Directors urging them to preserve the program: “We need more transit, not less, and that means transit in all its forms, including employer-provided shuttles.”

We agree, and we admire Wiener for his dedication to prioritizing transit issues in this congested and car-dependent city. But we also assert it’s good news that the SFMTA board this week agreed to some sensible modifications to the commuter shuttle program, as proposed by the majority of the Board of Supervisors.

These changes allow the program to continue for at least another year and include instituting a six-month review, considering moving to a hub system rather than using Muni stops and studying the impact on housing costs.

If approved, the deal would lead to the dismissal of an environmental appeal filed against the commuter shuttle program by The City’s largest government employee labor union, SEIU 1021, and a group of residents. With the SFMTA board’s unanimous approval Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors is expected to dismiss the appeal next week. The transit board would then consider final approval to a revised program on March 1.

As important as the shuttles are for the area’s transit landscape, it is vital that we understand the impacts such a program has on The City’s affordability and livability.

Wiener argues forcing commuters to make their way — presumably by public transit — to these appointed hubs rather than their neighborhood bus stop to catch a shuttle would have a chilling effect on ridership, forcing people onto the highway in their cars rather than deal with the hassle of getting to the hubs. In effect, he says, it would dismantle the program. He suggests the “attack on the shuttle program” was designed to do just that.

Maybe. But we would rather believe a little added inconvenience won’t drive people into their cars (if they have them). After all, casual carpool commuters line up at appointed spots each day in the East Bay for rides into The City. This can work with commuter shuttles out of The City as well.

We believe the hassles will still outweigh the benefits and commuters will still find their ways to the hubs, if they are created. The shuttles, we trust, will continue to roll in and out of The City. It’s worth a try, anyway, especially in the name of preserving neighborhood peace and stability.

Michael Howerton is editor in chief of the San Francisco Examiner.