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Commuter shuttle program approved in SF, tech workers voice support

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(Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner file photo)

Tech shuttles, commonly referred to as “Google buses,” are here to stay.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors voted Tuesday unanimously to make permanent a program regulating commuter shuttles, which will officially take effect April 1.

SEE RELATED: Transit board to vote on making ‘tech shuttle’ program permanent

The Commuter Shuttle Permit Program regulates not only inter-city shuttles ferrying tech workers to Silicon Valley, but also intra-city hospital shuttles, among others. There are 17 shuttle operators in the program that 9,800 San Franciscans board every day, according to the SFMTA.

A green light for the program gives SFMTA’s blessing for the commuter shuttles to continue using Muni bus stops to pick up riders, and some white zones. Critics say the shuttles still butt heads with Muni buses constantly, blocking access for seniors and people with disabilities.

At Tuesday’s vote, the usually silent tech workers –– who often voice fear of reprisal for public comments from companies like Google and Facebook –– spoke out on behalf of their buses.

None of the workers identified their companies.

Addressing the board during public comment, shuttle rider Kelly Hayes said, “I’m also the parent of two young kids. I take Muni every day with my Clipper card to drop them off. The shuttle gives me the flexibility to work that far away and have time to hang out with my kids.”

She said as someone who was pregnant twice, having many shuttle stops in a close geographical area is important, as walking can be a burden.

Michael Chen, a tech worker and self-identified shuttle rider, said, “They make a ride that’s either an hour and half by car or carpool much easier. It means many people who otherwise might drive take cars off the road. It removes the burden on our public streets.”

Even Todd Lapin, founder of neighborhood news site Bernalwood, is a shuttle rider, and said he would drive to work without the convenience of the shuttles, which is especially helpful in saving time so he can drop off his daughter at school.

A member of the San Francisco Republican Party, a representative of the Bay Area Council, and pedestrian advocacy group Walk SF all voiced support for the shuttle program.

Still, some neighbors were highly critical -– and many new voices spoke to the SFMTA about the shuttles impacts on neighborhoods.

“I physically feel the impact of these buses night after night,” said Preston Brown, a Castro resident. “These buses scream up the street and rattle windows. They set off car alarms.”

Stuart Watts, a fifth generation San Franciscan, said, “Many of these streets are not sustainable to these types of buses, and cause physical damage to our streets,” and suggested the SFMTA ask tech companies to pay fees to repave the roads if they are damaged.

Along with making the program permanent, the vote also increased the maximum administrative penalty for violation of permits, from $250 per violation to $500 per violation, and $1000 for any further violations within a 12-month period.

During discussion with the board, SFMTA staffer Francesca Napolitan gave a glimpse at changes to come with the commuter shuttle program.

Shuttle occupancy now hovers around 60 percent, she said, a potential inefficiency. SFMTA plans to ask tech companies for more detailed occupancy data.

“There are larger-picture things we’d want to look at [too],” she said, like refining stops, placing new stops and working with operators to better coordinate service.

The board asked her if it was within SFMTA’s power to require buses to use smaller vehicles, which would better suit the needs of small arterial streets the current double-decker buses tend to overpower.

Napolitan said shuttle size is regulated at the state level, and tech companies have said “the larger vehicles better meet their needs than the smaller vehicles.”

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