Mike Koozmin/The S.F. ExaminerA private shuttle sits near Howard and 10th streets in SOMA.

Mike Koozmin/The S.F. ExaminerA private shuttle sits near Howard and 10th streets in SOMA.

Bill seeks to legalize Google bus program statewide

Large, gleaming white and with shaded windows, there are few symbols of San Francisco’s hypergentrification as potent as private tech shuttles. Commonly known as Google buses, they are used by many local tech companies and even casinos and universities.

But now the vehicles that have caused so much controversy in The City could be legalized statewide.

A bill authored by Assemblyman Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach, would grant legal authority to local transit agencies to allow private shuttles to use public bus stops.

“These shuttle services are struggling to be able to continue these environmental [sic] conscious carpool programs for the employees’ benefit, due to outdated statutes in law,” Allen wrote in a co-author request to the California Legislature.

“These companies,” he wrote, “are pulling more cars off the road.”

Assembly Bill 61 was referred to the state transportation committee late last month.

Right now, California vehicle code bars vehicles from stopping at public bus stops unless a municipality grants permission. But cities are only allowed to grant permission to schools.

Allen’s bill would allow cities to give private entities legal use of public stops.

In San Francisco, commuter shuttles are most commonly used by Google, Facebook, Apple, Genentech and other tech companies. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency last year approved a pilot program to allow private commuter shuttles to use of 200 public stops.

The pilot program charges $3.67 stop per day, which is the assessed cost of running the program.

San Franciscans have been bitterly divided on the issue. Supporters say the shuttles take cars off the road and that public-transit options are woefully inefficient for commutes down to the Peninsula and South Bay, where many tech companies are headquartered.

Opponents counter that any environmental benefits are more than offset by social costs, citing studies showing rent spikes around shuttle stops. This displaces residents, they say, causing former San Franciscans to commute back into The City for work.

The need to measure that displacement is a key part of a lawsuit to compel an environmental review of the pilot. (California Environmental Impact Reports can by law consider the impact of displacement)

The lawsuit’s supporters are worried about Allen’s bill.

“[The bill] is an attempt to kill the lawsuit,” said Sue Vaughan, chairwoman of the San Francisco Group of the Bay Area chapter of the Sierra Club. “There’s a fear that these buses are fueling displacement. That hasn’t been assessed.”

Plaintiffs also fear Allen’s bill would eliminate the revenue generated by the shuttle program.

“Those of us paying taxes, and working hard to maintain our lives in The City, shouldn’t be paying to support private interests who have plenty of money to pay for their own needs,” said Sara Shortt, who is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit and executive director of the Housing Rights Committee.

Some plaintiffs see the bill as a validation of their lawsuit, which alleges the pilot program violates state vehicle code. They contend that if the program was legal, the bill would not be needed.

The City Attorney’s Office declined to comment, citing litigation.

As for the SFMTA, spokesman Paul Rose said, “California vehicle code is consistent with our pilot project. This is not illegal.”

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