‘Google Bus’ program approved, now permanent part of San Francisco streets

San Francisco, the tech city, now has its first official tech transportation system.

The notorious Google Buses are now here to stay.

The shuttles are regulated by as part of the Commuter Shuttle Program, which is now a permanent, legal part of San Francisco’s roadways, following a Tuesday unanimous vote of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Board of Directors.

The program encompasses many shuttles: from the smaller hospital buses to the enormous double-decker commuter buses which ferry San Francisco workers to Silicon Valley.

Much critique surrounded the latter buses, those associated with the tech industry.

For more than two hours tech workers, long-time San Francisco residents and others expressed both support and misgivings.

“I think it’s a done deal, no matter what we say here. Bought and paid for,” said Eric D. Williams, head of the union representing Muni drivers, TWU Local 250-A.

With permanency comes change. More than half of the bus stops in the commuter shuttles’ “wild west” days were eliminated, said Hank Willson, program manager of the shuttle program. And to address neighbors’ complaints, the larger double-decker buses shuttles will now be required to only travel on “major arterial roads” as defined by CalTrans.

That means small buses for small streets, and big buses for major roads. That’s important, said one neighbor during public comment.

“These large buses are not appropriate on our streets,” Kristine Rogers, a Noe Valley resident, told the board. “You can see deep depressions in my street.”

Two amendments were made to the Commuter Shuttle Program before it passed: one reinforcing the need for shuttle companies to have “labor harmony” with drivers, and another exempting the Commuter Shuttle Program from any environmental review.

The environmental review for the shuttle program is the subject of a lawsuit, which is still ongoing.

Now that the program is permanent, an environmental review appeal can be filed to the Board of Supervisors, which would compel The City to study environmental effects of the buses. The appeal of the pilot program was voted down by the Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Scott Wiener addressed the board, skewering another common critique from Google Bus detractors: that tech workers compete heavily for the supply of housing near Google Bus stops, raising demand on apartments, and therefore raising housing prices nearby the shuttle stops.

“The notion that the shuttles are causing gentrification,” Wiener said, “is not connected to the data we have.”

Many echoed that shuttles inflame gentrification.

“We’re catering to the tech industry,” said Roselle Golazi, a San Francisco resident since 1968. “(Shuttles) come with the workers that chose to live here. They come with the income they make, and it’s not minimum wage.”

Tech workers came out in some number to say they are part of the community.

“The challenges people are talking about are incredibly complex and serious,” said Derek Slater, a Google employee, at the podium. “I think it’d be a shame if we pinned everything on the commuter shuttle program.”

The program now charges $3.67 per shuttle stop event (dropoff or pickup) to companies. But since tech giants like Google, Yahoo and Genentech make billions, one tech worker said, they can afford to pay more.

“San Francisco desperately needs better public transit infrastucture,” said Luke Swartz, who said he was a tech worker who commutes to Mountain View on a shuttle. “Make my employer pay more.”

Above, an Examiner reporter holds text of a speech read by a tech worker to the SFMTA Board of Directors.

State proposition 218 limits the SFMTA to only charging the cost of administering the shuttle program, but Swartz said The City had an overly cautious interpretation of the law.

And the SFMTA could always go to voters to ask for the legal right to charge tech companies more, he said.

Many San Francisco residents complained the buses were too big, and endanger with bikes and pedestrians.

In its documentation sent to the board, SFMTA staff said by law, shuttles are free to use San Francisco streets and can only be regulated or managed by the agency — not stopped.

Almost half of commuter shuttle riders said they would drive to work if the shuttles did not exist, according to a survey conducted by the SFMTA.

But the SFMTA’s report also revealed a still-tumultuous relationship between commuter shuttles and Muni buses.

Between the beginning of the Pilot Program in August 2014 and the end of May 2015, SFMTA enforcement officers issued 1,200 citations to shuttle buses, according to the report. These citations were issued mostly for double parking and for non permitted use of Muni zones.

Input not heard until today came from the Muni drivers themselves, in the form of their union head, Eric Williams. He said Muni drivers weren’t consulted in this program, which one board director, Malcolm Heinicke, explored.

Heinicke said to the shuttle program head, “I was concerned to hear from the head of our largest union that our drivers weren’t consulted.”

“Is that correct?” he asked.

Willson said there was limited interaction with Muni drivers, particularly along Valencia Street but, “it’s true we did not go through the union structure.’

Representatives of tech companies did not speak at the board.

Below are Tweets from the meeting, part of the live coverage by the San Francisco Examiner.

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