As Google faces a backlash from some community members over the impacts of commuter buses and the booming technology sector, the tech giant will contribute $6.8 million during the next two years to fund a popular program offering free Muni rides for youths.
Mayor Ed Lee, who made the announcement Thursday along with other city officials, seized the moment to say it was a sign Google and other tech companies are now responding to the rising tensions over the decrease in San Francisco’s affordability, be it through soaring rents or evictions.
“Google is getting it,” Lee said. The mayor said it was a harbinger of a series of contributions from Google and other tech companies to help fund his “affordability agenda,” such as housing creation. He also spoke of how tech leaders joined him in Sacramento on Monday to lobby for a bill to protect tenants from the Ellis Act, which allows landlords to evict tenants to get out of the rental business.
“Continuing to provide free Muni for thousands of young people from lower-income households will help make our City more affordable for working families,” said Lee. “With this unprecedented gift from Google, we can keep this successful pilot program running for at least two more years at no cost to taxpayers or Muni riders and free up critical funds for other vital Muni maintenance and services.”
The Google gift supports a program allowing low- and moderate-income youths between the ages of 4 and 17 to ride the transit system for free. About 31,000 have signed up for it.
The deal comes at an important time politically for the mayor as he is facing increasing pressure to demonstrate the technology industry, which is being blamed for such impacts as soaring rents and a rise in evictions, is willing to help address a widening inequality with resources. Shuttle bus protests have cropped up in San Francisco and other cities impacted by the tech sector's growth, where they have emerged as symbols of gentrification. A recently-adopted pilot program charging shuttles to use Muni stops has drawn some opposition, with critics saying the shuttle operators should pay much more than $1 per stop per day.
“Google is demonstrating with real action and real resources that they are a true partner in addressing our City's affordability crisis for lower and middle-income families,” Lee said.
Supervisor David Campos, who was a leader in having the transit agency adopt the pilot program, praised the contribution. “This is a good first step,” Campos said. “I'm looking forward to working with the tech industry in the future on other important issues like housing, jobs and tenant protections. We need further collaboration to support more community driven solutions to the displacement crisis.”
Jane Martin, head of POWER, a nonprofit that pushed for the youth program, praised the gift as an example that could be used to respond to other challenges.
“We’re in the middle of a displacement crisis,” Martin said. “We are eager to continue to dialogue with Google and other companies about their impact on The City.”
Campos, who fought for the Muni youth program, said the gift is “a sign [tech companies] are hearing what the community has to say.”
But the Google donation wasn’t embraced by everyone.
“I think it’s just a [public-relations] campaign on their part,” said Erin McElroy, director of the San Francisco Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, who has organized shuttle protests. “I feel like they are just trying to get off the hook by doing this charity gig.”
In a statement to media outlets, a Google representative said, “San Francisco residents are rightly frustrated that we don’t pay more to use city bus stops. So we’ll continue to work with The City on these fees, and in the meantime will fund Muni passes for low-income students for the next two years.”
The program is translating into more riders for Muni, the data suggests. According to uses of the Clipper cards, there were 266,000 more rides by youth Muni riders in May 2013 than in May 2012. The program was launched by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency on March 1, 2013.
City officials say the Google gift is one of the largest private contributions for city services in San Francisco history.