SFMTA in midst of robust study of private shuttle industry

Mike Koozmin/The S.F. ExaminerSFMTA is studying how to make the private shuttles and other public transportation work more smoothly together.

The proliferation of private workplace shuttles, which take thousands of cars off the road but often conflict with Muni vehicles, is getting the serious attention of city officials, who hope to regulate the services within the coming months.

In The City, at least 27 institutions employ private shuttles, which pick up employees in their neighborhoods and drop them off at their jobs. The shuttles use about 200 loading and unloading zones, many of them near Muni bus stops, including a huge presence on Van Ness Avenue and other busy corridors, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

The shuttles spend about one minute at each stop, often using Muni loading zones or temporarily double-parking, which can put Muni vehicles behind schedule.

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Yet while the shuttles can delay Muni vehicles, their services are extremely beneficial to the region, said Carli Paine, a program manager at the SFMTA. The transportation agency calculated that the services save about 45 million vehicle miles each year by taking commuters out of their cars. The shuttles also attempt to coordinate their schedules to minimize conflicts with Muni, Paine said.

Still, the buses — many of which carry passengers to Peninsula or South Bay tech employers such as Apple and Google — pose challenges for Muni.

“It feels like a competition for the loading zone for our drivers,” said Ron Austin, spokesman for the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, Muni’s operators union. “We haven’t seen any spitting matches or anything, and we don’t want to rally against them, because they keep with our transit-first policy. We just hope that the SFMTA can come up with a solution that keeps everyone happy.”

Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, a nonprofit planning organization, suggested the agency establish more curb space for shuttles, or extend Muni bus zones to accommodate the vehicles. Currently, the shuttles face citations if they’re nabbed stopping in bus zones.

“I have no quarrels with private shuttles, but they are part of a completely unaccountable industry,” Radulovich said.

Paine said the SFMTA will come back with policy recommendations for the shuttles by late winter or early spring.
New regulations and guidelines for the vehicles could soon follow.

“Right now, we’re just collecting data, so we don’t have any policy recommendations on how to address the issue,” Paine said. “About the only thing we are saying is that we can’t continue to do what we’re doing.”

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority, a sister agency to the SFMTA, concluded an industry report on the vehicles in 2011, but since then, the number of private shuttles has “grown tremendously,” Paine said.

The SFMTA should prioritize the benefits of the shuttles when devising suggestions, said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, a local think-tank.

“It’s time to embrace shuttles as part of the transportation system, and that means coming up with the right regulations,” said Metcalf. “The goal should be to have more of these vehicles, not less.”

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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