After more than six hours of debate Tuesday, San Francisco’s commuter shuttle program cleared an environmental challenge intended to address complaints about gentrification, but ultimately a Superior Court judge may have the final say.
While the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency in January approved an 18-month pilot program charging commuter shuttles to use Muni stops, critics filed an appeal arguing The City needs to first address an array of shuttle impacts ranging from pollution to displacement. The program places a $1 per stop per day fee for use of up to 200 of Muni’s several thousand stops.
The Board of Supervisors voted 8 to 2 to reject a more extensive review of the pilot. Supervisors John Avalos and David Campos supported it. “It is only going to make things worse,” Campos said. “We are going to look at this decision today … and regret what we are doing.”
The Service Employees International Union Local 1021, with support of other groups like the League of Pissed-Off Voters, had filed the appeal of the pilot under the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires projects to undergo environmental review if it poses significant impacts. The pilot was exempted under a data collection provision.
Appellant attorney Richard Drury argued that there are numerous impacts associated with the shuttles, such as road damage, pollution and displacement of residents. The study, he said, could result in mitigations like a requirement for non-diesel buses, alternative stop locations and funding for below-market-rate housing.
The case has highlighted the ongoing conflict in San Francisco between longtime and lower income residents who blame the booming technology industry for soaring rents and a rising cost of living.
Supervisor Scott Wiener said that the “fundamental problem” with the focus on tech was that it would “single out this one tiny subset of vehicles and tiny subset of workers and treat them different.” Wiener said connecting shuttles to the housing crisis “misses the mark.” “We need to be focused not on attacking these shuttles but on our actually solving our housing problem.”
Board President David Chiu painted a grim picture if the board required the review, which could take more than a year to complete. “If the shuttles we’re kicked off the streets of San Francisco about half the folks currently on the shuttles would drive,” Chiu said.
Supporters of the appeal sought to connect the shuttles to rising rents, providing information they said showed rents are increasing at a faster rate near shuttle stops.
The exemption “not only goes against my lived experience as a resident of Valencia Street but feels like a slap in the face considering the very clear reality of the rapid displacement occurring near the shuttle stops,” said Sara Shortt of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, an appellant in the case.
But The City argues that housing and other impacts can’t be tied to the pilot, which would impose regulations on shuttles where none exist.
The use of commuter shuttles for Silicon Valley tech companies began in 2004 by Google, which at that time made two stops in San Francisco transporting 155 passengers each day, according to a March 31 budget analyst report. Shuttle use has grown to about 35,000 boardings daily with 48 shuttle providers operating about 350 shuttle vehicles.
Today, Google operates 57 shuttles, 4,400 boardings per weekday, with 180 shuttle runs a day. Genentech has the second most with 40 shuttles, followed by Apple with 15.
While use of the Muni stops is illegal under the state’s transportation code, enforcement of the law, which carries a $271 citation, has been minimally enforced. Of the 13,385 citations issued for illegal stops in bus zones by the SFMTA between January 2011 and February 2014, only 45 were issued to shuttle providers. The City says it has the authority to legally allow shuttle use of Muni bus stops through the pilot.
The report noted that transit staff said parking enforcement officers were never directed to not cite shuttles. But “according to SFMTA’s Enforcement Manager, it is the Enforcement division’s practice to not cite shuttles stopped in bus zones if they are actively loading or unloading passengers,” the report stated.
Supervisor Eric Mar was absent from Tuesday’s meeting. His office staff said the absence was a “longtime planned out spring break family trip to Southern California.”
Appellants have suggested they would take legal action if they lost the vote. Chris Daly, a political director for SEIU 1021, said, “We will be discussing all of our options moving forward.”