Request for environmental report on SF shuttles is not anti-tech

Let's get the record straight: Plaintiffs in the lawsuit against San Francisco's shuttle bus pilot program are not anti-tech.

All of them have cellphones and computers, most have Facebook pages and some even have LinkedIn and Twitter accounts. And a good number of them are car-free and use their bicycles and Muni to get around.

And yet, Adrian Covert of the Bay Area Council chose to attack the plaintiffs as anti-tech in a June 2 op-ed in The San Francisco Examiner.

Covert knows the lawsuit filed against the shuttle bus pilot program rests on important legal foundations. For one thing, it is illegal for the private shuttles to pull into public bus stops. Case law also indicates that you cannot base a California Environmental Quality Act pilot program on an illegal activity. Furthermore, there is a fair argument — the CEQA standard for triggering an environmental impact report — that the shuttles pose environmental impacts that must be assessed and mitigated.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which is conducting the pilot, has more or less admitted that the presence of the shuttles in Muni stops is illegal. It has a record of ticketing shuttles at bus stops 460 times between Nov. 9 and Jan. 26.

Even by Covert's standards, an EIR is called for. He admits the shuttles “by some estimates … represent the sixth-largest transit system in the Bay Area.” The CEQA fair argument standard is low, and if the private shuttle system is so vast, there must be an EIR.

Alarmingly, the current mayoral administration is in the thrall of wealthy individuals, corporations and organizations that are intent on creating competing — disruptive — businesses that flout the law and, in some cases, privatize the commons.

These range from Airbnb — a tax scofflaw vacation-rental business — to the transportation network companies that compete in legal gray areas with regulated cabs, to the shuttles pulling illegally into Muni stops.

Aside from the illegality of the shuttles at Muni stops, what might be the shuttle impacts? Air quality (preliminary studies indicate that shuttles degrade air quality above CEQA standards), and threats to bicyclists and pedestrians — especially those seeking access to buses competing for curbside space — among others.

The common argument in support of the shuttles is that they get cars off the road. Is that true, however, if on balance the shuttles are feeding the current rise in evictions of lower-income tenants in favor of better-paid tech workers, as some studies suggest? Is that true if the displaced tenants are forced to relocate to far-flung suburbs where they must rely on cars? CEQA requires assessment of potential economic displacement impacts.

The pilot program and policy as proposed can indeed collect data — but state law restricts the SFMTA to cost recovery of the program itself. That is why the SFMTA proposed to charge only about $1 per stop per day.

A full EIR can do more than just the pilot can accomplish. A full EIR can collect the information, assess environmental impacts and call for mitigation. If the EIR concludes that there is a link between the shuttles and displacement, the EIR can require the operators of those shuttles to mitigate for displacement impacts in ways that the pilot cannot.

And with regard to Covert's suggestion that Google and other companies will relocate to San Francisco if the shuttles are forced to comply with the law, let's be real.

Does anyone seriously think Google will relocate from Mountain View to San Francisco or that Apple will fly its new spaceship campus from Cupertino to San Francisco if the shuttles are forced to operate legally and safely, and if the operators are required to mitigate for their displacement impacts? The plaintiffs think not.

Susan Vaughan is the chair of the San Francisco Group of the San Francisco Bay Chapter Sierra Club.

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