Years ago, the topic of private buses rumbling through city streets might only have piqued the interest of someone who lived in the Castro or Noe Valley. Now, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in San Francisco who does not have an opinion one way or another about the shuttles — especially after The City approved a pilot program to charge the buses for using Muni stops.
The buses, often called tech buses or Google buses, have become an icon for ills, including evictions and the increase in housing prices in The City. But the issues around the buses are actually multipronged and multifaceted.
It could be argued that The City did not respond to the private buses until much too late. But now that there is a pilot program in place, San Francisco is in a position to better address what the buses are, where they run, and how they should be regulated and most likely charged moving forward.
According to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, there are hundreds of private shuttles operating on city streets. In total, those shuttles have about 35,000 daily boardings. But the macro view of these shuttles can be deceiving. Housing activists and others have broad-stroked the shuttles as Google buses, picking up high-paid Silicon Valley workers who have moved here and helped to increase rents.
But the larger issue breaks down in the details. There are nearly four times as many people boarding shuttles that do not leave The City. These workers or students are using private shuttles instead of Muni or BART. There are questions about the larger regional transportation system that is driving people and companies to use private shuttles. There is also the question of what about the internal transportation system in San Francisco that has people flocking to these services.
Last week, the SFMTA board of directors approved an 18-month pilot program that, when it is up and running, charge shuttles $1 per stop per day at one of roughly 200 Muni stops. The funds raised will go toward evaluating the system, as well as for enforcement. Many voices in the community have decried the fee, saying it is too low — and that may be the case for the longer-term fees The City decides on after the pilot program.
The pilot program, though, should be looked at as an opportunity to flesh out the details of the shuttles and how they should be paying for the opportunity to use public infrastructure for private operations. There are large questions: Are the shuttles filling a void in the regional transportation system or are they merely serving a duplicative role in intercity travel for mere convenience?
The calls for charging the shuttles more than $1 for each stop should not be dismissed at this time. And there should not be a rush to make the shuttle services pay a politicized fee. The shuttles should pay, but it is too early to know how much that should be.