The controversial tech shuttles are powerful symbols — or they're not — that are also causing real problems and benefits on the roads
At the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on April 1, an environmental appeal hearing on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's commuter shuttle pilot program elevated the so-called Google Bus into a powerful symbol with two narratives — of gentrification and displacement, or the misguided belief that tech workers are to blame for those trends in San Francisco.
Those weren't the only divergent tales to emerge at the seven-hour long, emotion-packed hearing. While the buses were praised as good alternatives to San Franciscans driving to work in the Silicon Valley, there was also a surprising level of consensus that they're causing conflicts at local bus stops and need to be better regulated by the SFMTA.
The tale of the Google Bus as told by the tech industry is this: the buses ferry the workers of a bourgeoning economic sector in a city that now leads the world in innovation. At its most basic, the Google Bus reduces wasteful driving, an environmental boon to the region.
But activists decrying displacement have beaten down a Google Bus effigy in the form of a piñata, and the morning before the hearing, protesters in clown costumes blockaded another Google Bus. Their tale of the Google Bus is about monstrous private transports that hurt low-income San Franciscans by clogging up Muni stops and driving up the price of nearby housing.
Protesters dressed as clowns blockade a Google bus the day the CEQA hearing was held.
In this increasingly economically polarized city, A Tale of Two Cities is oft-mentioned in progressive political circles. But now A Tale of Two Google Buses has become the story of the moment, a story whose moral depends on one's perspective.
SILENT ON SHUTTLES
Carli Paine, who manages this and other pilot programs at the SFMTA, listened to over an hour's worth of public complaints about the shuttles at the hearing before enduring a tough grilling by Sup. David Campos and others.
"I don't have a problem with tech workers, but the arrogance of the tech companies," a woman who identified herself as a nurse said at public comment. "I'm on the Muni bus that's packed to the gills that's held up behind a Google bus."
Paine has heard many variations on that since the Google buses arrived six years ago. The shuttles blocked Muni buses, held up traffic, and blocked bike lanes, but Paine said the SFMTA's early efforts to cite buses for illegally using Muni stops weren't working.
"That's not a comprehensive policy," she told us in a phone interview after the hearing. "It's reactionary. We recognized we needed a policy to address commuter shuttles."
In 2010, the SFMTA applied for grants to measure shuttle impacts, receiving funding in 2011. The first step was to go to the tech companies — Google, Facebook, Yahoo and their ilk — to get the data. The questions were basic, asking for counts: the number of shuttles, stops, riders, and trips. The tech industry flatly ignored SFMTA's inquiries.
"Some data was private, they felt," Paine said. "One of the reasons we're doing the pilot is there's information we haven't been successful in getting voluntarily."
Tech companies were incommunicado at the hearing as well. Hundreds of people, from technology workers to activists to everyday San Franciscans showed up, but representatives of the technology sector did not announce themselves.
"I think it's worth pointing out how absent the tech companies are," Sup. Malia Cohen said at the hearing, contrasting that with three years ago, when Twitter and other companies sought city tax breaks. "The tech executives were swarming City Hall."