San Francisco approves tech shuttle bus pilot program

San Francisco's transit authority unanimously approves plan requiring shuttle buses to pay fee for stopping at designated areas in the city -- a flashpoint in growing culture clash between geeks and locals.

SFMTA project manager Carli Paine James Martin/CNET
SAN FRANCISCO -- The city on Tuesday unanimously approved a pilot program that would require operators of the buses used to shuttle around employees of big tech firms to pay a fee for using certain transit stops around the city.

Those shuttles -- which have colloquially come to be known as "Google buses," though many of the large tech companies use them -- have been a hot-button topic in the Bay Area, becoming a symbol for the growing divide between the tech industry and some of the non-tech community that blames the sector's wealthy employees for the rising rents and changing culture of the city.

Still, city officials warned that people should not conflate those bigger issues with the action being taken on Tuesday. "These buses have become the physical manifestation of a lot of larger issues. We're not purporting to solve all of those issues," said Edward Reiskin, the city's director of transportation.

The 6-0 vote of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board of directors, puts in place an 18-month program that allows the shuttle buses to legally pick up and drop off passengers at 200 stops previously only designated for Muni, the city's official public transit system. The bus operator companies will have to pay a $1 fee per day for each stop, which would create about $1.5 million -- a sum that would only go as far as paying back the city's costs of operating the program. The SFMTA has cited a state proposition that would require a ballot vote by residents to charge anything more than that. The goal is for the pilot to launch in July and wrap up in December 2015.

Shuttles will be required to display a placard. They will also have to provide data to the city via onboard GPS about things like the number of stops they make, so the city can better audit the shuttles.

The shuttles make about 35,000 boardings a day, as opposed to the 700,000 that Muni makes, said Carli Paine, a project manager at the SFMTA.

In order to decide what the network of designated stops will look like, the SFMTA will ask the bus operators to submit a proposal of stops. The agency will also let residents chime in on a Web site, letting them drop a pin on a map and give specific information about issues relating to that stop. The city will also hold open house meetings, for those who are less Internet savvy.

Edward Reiskin, the city's director of transportation. James Martin/CNET
Tuesday's meeting was so well-attended that late comers were directed to an overflow room, and some 27 commenter took the dais to voice their opinion on the program.

Some tech shuttle riders spoke up in favor the program. Google, which usually keeps its employees tight-lipped when they are asked to address matters in public, apparently in this case encouraged the testimony, according to leaked memo complete with talking points asking employees to attend.

"Not everyone at Google is a millionaire," said Google employee Crystal Sholts. "Like a lot of people, I still have to pay my student loans. I see it as I work in Mountain View, and I live in San Francisco."

She added, "I do work on map data. And I saw your map data [in the presentation] -- it's Google Maps. So I need to get to work to help you."

Dispite Reiskin's urging not to conflate the issues, the backlash against the tech shuttle buses has only continued to heat up. The vote comes just hours after another protest blocking shuttle buses used by Google and Facebook on San Francisco's Market Street, blocks away from City Hall, where the SFMTA held its meeting.

A now-deleted tweet from a Facebook staffer. Valleywag, Screenshot by CNET
The organization Heart of the City, which has been behind some of the past protests, thinks the pilot program will not do enough. "$1 doesn't stop displacement!" the group wrote on a flyer distributed at Tuesday's protest.

Many of the speakers at the meeting who opposed the proposal also expressed dissatisfaction with the $1 fee. "This is class warfare," said Steve Zeltzer, a San Francisco resident. "Let's charge them a billion dollars. They can afford it."

Tuesday morning's protest reportedly was calling specific attention to evictions in the city, with demonstrators marching to the San Francisco Association of Realtors office after allowing the buses to depart. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee on Friday addressed some of the issues frequently raised by protestors during his State of the City address. In it, he proposed a plan for the city to develop housing at what could be the fastest rate in the city's history.

 

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