San Francisco tech shuttle pilot program clears road block appeal

The controversial "Google bus" pilot program will go ahead without the environmental review opponents appealed for, but now the tech industry backlash undercurrents at play may only intensify.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
5 min read

Nick Statt/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- The tech bus pilot program that would charge companies such as Google and Apple a fee for using municipal transit stops to shuttle workers down to Silicon Valley survived a heated attempt to stall its implementation Tuesday. After a nearly seven-hour public hearing, the appeal that would have thrown it back for environmental review was knocked down by a San Francisco Board of Supervisors ruling.

The 18-month program was originally passed in late January and is slated to start July 1. It will effectively charge operators of shuttles, colloquially known as "Google buses," $1 per stop per day made at up to 200 San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) locations. The low amount was chosen because the SFMTA says a state proposition caps the amount of money the city can collect -- the approximately $1.5 million ceiling being enough to recoup costs of operating the program only -- without a ballot vote by residents.

The program has been contentious because its detractors argue it would be not only ineffective, but pushed hastily and with preferential treatment thanks to an exemption to a review that is often required in many city transit proposals. Tech shuttle buses make roughly 35,000 boardings a day, the SFMTA says.

Centering its complaint on the city Planning Department's decision to exempt the program from environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), opponents to the program and the proliferation of tech shuttle buses filed an appeal on February 19. The Board of Supervisors voted 8-2 in favor of upholding that exemption and bypassing a CEQA review.

The appellants included resident Sara Shortt, the Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Democratic Club, Service Employees International Union Local Union 1021, and the San Francisco League of Young Voters.

"Before we write those rules, we should know what we're writing," said appellant attorney Richard Drury. "That's what CEQA tells us. When SFMTA wants to reroute its Muni buses, it does a CEQA and figures out where its route should be." Ultimately, Drury's arguments, and many others', were to no avail.

The Board of Supervisors made their decision after an intensive back-and-forth with SFMTA Project Manager Carli Paine and the Planning Department's Environmental Review Officer Sarah Jones.

The debate waded into the deepest of legal intricacies over the pilot program. Principally, the issues were whether or not a CEQA review was legally required -- meaning that there is substantial evidence that the buses are having a measurable physical impact on the environment -- if a review using that legislation would even address the most pressing concerns of the appellants, and whether the inherent idea of private companies using public stops was even legal.

Despite the breadth of those arguments, it boiled down to whether or not the pilot program's mission -- which Paine clarified was to primarily collect data and analyze whether a sharing scenario could effectively be implemented -- was a successful "first step," as it was hailed by the SFMTA. That question brought a divide between initiating the program despite the criticism and attempting to revise it over time, or by going back to the drawing board and starting over before taking the dive.

The verdict, after a hours of often tense dialogue, was that the pilot program was not without faults, but was a necessary step towards addressing the growing issues poised by the tech shuttle buses.

Beyond the environment, tech backlash surfaces

While appealed on the grounds of CEQA, make no mistake: this was not simply a question of environmental impact and fairness under the law. And opponents to the pilot program have not hidden their distress over both the effects of the tech shuttle buses on everyday life -- issues like bicycler safety and traffic delays -- as well as the greater impact of the technology industry here in San Francisco.

The latter folds this fight, as well as its seething undercurrent of backlash against tech companies and their workers, into the greater narrative gripping the city in the vice of an ever-escalating cultural clash. Drury said as much in his own words, peppering his rebuttals with comments that expanded his complaints to include the pain points of gentrification and displacement currently plaguing areas of high tech shuttle traffic.

"Here we're busing wealthy, predominantly white adults in low income neighborhoods in San Francisco where they in turn displace low and moderate income people," Drury said. "These are pirate shuttles. They are illegal," he proclaimed multiple times.

Protestors blocking a tech shuttle bus. cjmartin via Flickr

Scores of residents, some visibly furious, lined up after Drury to support the appeal, citing countless issues with the tech shuttle buses and the city's pilot program that spanned everything from logistics, safety, and resident comfort to the very elements of what constitutes justice and fairness in a city that is rapidly changing due to the influx of wealth and tech industry workers.

The idea of a fighting a program that clearly has environmental benefits -- the tech shuttles remove cars and reduce emissions compared with the worst-cast scenario of a large percentage of those riders commuting in individual vehicles -- with a call for environmental review sounds like a contradiction.

However, it had to be made clear multiple times throughout the hearing by proponents of the appeal that the opposition to the pilot program was not an opposition to the existence of the buses. Rather, it was a call for review regarding where the buses should stop, how frequently, how large they should be and what impacts those kinds of factors have on traffic, emissions, and safety.

Beyond those concerns, it was a campaign to legally address the effects the tech shuttles, and tech workers, have been having on rising rents and eviction rates. The appellants feared that those aspects wouldn't be addressed appropriately by the program, but it was frequently and harshly argued by proponents of the program that tech buses were simply a symptom, and not a cause, of this extended and more malignant plight facing the city.

An oft-repeated closer among vocal supporters of the appeal was an echo of the bus protestors' chants that initially started the entire conversation: These companies should pay their fair share.

For now, it appears as if the pilot program does meet those standards in the eyes of city representatives.