The Equity Factor

Playing Nice with the Nerds: San Francisco Tries to Rein In Private Shuttle Buses

How’s this for disruption? Silicon Valley’s private shuttle buses, which ferry around employees of large tech companies like Google and Facebook, have been clogging the streets of San Francisco and getting in the way of public transportation. They’ve been illegally using around 250 city bus stops, oftentimes forcing regular commuters to get on and off public buses in the middle of the street.

Now the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency, known as Muni, wants to hold hands and make things work.

On weekdays, private busses shuttle roughly 35,000 workers from San Francisco to tech companies across Silicon Valley. They’re often outfitted with Wi-Fi and other amenities you would never imagine on public transit. But in response to the chaos that these shuttles are bringing to public bus stops, Muni has proposed an 18-month test period during which it and the private operators will share 100 stops.

The proposal is basically asking the shuttles to play nice: Use these specific 100 stops, don’t sit there for too long and do your best to stay out of the way. There will be a still-undetermined fee, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, which seems like a step in the right direction.

There’s been a lot of handwringing about these shuttle buses. Disruption and free market enthusiasts will tell you they’re good for the economy. I think they’re creating gated systems of transportation. But if there is some sort of permit and fee involved, as the proposal calls for, it could at least help these shuttle busses shoulder some of the load for the Muni stops they use. As it stands now, they’re just posting up at busy stops and waiting for employees to board. They’re using public infrastructure for private business.

I understand that the purpose of a private business like, say, a shuttle bus, isn’t to broker social peace. Tech companies want to provide this service for their employees, and can afford that luxury. But income inequality is raging in the Bay Area, and I can’t imagine it’s much fun to see some fancy Google bus roll through the neighborhood while you have to board in the middle of the street. The optics aren’t good for the tech companies or the city. (Not that the tech companies actually care.)

Last August, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill for a permit system for intercity curbside bus service, like Megabus and the infamous Chinatown buses. Each vehicle has to get a permit through the Department of Transportation that will cost up to $275 each year. Bus companies have to provide the city with their schedules and other info, like where buses are parked when they’re not in use. Any company that breaks rules faces fines up to $2,500.

While curbside bus service is a different beast than the Silicon Valley shuttles — it saves ordinary people money by offering cheaper travel, rather than providing exclusive service for a select number of techies — the permit system for rogue buses isn’t anything new. If I were running Muni in San Francisco, I’d put a big, fat price tag on those permits. It’s a safe bet that tech companies won’t say no. They’ve got the cash, make them pay.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Bill Bradley writes The Equity Factor column and is based in Brooklyn. Previously, Bill was a features writer at The Daily. His writing has appeared in Bloomberg Businessweek, GQ.com and Vanity Fair, among others. He graduated from Western Michigan University with a B.A. in creative writing and Spanish. Follow him on Twitter @billbradley3.

Tags: economic development, equity factor, san francisco, google, infrastrucutre, silicon valley, facebook, muni, municipal wi-fi