When I board the bus at the 16th Street BART stop, it’s like stepping into an alternate universe. The bus driver smiles at me. No empty bottle of Old English rolls across the floor and hits me in the foot. Not one passenger is crooning “Broken Wings” by Mister Mister to themselves. There are actually seats. Empty ones.
I’m not on Muni. As Muni has steadily cut back its routes and schedules and Caltrain has faced a succession of budget crunches, the number of private shuttles — always a part of the city — has grown. According to a preliminary report commissioned by Supervisor Bevan Dufty, the largest four largest shuttle operators (Google, Yahoo, Genentech and Apple) move 2,000 people in and out of San Francisco every day (on average, Muni moves 700,000).
“We know that shuttles have increased,” says Margaret Cortes, senior transportation planner with the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. “We’ve done some back-of-the-envelope calculations. But we don’t know how much.” Complaints about the shuttles have also increased, says Cortes — the majority of them about the buses run by Google and Genentech.
In the early 1900s, San Francisco had a web of public and privately-owned transit services, and a century later is returning to that model. In the East Bay, UC Berkeley buys bulk passes that give its students unlimited rides on AC Transit. In San Francisco, UCSF and the Academy of Art run shuttles. Two parallel modes of transit: one for the institutions that need people to get to their destinations reliably and on time, and that have the financial resources to ensure that they do. And another for everyone else.
San Francisco is a town that likes to pretend that social class doesn’t exist, and it’s true that class is more fluid here than in many other urban areas. But the shuttles have revealed class divisions and irritations that usually remain submerged. Almost everyone in San Francisco can walk, bike, drive or ride Muni, and has, at one point or another. But when the enormous black lozenge of a Google bus pulls up at 16th and Valencia and disgorges a man with a uniform and a badge reader, it’s pretty clear who’s getting a free ride to Silicon Valley and who isn’t.
The authors of the Dufty-commissioned SFCTA report on shuttles seem almost baffled by the animosity the shuttles inspire. “Benefits are significant and widespread,” the report states. An analysis of just the big four indicates that the shuttles prevent over 8,000 pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere every year by eliminating individual car trips, generate 1.8 million worth of business in areas around the shuttle stops, and cut down on traffic and parking congestion by enabling city residents who would otherwise purchase cars to live without them. “Impacts are localized,” the report states, “with the major issues appearing to be related to conflicts with Muni and idling. Safety, while a common complaint by the public, does not appear to be as extensive a problem as some residents perceive.”
“Conflicts with Muni” refers to shuttles pulling into Muni stops to load and unload passengers. San Francisco’s Transportation Code states that SFMTA must provide explicit permission for other vehicles to use Muni bus stops. No such agreement exists yet, though a few shuttle services developed their own pilot program, called Muni First (without any Muni input), which they began implementing in May 2009. The state is responsible for licensing shuttlebuses — one reason why it’s difficult for the city to figure out exactly how many shuttles are operating within its boundaries — but the MTA is free to ticket buses it thinks are behaving badly. Hence the impetus for developing Muni First.
I stopped riding Muni two years ago, after a long, cold night at a bus shelter on the other side of town. The sign at the stop steadily counted down the minutes until the bus would arrive. Then, when it was slated to arrive in three minutes, the sign began counting backwards. It took an hour and a half for the bus to finally show. I had already been feeling guilty for taking Muni; the buses were becoming more and more crowded, and it seemed that as an able-bodied person in a small city, I should leave the bus system to the people who needed it the most and ride my bicycle. And I do, for the most part. The few times I have ridden the bus since then, it seems that the system is increasingly used by children and the elderly, and few in between.
All is not utopia on the shuttle, either. As it twists through the Mission on its way to San Francisco General, it gradually becomes apparent that the two women behind me are having a wide-ranging and complicated argument that keeps circling back to whether or not they’re going to make it to an AA meeting on time. But they’re actually conducting the entire argument in whispers. It feels oddly polite. It’s like being in Vancouver.
“Hey,” I say to the driver. He is listening to the song “Disco Inferno” very quietly, at an almost subliminal level. “Do you ever not let anyone onto this bus?”
The UCSF Shuttle website is a little vague in its description of its shuttles’ accessibility. It says that the bus is available to faculty, staff, students, patients and visitors. An enthusiastic review page on Yelp reveals that some city residents are using it for non-UCSF-related business. It all depends on how you define “visitor,” I suppose. “We let anyone on the bus,” the driver says. “As long as they don’t mess up the bus. As long as they don’t make a lot of noise.”
He smiles, with a hint of smugness. “We serve everyone.” The women detach from their argument long enough to weigh in. Getting back and forth for doctor’s appointments is acceptable to both. “But say I have to go to an…an AA meeting or something. Across town,” one of them says. “I would feel guilty for doing that.”
“I don’t know,” says the other. “It’s like, you wait for Muni in the cold and then by the time the train comes, you’re like, “I’ve got to pay for this?”