Interviews with more than two dozen people near Mission District transit hubs revealed a nuanced view of the private shuttles that take some 35,000 workers a day to Silicon Valley.
Residents and workers offered some solutions to changing the debate that has focused on the shuttles as symbols of privilege. They expressed impatience with the city’s lax enforcement policies on using the city bus stops, but understood that tech folks needed to get to work. They gave the latter some credit for using the buses instead of driving cars.
For many, however, the buses also represent an unfair benefit that underscores the beleaguered state of the city’s public transportation system. Most see both the city and the tech companies as the parties responsible for resolving the tension.
“These buses should pay a fee that is underwritten by the city to create funds to fix our transportation system,” said Wayne Whelan, 54, who owns Therapy on Valencia Street. “It’s easy.”
Whelan has operated his retail store in the Mission for 20 years and has watched the city change numerous times, but said this latest wave offered a new opportunity to create lasting private-public collaborations.
Seeing the buses come back into the city, largely empty after a drop at one of the tech campuses, he wondered if there was a way to use crowdsourcing to ascertain if anyone else could benefit from the buses.
“I live in Cupertino now and have to come back and forth to the city every day, but I can’t use these shuttles,” he said. “If you are sitting at a Muni stop, waiting and waiting for a bus that never comes or see one leave without you, and then you see this big Google bus pull up and wait for its riders, then, yeah, it’s kind of frustrating.”
Residents who have put up with shoddy transit in the Bay Area feel slighted that the city has allowed such a privilege while its own public transportation system comes up short. Getting from point A to point B has long been a thorny issue in the Bay Area. The BART strikes (and threats of strikes) crippled the region for several days in July and October, highlighting already inadequate service and creating palpable tension between residents and transit operators of every form.
“If they could just figure out our existing system better and everyone was served, I don’t think so much tension would be out there,” said William Anderson, 26, while sitting in Dolores Park with a group of friends. “If they could extend BART to Silicon Valley and make our city buses better, maybe people wouldn’t jump on this symbol of tech and feel so upset.”
One woman in her 50s, who asked not to be named, recently moved to the city from the East Coast for a tech job but refuses to take the shuttle service.
“I think it creates a system of classism in the city that is just really unhealthy,” she said. “You have all of these people who are being treated differently, free of the daily issues that one experiences when you have to be responsible for your own transportation, and it makes them blind to the problems everyone else has to deal with.”
She said if the buses did not exist, the tech companies could work with the city to ensure better transportation methods.
“As it stands, they aren’t investing in that part of the city at all,” she said.
A task force appointed by Mayor Lee just announced that San Francisco’s transportation system needs about $10 billion worth of improvements. To tackle nearly $3 billion of that hefty bill, the task force recommended that city leaders ask voters to approve taxes, bonds and fees.
Most people interviewed wondered why the city would miss out on an opportunity to charge the buses for their use of the Muni stops. The private tech shuttles use more than 200 Muni stops every day, not only blocking other buses, but taking up more of the already insufficient bus stops where delivery trucks, bicycles, pedestrians and buses all jockey for room to pass.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to a Muni driver start complaining that a tech bus was in their way,” said Anja Denouden, 40. “It’s kind of ridiculous when the city’s transportation system is already in such bad shape.”
Denouden, originally from Holland, has lived in San Francisco for 12 years and works as a nanny in the Mission. The father of the family employing her works for Google and reportedly loves the shuttle service that comes along with his job, but thinks that it wouldn’t be necessary if there were better public transportation.
“On one hand, it’s great because he knows it will get him there and he doesn’t have to drive,” Denouden said. “But he is at the mercy of these specific times when the buses leave, so he is kind of isolated from being able to choose when he comes home.”
San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Director Ed Reiskin recently announced that the tech buses will soon have to follow some new rules. Over the last few months, the transit agency has been meeting with some of the tech companies to put together a set of regulations around use of the Muni bus stops. The pilot program, which will require such things as permits, could start early next year. The transit board will vote on the proposals next month.
In the meantime, residents balked over the fact that no formal agreement has been established and the buses get to enjoy consequence-free stops.
“They shouldn’t be able to use the MUNI stops for free, they should pay like the rest of us and be subject to the same fines everyone else is,” said Justin Line, 28, who has lived in the Mission his entire life.
Echoing that sentiment, David Poppinga, 28 and also a native, added, “I’ve had a ticket for parking in the bus zone for like, 10 seconds. It was almost $300. If the tech buses were treated like us, they would owe billions.”
Working to resolve the inequities in transportation would be a step toward seeing the tech workers and companies engage with the city, residents said.
“If people are going to live in a community but not interact with it, then what is the point?” said Cedric Hamilton, 42. “If people want to live here, but they are going to go to cafes and bars and only sit on their laptops, then they might as well live at their workplace. They already have gyms and everything else they need there.”
While expressing a disconnect between new tech residents and longtime or working class San Franciscans, most conceded that wanting to live in the city but work elsewhere was understandable.
“This is a very special place and people are always going to want to live here,” Whelan said. “Someone making $150,000 per year to sit in a cube and hit ones and zeroes on a keyboard doesn’t want to live in Sunnyvale. But maybe we can figure something out. Maybe Google can run our transit system some day and do a better job than San Francisco ever could.”