To be less irksome to neighbors, they could be smaller and the routes could be restricted to larger streets, but transportation experts say the tech buses between San Francisco and Silicon Valley basically do a good job at what they do — effectively shuttling approximately 35,000 people a day and most likely keeping thousands of cars off the freeway.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which passed its resolution to let the tech buses use Muni stops for $1 per stop in January and limit where these buses can stop, will be holding public hearings today and on February 22 to seek input on which Muni stops the shuttles should be using. Those who can’t attend the meetings have until February 23 to post comments on an interactive map on SFMTA’s website.
In advance of those meetings, Mission Local asked transportation experts for their ideas on how to mitigate the intensity of the buses’ impact on the neighborhoods in which they operate. The experts addressed the transportation issues and not the larger issues of rising rents or gentrification, though all said that these issues were crucial for policy officials to address.
Elizabeth Deakin, professor of regional planning and urban design at UC Berkeley, said that from an efficiency standpoint the buses are doing a pretty great job at what they do.
“The private buses’ strategy of having several bus stops in San Francisco is a pretty smart idea,” Deakin said of the fleet’s design. “It just has all these negative externalities for everyone else.”
Graduate students in planning, David Weinzimmer and Danielle Dai studied the shuttles and how their existence impacted employee choices about where to live. They also found that the private shuttles were significantly faster than public transportation from most parts of the city. “Coming from the Sunset, it takes 70 percent longer via public transit than it does on the shuttles,” Weinzimmer said.
“[The shuttles] are really efficient in moving lots of people,” Dai said.
The speed aside, putting tech workers onto the current public transportation system would not likely be a viable option because the public transit system is over capacity, the study’s authors said.
“Caltrain is completely at capacity at peak hours, so is Muni,” Weinzimmer said. “It’s a miracle that people rely on it as much as they do.”
Susan Shaheen, a professor at Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center, has heard in informal discussions of transit wonks that out of the 22 different transit systems in the Bay Area, Google’s private network is the seventh largest.
“If Google is seven and Facebook is eight, that says these services are working at attracting lots of people,” Shaheen said. “If this is really working, it has potential to take a lot of cars off the road.”
The existing situation’s impressiveness makes it challenging to envision an alternative that would be as efficient and move through San Francisco’s dense neighborhoods less, they said.
For example, if the shuttles were forced to load and unload commuters at a central terminal in less dense and less residential parts of the city, experts said the network of private shuttles would not only be less efficient than they are now, they could also cause undue stress on the public transit system.
“Most people dislike more access times,” Deakin said. “It wouldn’t matter if it’s a beautiful terminal or if there’s some sort of Maginot Line where buses aren’t allowed to cross, you’d still have to get across town.”
Several complaints heard in the tech shuttle hearings and received by SFMTA have had to do with vehicles’ size and the noise they produce.
“Those large vehicles tend to be scary going down the street,” Deakin said. “Bikes and buses are not a good mix.”
“On technology side, we need to work with them on the buses, to make them smaller,” said Timothy Papandreou, director of Strategic Planning & Policy at SFTMA.
Papandreou was an early voice within the agency to push to regulate the private shuttles. He believes the pilot resolution passed in January is just the first step in regulating the shuttles.
“The physical fleet are too hulking and too big…people who bike find them really intimidating,” he added.
Papandreou said the tech shuttles should be more like urban buses with multiple doors to decrease the amount of time that they need to idle at Muni stops. If they were slightly smaller, they could significantly decrease the way their presence is felt in neighborhoods.
But Deakin says she thinks the companies won’t be receptive to the idea of smaller buses.
“Smaller vehicles would definitely cut down on noise,” said Deakin, who also explained that heavy vehicles have a greater impact on roads. “But smaller buses are not a great solution, they aren’t necessarily as comfortable.”
Deakin said that neighbors with noise complaints might be appeased if the shuttles’ routes were contained to major arteries and truck routes — an approach Papandreou says the SFMTA is researching.
“In Alamo Square we’ve banned tour buses at certain locations,” Papandreou said. “Weight is usually the key factor and their ability to turn in a street, if they’re too big to turn, we’d have to restrict them… there’s certain streets in the Mission, Noe Valley that are really, really narrow. As we’re updating our whole strategy, we’ll look at that…We can actually restrict certain areas, and they’ll get a fine if they go in them.”
For Shaheen, who is primarily interested in these shuttles’ ability to take cars off the street, their benefits should ideally be expanded to more people.
“I wonder, could these types of services be modeled so other people could access them and perhaps these other individuals wouldn’t need cars to commute?” Shaheen asked. “Could this be expanded to a much larger suite of individuals?”
Papandreou is skeptical about whether a public system could be modeled after the private one.
“My real question is about a two-tiered transit system, is that something we want to support? These shuttles are already packed, if they open up to more people, they’ll be a high premium to pay, and then there’s still a two-tiered system,” Papandreou said.
All the experts we talked to shared one common wish: in their ideal system, there would be more public options for every Bay Area commuter.
“Muni is a fantastic resource, we need to do what we can to improve it… but it’s the slowest major bus system in any major city,” Weinzimmer said. “If we could create a fantastic network that’s faster, the trade-off between private shuttles and public transit totally changes.”
“Ideally, we’d have a regional transit network so you don’t need these buses,” Papandreou said. “If that was run by a regional transit, this is moot. This conversation is over.”
Deakin cites Shanghai as a city that has a similar issue with large fleets of private company buses. She says it’s a bad transit model for San Francisco. In Shanghai, the rate of expansion outpaced the rate the city was able to build transit infrastructure, and private, company buses emerged to meet demand.
“In China, cities are totally clogged by company buses, and there’s lots of congestion,” Deakin said. “As Shanghai is expanding its buses, some companies are starting to think they don’t need all the private shuttles.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Timothy Papandreou’s name.