On UCSF's Yellow Line, which runs between SF General Hospital and 16th Street BART

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?”

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. Wow, lots of comments of anger for even bringing up the topic? Why exactly? Why shouldn’t any one, shuttle rider or not, just listen rather than battle?

    I have been sitting at 16th and Valencia or 24th and Mission or any number of places when I watch Google and Yahoo, Genetech shuttles zip past.

    That these companies can get their people to work on time is a luxury everyone wants and should be able to count on with a public transportation system, especially in a ‘green city.’

    Therein lies the frustration watching the softly seated scanned elite ridding by in their luxury vehicle. Sorry. But, its how it feels, when, like one of the posters talked about, Muni leaves bus riders stranded at night, in the cold, even during rushhour –

    I don’t have the answers. But, a whole bunch of people making this political only goes to show how political it is. Bring back the jindels! Everyone needs to get work on time. No reason to bash shuttle users, but don’t go around bashing people who tell you that it feels like you are out of touch with what the rest of the people have to go through, and it kinda sucks that your voice which might otherwise go to improving a city service is somehow beyond what you can deal with if you are on a shuttle.

    Just listen. For gosh sakes. If you feel moved, share what it feels like to now understand this other position, and use the credits and opportunities for community work at your company to help ensure all people get to work on time.

  2. Private shuttle exist because the public transit option for the same trip is inferior. Part of the blame is on the employers who’ve located their offices in places that will never be a good fit for public transit. We can also hold big city governments accountable, especially SF, for making it so hard to operate a business in their city. Yahoo, Google, Genentech, and Apple have probably figured out it’s still cheaper to operate a fleet of shuttles than try to locate their offices in SF. That’s a shame. And how can we expect a company to locate in SF if MUNI alone, BART/MUNI, or CalTrain/MUNI is suppose to be the best way to commute there?

    Employer shuttles won’t ever fully replace MUNI but imagine if private shuttle competition was allowed on Van Ness, Mission, or Geary? Clean buses, on-time, limited stops… there is a customer need that MUNI is absolutely failing at meeting on these lines. Let one of these lines have private service and see how many people still choose MUNI.

  3. This is an opinion piece, right? As reporting, it reads more like indymedia.org more than mission local. I am totally baffled by the animosity private shuttles inspire, and by your obvious but under-elaborated stance against them. The article may have been helped by more clearly focussing on either local or regional public transit (they bleed together in your report) and the possible effects of (and reasons companies feel the need to provide) private transit. Did Google try to make a deal with Caltrain that fell through?

    Pardon my frustration. You’re right, MUNI is broken, despite what Old Man JP claims. Maybe MUNI is better than in the 70s, but it’s not better in proportion to the needs of the city. We need our public officials to have the vision and strength to re-imagine public transit as something that everyone pays for and the everyone wants to ride. They need to be willing to close streets to cars and give busses priority so they can keep their schedules. They need to expect people to walk a few blocks to their bus stop and to provide shuttles for those that can’t. And really importantly, they need to ensure safety on transit so that no one fears riding the bus. All this costs money, and so they need to be willing to raise that money from the citizens and businesses that can afford to pay it.

  4. I’m all for private shuttles. Anything to hurt MUNI in the short run to improve it in the long run. MUNI needs humbling. I suggest a network of BART shuttles, -ocean to civic center, WestOfTwinPeaks to Glen/Balboa Park, that charge a dollar (or not) and ferrys us all to the (cheaper in SF) BART lines.

  5. When I was young we called them jitneys and they where long multi seated cars. You climbed over the other passengers to find your seat.

  6. Corporate shuttles do not provide services that can replace Muni. Simply put: corporate shuttles run services between San Francisco and points in the SOUTH BAY. That means Sunnyvale, Mountain View, etc. I am not sure why the writer intended to compare these two very different and completely unrelated services.

    Three days a week, I ride a corporate shuttle (Yahoo!) to work (Sunnyvale) in San Francisco. The drivers require every passenger to have ID and scan their employee badge before boarding. The corporate shuttles run only in the morning and in the evening. It is not an alternative transportation to Muni in any way. When I am not going to and from work, I ride Muni because it is the only affordable way, aside from walking and biking, that you can get around the city.

    Muni is not just used by children and the elderly, as the writer (who admits that she rarely rides Muni anyway) asserted. Try the 38 or the 1 in the morning – you will see working professionals squeezed onto the bus like sardines trying to get to Fidi or SOMA.

    The rise of private corporate shuttles has nothing to do with the decline of Muni. The majority of Muni riders — be they rich or poor — do not have the option to ride private corporate shuttles. Well, unless they want to sneak onto the bus somehow, past the ID scanners, and ride the bus all the way to…Sunnyvale.

    The decline of Muni and its budget woes are real and important issues in San Francisco. But relating it to corporte shuttles make no sense at all.

  7. I know why people stop taking Muni… It’s called the UNION! Why do you say Union people ask? Think about it…

    Unions always want more money. The way they get the money is using the Union employees. Employees are the ones who provides the Union with money. And unions don’t take a flat rate amount, they take percentages! So the more money the employee makes, the more money the union makes.

    How does Muni balance things out? They charge the consumer and makes the rates for the consumers higher.

    Some people believe raises should be automated, so does the union. I believe you shouldn’t receive a raise, unless it’s well earned. But union workers gets a raise every year… It doesn’t matter how hard they worked or there performance, they just get it.

    What if someone isn’t doing there job? Yes, they still get there raise. It doesn’t matter if you do a bad, shitty, or horrible job; you still receive the raise. And it’s so hard for union workers to get fired! If they slack off, you get a slap on the risk.

    I should say look what happened in Detroit? So one day, Muni will discontinue. I wouldn’t say it’s because the consumers. I would say it’s because of the Unions!

  8. Get rid of MUNI. These private operators are doing a much better job of moving people. Why should it be acceptable for MUNI to have terrible service, trash/bottles rolling around, and nothing close to a “schedule”? If MUNI was clean, efficient, and on-time they would have tens if not hundreds of thousands of more passengers. The 700,000 on-board MUNI each day are largely those who have no other choice – that’s a sad scenario if we want public transit that works.

  9. It used to be that people of all classes could take shuttles. Growing up in San Francisco in the 70’s, there were “jitneys” on Mission Street, that cost about the same as MUNI. They were actually minivans, not jitneys. They were fast, convenient, etc. MUNI said the skimmed the cream (as in they went down Mission Street but not to more remote places), and they were discouraged by the City and disappeared.

  10. Oh! I must have missed the paragraph where you gave suggestions on what MUNI should do. Did you have any?

  11. If you’re feeling “guilty” for bussing instead of biking, I think it’s pretty ridiculous to assign that guilt to a desire to “leave the bus system to the people who needed it the most.”

  12. Google’s busses have never stopped at 16th and Valencia, and they’re not black. Those are Facebook’s.

  13. I think the author of this article doesn’t know much about muni or public transit system. I have been taking muni for almost 40 years now. I find that muni services is much better now than ever before. muni is more effective now since the buses don’t stop at every blocks to dropoff/pick up passenger. back then, we had to brave the elements…no bus shelter at all. the busses were much smaller then so it was a lot more crowded and they didn’t have heat or air conditioning…..

  14. Complaints about corporate shuttles- providing their employees a ride to work and helping take cars off of 101…? Oh boo hoo.