As the tech bus plan moves to court, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency issued a proposal on October 16 to make permanent an ongoing pilot program regulating corporate shuttle services in San Francisco.

The 18-month pilot fueled a pending lawsuit, set to go to trial on November 14. The lawsuit was filed by a coalition of protesters who assert that the program violates state traffic and environmental laws.

“There are risks that are not being looked at – the city said that the (pilot) is a data collection process … but they didn’t actually collect the data that they need to move from a pilot project into a permanent program,” said Cynthia Crews, activist for the Coalition for Fair, Legal and Environmental Transit that filed the lawsuit.

The Coalition accuses the transit agency of violating the California Vehicle Code by continuing to allow corporate shuttles to use red bus zones intended for Muni buses, although the pilot program has greatly reduced instances of shuttles using unauthorized stops.

Paul Rose, the agency’s spokesperson, disagreed, saying that while there were problems during the years the shuttles were used without city permission, the pilot program has succeeded.

“Before the pilot, the shuttle buses were operating like the wild west – stopping all over the city,” said Rose. “Clearly, the status quo wasn’t working.”

With new data from the program, the city wants to “extend and enhance” the pilot after it expires on January 31. The changes are a direct response to an analysis released earlier this month showing the program’s success.

“The purpose of the pilot program initially was to reduce conflicts with Muni, and it has helped minimize these conflicts,” said Rose. “This is something we are encouraged by and hoping to continue moving forward.”

According to findings from the analysis, conflicts with Muni buses were reduced by 35 percent on a per-stop basis, while the number of shuttle zones where halved to 125 from 240.

Some of the proposed changes include requiring operators to use newer vehicles in an effort to reduce greenhouse emission, increase daily per stop fees for each shuttle to $3.67, and avoid labor disputes by urging the companies to pay fair wages and provide improved working conditions.

The proposal also suggests that shuttles longer than 35 feet keep off smaller residential roads. The analysis outlined general community dismay over large vehicles idling and blocking traffic on streets in which they do not belong.

While there is no preset limit on the number of shuttles the transit agency plans to permit, any new vehicles added to the program must be screened and approved. A maximum of 200 shuttle zones may be established throughout the city – currently, there are about 125.

Still, housing and environmental activists want more studies.

“What we have been asking for is that the city engage in a comprehensive analysis to evaluate the impact on housing and the environment that the shuttle bus stops are having, and then to come up with financial compensations – but the city is failing to do that,” said Erin McElroy, a founder and director of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, a digital data visualization collective formed to document displacement and gentrification in the Bay Area.

McElroy helped compile data that makes tech buses part of San Francisco’s larger debate about displacement and supply-and-demand in terms of housing. Opponents to the service say that the shuttles enable wealthy populations to move to the city, where they are competing for housing with existing residents and driving up rents.

“Our data not only shows that evictions increased, but that since 2011, almost 70 percent of no-fault evictions took place within four blocks of known shuttle stops,” said McElroy. “Anybody who has studied urban planning would know that housing and transportation are intimately linked, so to me it’s outrageous that the city is ignoring that reality.”

Despite Some Successes, Report Leaves Unanswered Questions

A major point of contention is whether the pilot is effective in taking vehicles off the road. According to the analysis, 45 percent of shuttle riders surveyed do not own cars, and 45 percent of those who do not own cars credited the shuttles as a major factor in not owning cars.

The report concluded that nearly half of the participants said they would drive to work alone if the shuttle wasn’t an option, while less than 5 percent said they would move closer to work.

“For every person who rides a shuttle, that’s one more open seat on transit or one less car clogging traffic or competing for a parking space,” said SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin in a written statement.

“Extending the program is a way of bringing order to the existing issue – without the program, things would go back to being unorganized and unregulated as before,” said Rose, explaining that it is not illegal for these shuttles to operate on public streets in San Francisco, but that it is the agency’s job to regulate where they stop and how they impact existing traffic and transportation systems.

The proposal requires approval from the Board of Supervisors, and will be discussed at a community meeting on November 4, though the location has not been finalized.

“My concerns (with the program) are regarding making sure that companies are paying their fair share,” said District 9 Supervisor David Campos.