New Study Recommends Augmenting the Benefits of Private Shuttle Service

shuttle.jpgPhoto: Matt Baume

With Bay Area public transit languishing, market forces have evolved a "shadow industry" solution: fleets of shuttle buses, operating outside of any agreement with public transit agencies, carrying employees between work and home with greater efficiency and comfort than Muni could ever hope to offer.

Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Genentech, Adobe, and Advent are among the companies offering shuttle services. An estimated two thousand people are transported on private shuttles around the city, spanning as many as fifty different stops.

Recently, Supervisor Bevan Dufty asked the San Francisco County Transportation Authority to conduct a first-of-its-kind study into the local shuttle industry. The Strategic Analysis Report: The Role of Shuttle Services in San Francisco makes several important observations about the augmentation of public transit with private services, and suggests innovative solutions to problems like idling, conflicts at transit stops, and cross-company collaboration.

Among the recommendations are coordinating shared stops with transit agencies, or establishing dedicated shuttle zones. Shared parking at bus yards is another possibility, as is a "Muni Partners" program, whereby shuttles would coordinate operations and schedules with public transit. Such a collaboration could benefit shuttle operators by facilitating access to grants and public infrastructure such as charging stations and battery-swaps.

The advantages to shuttle services are clear: faster than public transit, more comfortable, and with stops customized to riders' needs, shuttles relive congestion on roads and in parking lots. They're particularly attractive to employers, serving as a powerful recruitment tool. The SFCTA's study also shows that over the course of a year, the region's WiFi-enabled shuttles are responsible for a cumulative 322,000 additional hours of productivity (and 246,000 hours of leisure).

Without these shuttles, many professionals would drive to their jobs on the Peninsula, said SFCTA Executive Director José Luis Moscovich. "Silicon Valley is not providing the quality of life or entertainment or recreation or cultural choices that they would like to have available to them," Moscovich told Streetsblog. "I think that transportation is fundamentally an activity that derives from economic activity. To the degree that people continue to make locational decisions based on those factors, we're probably going to see a growth of private shuttles as employers mold themselves to the needs of their employees."

According to the study, shuttles save 327,000 solo round-trips per year. That's a significant portion of the 1,600,000 solo intra-regional trips that San Francisco's Climate Action Plan seeks to eliminate. Carbon dioxide emissions are reduced by several thousand tons thanks to shuttles; and most shuttle riders patronize merchants near their stops, contributing an additional $1.8 million to the local economy.

"There's no question that these folks taking shuttles are actually providing a benefit from the standpoint of environmental impact," said Moscovich. The study indicates that without the shuttles, 63 percent of riders would have driven -- and 14 percent would seek employment elsewhere.

But because shuttle services are run by competing companies, service is often redundant. During the course of the study, many shuttle operators expressed an interest in consolidating operations. There's been limited headway on that front: the Emery-Go-Round started as a Caltrans-funded project of a business improvement district, and is now privately funded by businesses with 3,000 riders per day. Similarly, Golden Gate Transit works with "bus clubs," wherein riders pay monthly fees and GGT handles procurement and covers 30 percent of costs.

"Just as with taxicab companies or limos, sometimes the market will not be quick enough to determine an equilibrium for the mix of services that are actually needed," said Moscovich. "The study found that a lot of these vehicles are not operating at full capacity. They have a sizable chunk of idle capacity -- they're not operating full -- that would argue that there's some consolidation that would yield efficiency."

Shuttles can also provoke complaints from residents regarding noise, safety, and idling. In addition, the private vehicles are known to illegally block Muni stops while boarding, the fine for which is $254. Enforcement has so far been limited, and the SFCTA's study sought to address residents' concerns.

One surprising finding: complaints about safety are overstated. "We looked at the claims related to safety," said Moscovich, "and found that they're not nearly as significant as they may be perceived in the neighborhoods. We did field observations, and found that what we have is pretty safe."

The study lays out several recommendations for managing relationships between shuttles and neighbors. Among them: hiring a single point of contact for shuttle complaints, information, and coordination. The SFCTA is currently in talks with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the SFMTA about funding such a position as a 3-year pilot.

Planning for smoother shuttle operations is crucial. "I think growth is pretty much a given in the next decade or so," Moskovich said. "I am not a bleeding-heart regulator. I am not interested in getting in the middle of things that are working well. But it can't be a wild west approach, either. It's appropriate for the government to have some role in looking at the overall picture and helping maintain a balance, and do things like we suggest in the report: sharing information, some form of local certification program, and opening and maintaining a dialogue on the use of curb space and enforcing weight restrictions."

San Francisco has an opportunity to take the lead on creating successful programs for shuttle operation. In coming years, Moscovich said, we're likely to see more employers offering such services, so scalable planning now is a high priority.

"These shuttles are an organic response by the private sector to the realities to public transportation in the 21st century," he said, citing service cuts and regular service that fails to meet some riders' needs. He went on, "these shuttles are like a glimpse of what the future might be, or how the resources of the private sector might be recruited to generate a more balanced picture of what public -- or at least shared -- transportation might look like later in the century. We've been limited in this country to looking at public transportation as public-owned and operated, and there are other models."