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Bevan Dufty

Employee Shuttles Finding Their Place in SF’s Complex Transit System

2:17 PM PDT on August 5, 2009

3090842843_59f9818875_o.jpgA Yahoo employee waits to board a corporate shuttle in the Civic Center. Flickr photo: commander_klaus

In New York, the standard icon of corporate prestige is a gleaming tower downtown bearing a company's name. Here in the Bay Area, one of the preferred symbols is a sprawling, parking lot-ringed "corporate campus" off US-101 (Google, Yahoo) or I-280 (Apple,) 30 miles or more from the region's densest city. Ironically, though these campuses were designed for convenience, many Silicon Valley employees prefer to reside in San Francisco. As a result, companies have discovered the recruiting value of something transportation planners have long touted: high-quality, car-free transportation.

This fall, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA) will release a Strategic Analysis Report outlining the impacts of these shuttles, which Supervisor Bevan Dufty has called "a whole other world of transportation" outside of Muni. Margaret Cortes, a senior transportation planner with the TA, said the companies have been very cooperative during the study, which she says will be ready in September.

In the past, news coverage of the shuttles has focused on their luxuriousness, their impact on real estate values, their contributions to gentrification, and their occasional noisiness. Less dissected has been their impact on livable streets issues and sustainability. Suburban corporate campuses may be inherently unsustainable, but are heavily-used shuttles at least mitigating the problem?

According to Google spokesperson Sunny Gettinger, Google's shuttle service has allowed at least some employees to live car-free. "We definitely have people who've gone car-free, or people who never bought a car," said Gettinger. "I know folks who leave their cars down here, if they have cars, and live in the city car-free more or less, and people who've moved here from other places and not gotten cars because of the shuttle."

Though Google hasn't conducted any surveys, Gettinger said anecdotally, "there's a fair amount of people who would choose to live in the city anyway … and would then have to drive."

In total, Google shuttles over 1,600 people every day throughout the
Bay Area. They do not disclose how many of those riders are in San
Francisco specifically. Apple estimates that its various shuttle, transit subsidy and carpool programs have taken the equivalent of 4,500 cars off the road, according to its 2008 Environmental Update, part of its Facilities Report (off-site PDF.) Further statistics from other companies that
provide shuttles, such as Yahoo, Apple, and Genentech, will be
available as part of the study.

3678439687_680ca815a2.jpgThe Google Maps icon on the iPhone home screen is a subtle reminder that Apple's headquarters are located just off I-280, over three miles from the nearest Caltrain station. Apple offers its employees direct shuttles from San Francisco. Flickr photo: bindermichi

Neighborhood concerns about the shuttles have gotten a lot of coverage, but Vicki Rosen, president of Upper Noe Neighbors, says they're ultimately welcome in the neighborhood. They just need to be regulated like anything else.

"I think people are generally supportive of the shuttles. It's got to be done right," said Rosen. "They don't just have carte blanche. Like any other form of transit, they've got to work to be low-impact. You know, we have to keep after Muni on some things."

Like Muni, the shuttles have the potential to bring more people to the neighborhood without increasing private auto congestion. "It's keeping cars off the street. Whenever you put a bunch of people on a bus, rather than an individual car, that's a good thing," said Rosen. "It's making it nice and convenient for people to live in Noe Valley and be able to commute down the Peninsula, rather than having to live down there. We'd rather have them in our community and being vital and interested members of the community. We believe in transit. We believe in cars too, you know. The less cars on the street, the better."

Rosen said Upper Noe Neighbors and other neighborhood groups got a
presentation from the TA and Google, Apple, Yahoo, and Genentech on the
study, and the companies have been responsive to concerns about things
like idling and speeding.

Amandeep Jawa, an Apple employee since 2002 and a transit activist,
says he used to bike to Caltrain to get to work, but reluctantly
switched to the shuttles about a year ago. "A lot of people who were
driving are now taking the shuttle," said Jawa. "The shuttles are doing
pretty well with picking up people who were driving otherwise."

of me feels a little bit bad about it, because I’m a transit activist,
and I get that, frankly, those of us who were taking Caltrain instead
of driving were some of Caltrain’s better customers. We would buy monthly
passes, etc. But, on the other hand, there’s no question in my mind
that there were a lot of people who were just driving down to Apple,
and now they’re taking transit, basically. They’re not driving, and
that’s a lot of cars off the road."

For his part, Dufty said he's concerned about whether companies use vehicles appropriate for the neighborhood, but ultimately welcomes the service.

"For these private shuttles, the driver is the cost," Dufty said. "One of the things I want to understand is, are these companies, both the companies hiring the bus services, and the bus services themselves, making the best choices in terms of the equipment that they're using, because it's fungible between having a Gary Bauer Greyhound limo versus something that's smaller that might have a little less of a neighborhood impact."

Dufty said the shuttles have become a part of the neighborhood fabric in ways that commuters who drive to work outside the city sometimes don't. "There used to be a complaint, 'All these people live in these live/works and they just get in their car and they go out,'" said Dufty. "No, this is a better choice that people are making, and it's a more part-of-the-neighborhood-fabric choice that they're making to participate in a shuttle service."

Another question the study could touch on is whether the employee shuttles are siphoning riders from Muni and Caltrain. Muni has not historically catered to Caltrain riders commuting out of the city in the morning and back at night, and for now, Caltrain is nearing peak capacity during rush hour commutes. But with the eventual electrification of the Caltrain line, it should be able to run more trains and carry more passengers.

Jawa, who now rides the Apple shuttle daily, said public transit riders are more likely to stand up for Muni and Caltrain, but private shuttle users are still taking a step in the right direction.

For transit riders, Jawa said, "there's a more natural pull for them to become advocates for that transit, because they have a stake in it. Whereas people who ride Apple shuttles, the thing they have a stake in is Apple's shuttles."

"I do think disengaging people from cars does actually help, either if it's on a private shuttle, just getting used to the idea that, 'you know what, I don't drive to work, and my life is such less hassle.'"

Alternatively, big tech companies could go with the Manhattan model of
prestige, and buy or build towers downtown. "I would welcome some more
companies like this" in the city, Dufty said. "But it just seems there
is a certain synergy people have being in Silicon Valley, and there's
not much I can do about it."

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