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."

  • Private shuttles do not contribute to a more balanced transportation picture in my mind. Who benefits from these shuttles? Persons with high paying jobs with wealthy companies.

    Yes, Caltrain, which I personally ride, also has a very high average salary per rider (I’m doing my part to keep this number down 😉 But at least anyone can ride it. There is no exclusion based on company affiliation. Even the AC transit U bus which expresses people from a park-and-ride in the East bay to Stanford’s campus is open to anyone to ride, but is free to stanford students and employees. It does not go to just one location, i.e. Noe Valley to the google campus. There are multiple stops.

    Some private-public partnerships are fine, but just coordinating bus stops and appeasing nimby’s is not such a partnership. The answer to crumbling revenue structures for public transportation is not privatization. I cringe at the thought of Caltrain being replaced by corporate limo buses zipping up and down the peninsula only stopping in noe valley, the mission, and points in mountain view and san mateo, for instance.

  • ryan

    @Justin: way to take this is a negative light! i for one, think that it’s great that companies are increasingly offering efficient car alternatives to their employees, encouraging them to take mass transit, and haven’t required any government subsidization.

    If it’s getting people out of their cars, and it’s costing us nothing or next to nothing, what on earth is the problem?

  • ZA

    @Justin – I think your scenario of public train services eliminated by corporate limos can be avoided by having a strong framework of negotiations between these corporations and the public transit agencies…and a cap on overall shuttle numbers.

    If the volume of traffic diverting to shuttles gets thick enough along specific routes, it certainly makes more sense for those competing businesses to pay into a public transit service for that route.

  • Nick

    Funny story… I was waiting for the 19-Polk on 8th Street one morning. I ran into a friend who worked for Adobe down on Townsend Street. He offered to let me hitch a ride with him on Adobe’s private shuttle. I have to admit that I didn’t like it.

    The 19 is a pretty gritty line, but I’ve rode it for years with no problems. Private shuttles are like private schools. They allow you to abandon any collective public responsibility, be it in education or transit. And we all know how well that works out.

    These companies have lots of money to throw around. Adobe has it’s own 500 car private parking lot next door to it’s building with guards and attendants. The shuttle I rode on only carried 3 people (and if I remember correctly blocked the bike lane on Market to pick us up).

  • What public responsibility does someone abandon by riding a shuttle? The responsibility to subsidize public transit by paying fares? Fares comprise a very small portion of a transit agency’s revenue. People who ride shuttles are still paying taxes, after all.

  • Nick

    Matt, it’s the civic responsibility to care. If people abandon the 19-Polk, then they’re not going to care if it even shows up or gets it’s service cut. Isn’t this what Streetsblog is all about?

  • It’s true, caring is very nice.

  • Sharing, according to all reports, is caring.

  • I believe shuttle drivers ought to have more training and strict licensing standards, and that should be regulated by state DMV. Any sense if that system is working? (We’ve seen some wicked crashes on the Interstates, caused by poor operation and maintenance of tour buses, which suggests some problems).

    My pet peeve in this area is the CPMC shuttles, and their tendency to clog the side streets in the Western Addition. I don’t think their drivers are bad…i just think their routes are poorly chosen, and I’m not sure how the service is justified.

  • @Dale: Within the narrow scope of this study, maintenance and safety training was not shown to be an issue. But there is definitely a need for driver training as it relates to obeying laws about idling and blocking bus stops and bike lanes. That’s something that a shuttle coordinator could help accomplish.

  • Nick – for the most part these folks are abandoning their cars for a shuttle – not the 19 or Caltrain.

    I never saw huge quantities of Googlers on Caltrain. Caltrain definitely lost some Apple ridership to shuttles but 280 probably lost as much or more. Net win – especially since a high number of Apple Caltrainers were cyclists and their departure opened up needed space on the @bikecar

  • Another note – I know many cases where the shuttles resulted in people ditching their cars because they had reliable home to work transport. Then they take the 19 Polk/etc… to get around SF because they don’t have a car.

  • Brandon

    @Matt Baume, fares arent always a small portion of operating expenses for transit agencies. In Asia, many operate at a profit, in Europe many break even or come close. BART and the NYC subway are about halfway there, as are a few others in the US.

    Muni on the other hand fits what you said, not surprising given how inefficient running buses on such heavily ridden routes is, not to mention the lack of ridership in the evenings.

  • As our local government services get cut and fail us, it is interesting to see more Community Benefit Districts spring up, adding to the “taxes” paid by area residents … patrol Special Police have been hired by many of the residential buildings in Rincon Hill and South Beach to patrol the area since the police are pre-occupied west of 3rd Street in general in SoMa. For those folks paying extra fees for CBDs and Patrol Special Police, privately operated public services, if you will, I assume it will be easy to vote no on tax and fee increases on the ballot to fund the public operated services. So… Policing gets worse … Parks get worse … Same goes with schools, right? People sending kids to private schools have less incentive to support public school bonds/taxes. I think it has a negative impact in the long run.

  • People who get food from private grocery stores have less incentive to support food stamps, but nobody’s clamoring to shut down corner markets.

  • Er. Food banks, I mean, not food stamps.

  • Kat

    I think part of the appeal of a private shuttle for employees is that it’s a relatively direct route without transfer times, once you get on the shuttle. I used to commute via Muni (N), Caltrain, and shuttle to NASA Ames which took, on average, 2.25 hours each way due to the transfer times. The N runs frequently in the morning and its frequency was never an issue, but Caltrain runs less often and the NASA shuttle would often fill up before I could get on, so I’d have to wait 15 minutes for the next one to come along.

    I took Muni everywhere else in the city at the time so I was (and still am, despite now having alternatives such as a bike and a car) invested in its wellbeing, but with such a long commute, can you blame me for wishing that there had been a more direct alternative? Part of what appeals to people who voluntarily take transit over driving for a daily commute is the bit about being able to focus on things other than driving while moving–if there’s wi-fi, great, I’ve never had that, but reading or sleeping are appealing activities which become increasingly more difficult the more one has to go from one mode of transportation to another.

  • Andy Chow

    The private shuttles do contribute to higher transit usage. Although a number of companies offer point to point shuttles, more companies offer rail feeder shuttles. Some of those companies offering point to point also have rail feeder shuttles.

    Many of the point to point shuttles run in places that are quite far from Caltrain (and BART), in which taking Muni and Caltrain will be very time uncompetitive. Rail feeder shuttles on the other hand open up much more access than point to point.

    If a company runs a shuttle from the Marina to Mountain View, it really won’t take much Caltrain riders away if at all. The same Caltrain feeder shuttle would take Caltrain riders from SOMA, San Bruno, San Mateo, Gilroy, etc. Overall, private shuttles do not have the ability to replicate Caltrain for the region and thus is not a threat.

    As to the “collective public responsibility” issue, most people already left transit by driving and bicycling. Shuttles or not won’t really change that. Muni will still be relied by many people and needs to be improved regardless.

  • Matt, the food bank:private grocery store::MUNI:corporate shuttle analogy does not hold. The food bank is a fundamentally different public service than public transportation. Unless you want to go on record saying that MUNI is only for the down-on-their luck or the chronically poor. I don’t think you’re trying to say this? If so I think the National Review just re-blogged this! 🙂

    John M’s and others points about private shuttles pulling people out of cars and maybe even onto public transit when they sell their personal cars in convincing. Yet I still think Nick’s point holds–that dividing up into public and private transportation modes, ghettoizing MUNI, AC transit, maybe even eventually caltrain means a decrease in civic engagement when it comes to preserving public transportation for all. A public private partnership I could get behind is if there is strong regulation and public input so that MUNI and others do not just become second-fiddle or a lackey to private interests with their own, private, more limited goals. I have to say, and I know this is old-fashioned, but I think having to interact with other citizens who are not of the same class, profession, and company affiliation as you on a daily basis is a good thing. The anti-social nature of personal cars prevents such interactions, and my sense is that the corporate shuttles do as well. Even more so than already homogeneous, upper-middle-class transportation alternatives like Caltrain.


  • Alex

    @Nick Why would someone who can walk or ride a bicycle care if public transportation service gets cut? Shouldn’t we guilt people who choose to walk too?

  • patrick

    I don’t really understand how people can say these shuttles are bad for transit. Just look at the numbers 2/3 of the people say they would drive otherwise.

    The argument that people who ride shuttles won’t support Muni is empty. I mostly commute by carpool, as it takes 20 minutes by car, versus an hour to an hour and a half on Muni, but I still support Muni, and am more than happy to have car speeds lowered, and parking removed for the benefit of muni. Just like I don’t have kids, and may never have kids but still support improving our public education system. Just like I bike fairly rarely, but still support improvements to public transit.

    Just because somebody doesn’t use public transit regularly doesn’t mean they can’t see the benefit of it. On top of that, as others have already mentioned, these shuttles can take away a lot of the reason people feel like they need to own a car, and getting somebody to voluntarily give up their car can only be of benefit to the future of public transit.

  • Andy Chow

    As for “civic engagement,” a lot of people don’t want to take transit (especially buses) because they don’t feel safe on it. For some people (like me) that may not be a problem, but it may not be the case for a young female for instance.

    One of the most important aspect to the private shuttles is that they don’t require public subsidy. Let’s say if we were to eliminate private shuttles, does it mean Muni would operate express buses to Mountain View and San Jose instead? Would people want to ride on Muni’s buses (hard seats without A/C) for an hour to San Jose? Would it fair for other riders who traditionally rely on transit? Would this operation require more public subsidy and attract fewer riders?

    Given that we don’t have enough funding to keep transit that we have, we shouldn’t be spending money on something that the private sectors can support by themselves. We can’t afford another CultureBus. While there are those who take the shuttles, there are many more have to rely on transit.

  • andrew

    These shuttles are only bad for transit if your time is worth nothing. An all-transit ride to the South Bay is completely untenable (OVER 2 hours each way) in comparison to driving, particularly if you have a carpool. A shuttle is a much more reasonable option.

  • Curious: why is this news? SFCTA released this study months ago. In the meantime, UCB released a somewhat more interesting study, and VTA has been doing a more in-depth study (not finished yet) for more than a year. Streetsblog hasn’t mentioned either.

  • Zeoth

    I’m a driver and I hate taking public transportation. I tried a couple routes from SF to work (just for the heck of it) and it takes 3 hours per direction. 10 minute walk to Muni line, 35 minute Muni light rail to Caltrains, 15 minute walk and wait, 1 hour Caltrain ride, 30 minute bus ride, and finally a 15 minute walk to the office.

    With that said, I have lived in SF long enough to understand the benefits of these shuttles. Less cars on the road, ability to live in areas that are more in-tune to your lifestyle, relaxing or nap time, certified trained drivers that are far less likely to get into an accident that you are, increase property value near the stops, contribution to local economy near the stops, etc. At times I even find myself taking these shuttles to help save the environment and reduce my carbon footprint.

    Are these shuttle services perfect? No. What you don’t see behind the scenes are the full time workers the companies hire to fine tune the route and procedures, handle safety concerns, and sizing the shuttles properly. As concerns are raised, these employees work with the vendors to evaluate alternatives. When was the last time you saw that kind of consideration and response from your local government agency? Who wants to take public transportation when it stops every 2 blocks because people are too lazy to walk more than 100ft? Just going from Sunset in SF to Chinatown takes 1 hour via public transportation! Are you kidding? It’s faster to drive to Chinatown from San Jose than to take public transportation.

  • I’m not discounting outright anyone’s claims here that there is a place for private transportation initiatives, but I do want to make sure that the ‘public option’ so to speak continues to be heard in this forum.

    Zeoth’s comment illustrates nicely the ‘civic’ issues that many here have dismissed as irrelevant to getting people out of their cars.

    Zeoth drives, sees that transportation between many neighborhoods in SF takes a long, long time (and this does suck, and is really bad, I agree). Zeoth sees private shuttles which are more efficient (in part because their riders are picked up very close to their homes, all in a clump, and they are all going to the same place). Zeoth likes these shuttles, and sometimes even rides them. OK. So what is left out here?

    Incentive and public pressure to improve that transportation that goes from the Sunset to Chinatown that Zeoth points out takes way too long. The corporate shuttle can get you to Yahoo, but then when you return to your apartment in the inner richmond and want to spend a night in North Beach, MUNI still kinda sucks to get there. I am not arguing that the corporate shuttle and MUNI are incompatible–I’m arguing, in each of my comments above and here, that the public-private distinction here is problematic for the very reason that Zeoth’s narrative illustrates. Something gets left out. Instead of working to fix muni and other public transit agencies, we can just go on b*tching about them.

    Is this what we want? Are you kidding?
    – Justin

  • Okay, so they’re not incompatible — they’re problematic. I’d agree with that, and I think the study bears it out, with its findings that there are problems with the Muni/shuttle balance that could be resolved with better coordination.

    But I think it’s pretty clear that for all its problems, a system that includes both Muni and shuttles is still less problematic than a system in which it takes three hours to get to work. Given the choice of the two, having both Muni and shuttles seems preferable to preventing people from getting where they’re going.

    But are those out only two choices? No, I don’t think think they are — there’s lots of ways that public and private transit can be combined. Which is exactly why this study was done, and why the SFCTA is looking into making adjustments to the way things work.