How Google Busers Can Avoid Bus Backlash: Get a Car

Tech workers’ humdrum daily commutes in San Francisco have recently become anything but. An environmental appeal was filed (and later rejected) against the city, on the grounds that the “Google buses” are a direct cause of skyrocketing rents and housing displacement. Protestors blockading tech shuttles in bus stops have drawn a frenzy of international media attention.

Image: ABC 7

So what can a gentrifier do to get to that lucrative tech job in Silicon Valley, without having to sneak around costumed blockades and news cameras? As it turns out, there is one sly way for a commuter to use plenty of public curb space for absolutely free, while completely avoiding public scrutiny. All that this theoretical Google or Facebook worker has to do to both enjoy the city life in San Francisco, and fly under the radar of the political backlash, is drive to work.

You can bet that no one will block their vehicle in protest, file a lawsuit, or seek an environmental review for the existing policies that let commuters store their private vehicles on public streets.

Sure, the big private buses make an easy target to fixate upon and blame for the city’s housing woes. Sure, many of us have sat aboard Muni buses blocked by a shuttle bus idling at its bus stop. As we’ve written, this is not a sustainable situation: Private bus operators should be charged an appropriate and legal amount for new loading zones by reallocating curb space now used for parking. That’s what the SFMTA is planning to do with its pilot regulation program. Although its scant $1-per-stop price has drawn criticism, it’s the maximum allowed under state law, and SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin has wished aloud that they could charge more.

Targeting tech shuttles does not address the root causes of the city’s big woes, and two recent polls indicate that a majority of San Franciscans agree. The Bay Area has failed to build an efficient transit network to connect where people live and work, and failed to build enough housing to match its vigorous job growth. Minimum parking requirements ensure that cars find housing, even when people can’t, and even though most of the space along San Francisco’s curbs is reserved for storing private automobiles.

The very same complaints against commuter shuttles, as lodged by those who appealed the environmental review exemption for the SFMTA’s shuttle regulation program, can be levied against cars as well — albeit on an entirely different scale. Private cars clog the streets, block Muni, occupy public space for free, create air and noise pollution, and endanger bicyclists and pedestrians, all day, every day, throughout the entire city — and instead of filing lawsuits, we take it all for granted.

If the argument is that vehicles driven for highly-paid residents are also vehicles that drive gentrification, it’s bizarre that no one seems to care when that vehicle is a car. It’s another example of how our society has a huge blind spot: We cannot seem to see how much we’ve re-shaped our cities, and our lives, to ignore the negative effects of the automobile.

  • Spencer Burns

    I’ve been amazed by how little context the protesters have of the battles 15 years ago, when the artists actually got driven out. It makes it pretty clear that they are largely 2nd wave cool-seeking gentrifiers complaining about 3d wave gentrifiers yuppifying the place. Granted, as a grumpy 2nd wave gentrifier myself I have my moments of wanting these loud kids to get off of my sidewalk and stop parking in the lane on Dolores on Sundays.

  • Spencer Burns

    One of the other interesting spins on the shuttles (which cover the whole Bay Area, not just The City), is that they are a reaction to the parking mess of suburban office campuses.

    Companies want to cram all their employees in one central place (both for better interdepartmental communication and for lower costs). But in Silicon Valley, between the cost of land for parking and the reluctance of cities to allow more cars on overloaded roads, it’s very difficult for them to add parking. The fundamental limit of how many employees you can have at one location has become parking spaces. Economically, the only thing that makes sense for the big companies is to get their employees out of private cars.

    The shuttle systems are perceived as elitist perks (and pitched as such within the companies to make employees feel special), but they are actually an economically sensible short term solution to bad long-term planning.

  • Maurice Patapon

    “murphstahoe”, thanks for affirming my point. I’m sure you and your friends do lots to make SF a very “livable” city – for those who can afford it.

  • murphstahoe

    Good point. We should go protest new bike lanes, protest parks, and vomit on MUNI buses so people leave, so it’s a very crappy city that anyone can afford.

  • murphstahoe

    Not parking spaces, which can be built or stacked in a place like Mountain View. The issue is the capacity of the roads leading to the parking spaces, which can mean that a city won’t allow the parking to be built because it will induce demand.

  • Right, hence the on-site cleaners, barbers, food etc. You don’t need to go home! Stay and work!

  • jonobate

    So your argument is, we can’t have nice things because then people will want to live here?

  • murphstahoe

    I once asked (unnamed high ranking city official before said person became a city employee) what that person thought about maybe taking the parking lot of the “Palace Family SteakHouse” at Mission/Chavez, and the sliver of Capp abutting it, and closing it off and making a mini park right there. The City Open Space Fund could fund that purchase, in a lowerish income area (instead of ponying up $2M for a lot in Noe Valley), then we shut the road, put in bulbouts, voila!

    Said person said “Campos would never go for it – gentrification”

  • jonobate

    The people who oppose the tech shuttles don’t care about effective transportation. They will repeat the arguments about impacts to Muni when justifying the protests, but that’s not really what this is about. This is about people seeing the rent increases that are happening all over the city, noticing the shuttle buses and condo construction as other new things that are happening in the city, and coming to the conclusion that the tech shuttles and the condos are to blame for the high rents.

    It’s not a logical position, because the cause and effect is the wrong way round. First tech workers moved to dense urban neighborhoods such as the Mission, and high demand for housing resulted in increased rents. Then the tech shuttles were set up to serve them, and then condos were planned and constructed, because developers knew the high demand for housing meant they would sell. If you need convincing of this just consider the fact that rents also skyrocketed during the first tech bubble in the late nineties, before the tech shuttles and before wide-scale condo construction.

    The housing crisis is just supply and demand. You can solve this problem by increasing supply, or reducing demand.

    The huge demand at the moment is caused by a booming regional economy, and the fact that for young tech workers, SF is the most desirable place in the region to live. These are both good things. It’s good that good jobs are available, and for environmental reasons, it’s good that people want to live a car-lite lifestyle in the central city rather than a car-dependant lifestyle in the suburbs.

    On the supply side, we have a massive deficit of housing in SF because for decades the region has been adding housing by sprawling out into the suburbs, and very little has been built in the city due to a real or perceived desire for suburban housing, and an “anti-Manhattanization” sentiment among SF residents. This is a bad thing.

    We can fix the housing problem by building more housing of all types in SF, but the anti-tech crowd won’t support that as a solution because they mistakenly thinking that new housing causes increased rents, rather than being a reaction to increased rents. So instead they advocate reducing demand, by not making improvements to the city (bike lanes, parklets); or demanding that Facebook uproot and move to a different state (I don’t work in tech so I don’t care if it causes mass unemployment!); or by simply blocking people from moving to the city (I’ve already got my place so screw you newcomers!); or even controlling population by adopting a one-child policy like China. I’ve heard all of these suggested by anti-tech activists.

    It’s a fearful, selfish, negative, narrow-minded set of “solutions” to a problem that could be dealt with constructively if people got over their fear of change and learned to understand economic cause and effect.

  • jonobate

    Anecdotally, I know two people directly affected by these protests. One is a Google employee who rides the shuttle bus to work. The other is a protester against the buses, who commutes by car and earns more than the aforementioned Google employee. Knowing this makes it hard for me to take these protests seriously as either a statement about effective transportation or a statement about class.

  • Gezellig

    That sounds perfectly in line with what I’ve heard others who know Campos say, and is certainly in line with his loony and definitely anti-progressive vote on the GG Transit stuff. He really seems to be quite the progressive poseur.

  • guest

    Don’t kid yourself into thinking they exist for altruistic reasons,

    You might want to check your facts with the BAAQMD and the city councils of Mountain View and Menlo Park on that assumption.

  • guest

    But more parking actually can’t be built, because Mountain View’s city council (or maybe more so Menlo Park’s) is stacked with hard-line NIMBY loonies who literally will not allow a single extra parking space on the shuttle-running companies’ campuses. By saying ‘the issue is the capacity of the roads’ as in either the BAAQMD leans on the companies in question to run shuttles or these city councils are worrying about that, then I concur. But parking is a huge issue, i.e., these companies have basically run out of spaces.

  • Pfft. Mario’s all right. (You read it wrong.)


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