Silicon Valley’s High-Tech Buses: Just Transit? Or Chariots of the Übergeeks?

By Francesca Segré

Genentech employees alight from one of the company's "gene buses" after arriving at work in South San Francisco. (KQED/Francesca Segre)
Genentech employees alight from one of the company’s “gene buses” after arriving at work in South San Francisco. (KQED/Francesca Segre)

When is a bus more than a bus? When it’s a luxury coach, complete with deep-tinted windows and sunroof and Wi-Fi and reserved for a sort of exclusive club: employees for high-tech firms in Silicon Valley and the Peninsula south of San Francisco.

A couple months, ago, San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit wrote a piece for the London Review of Books that pointed to the “Google Bus”—her collective term for all the buses whisking high-tech workers to their company campuses—as one of the most visible symbols of the region’s high-tech boom and the troubles it’s inflicting on those not lucky enough to participate. Solnit describes the buses alternately as spaceships for “our alien overlords” and as vehicles carrying postmodern coal miners to endless toil in postmodern mines. Here’s how she ends the essay:

” … There are ways in which technology is just another boom and the Bay Area is once again a boomtown, with transient populations, escalating housing costs, mass displacements and the casual erasure of what was here before. I think of it as frontierism, with all the frontier’s attitude and operational style, where people without a lot of attachments come and do things without a lot of concern for their impact, where money moves around pretty casually, and people are ground underfoot equally casually. Sometimes the Google Bus just seems like one face of Janus-headed capitalism; it contains the people too valuable even to use public transport or drive themselves. In the same spaces wander homeless people undeserving of private space, or the minimum comfort and security; right by the Google bus stop on Cesar Chavez Street immigrant men from Latin America stand waiting for employers in the building trade to scoop them up, or to be arrested and deported by the government. Both sides of the divide are bleak, and the middle way is hard to find.”

That’s a lot of cultural freight for a bus to carry, and my editor didn’t say anything about that when we talked about the assignment. Instead, my mission was to try to take my recording equipment and get on one of the buses run by Facebook, Google, Apple and the like, show a slice of life onboard, then give some idea where they fit into the bigger picture of the Bay Area transportation system.

Despite the widespread curiosity about the buses, and last year’s cool project by Stamen Designs to document company bus routes and stops, neither Facebook nor Google was interested in having a reporter ride one of their services or even in talking about them. But Genentech, the South San Francisco biotech firm, was happy to have me aboard one of its “gene buses.” Genentech was one of the first companies to build its own fleet of private commuter buses for workers. Since starting the service, which carries people from as far away as Vacaville to the headquarters campus, the company says it has saved 100 million driving miles for employees who no longer have to use their private cars.

All Aboard the ‘Gene Bus’

I climbed on a Genentech bus in Marin County one morning at 10 minutes to 7. About half a dozen workers got on at the Greenbrae park-and-ride lot. The other riders swiped their employee passes and settled into leather seats for the hourlong ride to the biotech company’s headquarters, about 30 miles away, in South San Francisco.

Some riders put in earbuds and nodded off. Others fired up their laptops to use the bus’s Wi-Fi to start ripping though work email. The morning bus was hushed; riders say the trip home in the afternoon is more lively, with people sharing snacks and laughter.

Before he started riding the Genentech bus five years ago, Chris Blanchard had been driving alone from Novato to South San Francisco. “It was too much for me to handle, traveling all that way, across the bridge and through the city drinking numerous cups of coffee to stay awake. It was really exhausting,” Blanchard says. And he adds that without the bus service, he would have “probably taken another job closer to home.”

High-tech companies use the buses as a perk to recruit and retain talent. And the buses help spur productivity and spark spontaneous brainstorming among commuters. But none of that explains why Genentech got into the bus business.

Daniel McCoy started and still runs Genentech’s bus program. He recalls that the bus program really went big after South San Francisco required the company to add parking if it wanted to expand lab space at its headquarters.

“We did not want to build a parking lot,” McCoy says. “We didn’t want to invest the real estate. We didn’t want to invest the capital expense. We thought buses would be a great win-win for the city. The city didn’t want the trips either—the traffic, congestion, the air-quality impacts.”

Better Than Free

But getting employees to ride the bus was a challenge. “Anytime you are trying to get someone out of their car, you are competing with the drive-alone vehicle,” McCoy explains. “You want to provide interior and comfort that is equivalent to a nice BMW.”

So, Genentech took it up a notch, and on top of the comfy seats and sunroofs, it added Internet connectivity. (And, by the way, when the Wi-Fi goes down, the engineers on board are handy at fixing it.)

The price tag for this sweet fleet of buses? Genentech spends $10 million a year to run its coach service. That includes the stipend the company pays –$2 a day — to get employees to ride the bus.

A map developed last year by Stamen Designs to show bus stops and routes used by high-tech company buses. Click here for the full photo.

No one’s got any hard numbers on the total number of people riding private buses to work, but it’s safe to say it’s in the thousands. Stamen’s attempt to document the bus lines last year estimated that the buses are providing 14,000 rides a day.

John Goodwin, spokesman for the MTC, says company bus lines are an important addition to traditional bus and train systems. Public buses and trains get many riders close to work, but not right to the front door.

“It’s what planners call the last-mile quandary,” Goodwin says. “And for companies that are not located right along or within a half-mile radius of the main transit lines, these private fleets can bridge that last mile gap in a way that’s cost-effective for those companies.”

But are these private fleets an indication of a failed public transit system?

“Public transit can’t be all things to all people,” Goodwin says. He notes that, on average, people take 1.6 million rides on public transit in the Bay Area every day, and that number is expected to almost double over the next 25 years. Goodwin says he believes private bus service is a niche offering now and will remain that way.

But the buses can change lives for those who have access to them. McCoy says numerous couples have met on the bus and later married.

As it eases up to her office building, Genentech employee Paige Wallace finds simpler pleasures with the bus as she gathers her bags at the end of the ride. She commuted solo for 12 years, and now she’s a bus devotee. The biggest revelation? The bus gives her a nudge to get out of work at a sane hour.

“It’s great!” Wallace says. “I get home and it’s still light out. And I’m home to make dinner and have it. Which is astonishing.”

  • 94103er

    Yes, there really is no reason not to love the shuttles. Fewer cars clogging the freeways. Workers choosing off-peak travel times to maximize time at home with kids. Getting work done en route (thanks to secure wi-fi).

    The reality of the modern world (of which Rebecca Solnit is totally oblivious) is that top-notch tech needs top-notch talent but there isn’t enough housing in any one place to put them all. Hence a big, messy geographic-distribution problem. The shuttles have saved countless man-hours, preserved talent in (and attracted more to) the Bay Area–as opposed to losing them to easier-commute regions, and yes, saved a heck of a lot of carbon emissions to boot.

    • yermom72

      Yes, stop worrying and love the shuttles! Not to mention creepy projects like “Genentech”…

  • http://www.facebook.com/edsjcpark Ed Sjc Park

    Rebecca Solnit’s poetic rant is misdirected. She seems content to ignore the countless single-occupancy vehicle commuters who are also too valuable to use public transit. These google buses are doing a service to the environment and community, and the employees are some of the most hardworking, creative, productive people in society. If Rebecca’s wants to properly direct her inequity soliloquy at anyone it should be bankers whose compensation for producing nothing far outwieghs their worth to society which is actually negative.

    • yermom72

      “the employees are some of the most hardworking, creative, productive people in society.”

      ie, our alien overlords….

      Let them take the regular bus like regular folks!

      • Stuart Tett

        I wouldn’t blame the employees. It’s the employers who put these campuses in the middle of nowhere where employees don’t want to live and don’t have access by regular bus. Others have bought houses in areas that still have somewhat affordable housing and can’t move to be closer to their work.

        • yermom72

          I actually didn’t mean to be blaming the bus riders, so my apologies. I was responding to what I saw as an increasingly common intimation in the previous post, that there are certain groups of people (a “creative class”) who are more “hardworking, creative, productive,” etc., than everyone else, and thus deserving of, perhaps, a few more perks in this world…

          • Wanderer

            What needs to happen is that the jobs need to come to the workers–in San Francisco, Oakland, etc.–and not be locked into Santa Clara County, an hour south of where their workforce wants to live.

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  • Alice

    It seems like a good thing companies are doing for employees.

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