Tech Buses Still Here — and Busier Than Ever, S.F. Report Says

A Google bus picks up workers at 24th and Valencia streets in the Mission District. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

It’s been a while since there’s been a really spirited rush-hour protest against the behemoth buses carrying workers to and from tech campuses in Silicon Valley. But the tech shuttles have not gone away. Quite the opposite, in fact.

A new report from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency suggests the private buses are busier than ever, with about 17,000 boardings every weekday. That’s the equivalent of 8,500 round trips, about 75 percent of which involve workers traveling to Facebook, Google, Apple, Yahoo!, Genentech and other tech campuses. The number of individual stops the buses make to pick up or drop off passengers in the city — about 3,000 a day — has increased about 30 percent in the past year, the report says.

The new SFMTA stats are part of a study evaluating the first year of a pilot program to try to bring some order to the expanding fleet of private shuttles and to deal with their impact on Muni buses, other traffic and pedestrians in the city.

Among other requirements, the pilot program has required shuttle operators to use a network of 124 designated stops and to pay a fee of $3.67 every time a bus picks up or drops off passengers. The SFMTA says the network of stops is designed to prevent conflict with Muni vehicles and to give the private buses a way to get out of traffic when they make stops.

The SFMTA report shows that so far, the pilot’s results are mixed. Based on spot checks of shuttle activity at 20 different locations in July 2015, the SFMTA says the observed number of Muni buses blocked from making stops fell by 35 percent compared to June 2014.

However, the study says that the shuttles, typically large motor coaches that carry 40 or more passengers, still have a way of obstructing the streets. The SFMTA spot check found the big buses blocked other traffic — either other motor vehicles or bicycles — on about 35 percent of their stops.

At the worst locations — Valencia and 24th streets, 16th and Mission streets, Lombard and Pierce streets, and Divisadero Street and Geary Boulevard, for instance — private shuttle buses block other traffic virtually every time they stop to take on or discharge passengers.

The study suggests that tougher traffic enforcement is needed to ensure shuttles don’t double park and to ensure they avoid unauthorized use of Muni bus stops. In the first 10 months of the pilot, the report says, the SFMTA issued 1,200 citations to shuttle buses for those two offenses.

“Double-parking is dangerous for everyone who walks, bikes and drives, resulting in unpredictable behavior by people trying to get around double-parked vehicles,” said Chris Cassidy, communications director for the San Francisco Bike Coalition.

The report also includes results of an SFMTA survey that included responses from 550 shuttle riders. Nearly half of those respondents said they’d drive alone in their cars if the shuttles weren’t available. Based on that response, the SFMTA estimates the shuttles eliminate about 4.3 million vehicle miles traveled from the region’s streets and highways.

“The pilot program took cars off the road and created a situation where the shuttles could operate safely, as opposed to the kind of unregulated Wild West conditions that were out there before,” said Tom Maguire, director of SFMTA’s Sustainable Streets program, which produced the report.

The pilot project is scheduled to run through the end of January 2016. Business groups support making the program permanent, but whether it becomes a fixture on city streets may depend on the outcome of a lawsuit filed last year by anti-eviction activists who say the private shuttle buses have fueled a rising tide of displacement in the city.

The lawsuit seeks to require the city to review the pilot project under the California Environmental Quality Act, a review that must include an assessment of the project’s impact on pedestrian and bicyclist safety, on air quality and on its “potential to displace low- and moderate-income individuals.”

Shuttle opponents told the San Francisco Chronicle:

“We’ve been pretty upset that the SFMTA, in evaluating the program, has not looked at the impacts on housing that the stops are having,” said Erin McElroy, of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. “We’ve found that rents have risen dramatically in the areas where stops are located, and so have evictions.”

Cynthia Crews, a self-described “transit geek,” is part of a group that has sued the city, seeking an environmental impact report on the shuttle program. But she doesn’t want to stop there. The city should also investigate the wear and tear shuttles are inflicting on the city’s roads and Muni’s bus stops as well as the effects on housing, she said.

“All of these things should be studied, then from that, they could legally assess a fee,” she said. “We just feel they’re not paying their fair share.”

KQED’s Amanda Font contributed to this post.

Tech Buses Still Here — and Busier Than Ever, S.F. Report Says 7 October,2015Susan Cohen

  • Stuart Shaffer

    “At the worst locations — Valencia and 24th streets, 16th and Mission streets, Lombard and Pierce streets, and Divisadero Street and Geary Boulevard, for instance — private shuttle buses block other traffic virtually every time they stop to take on or discharge passengers.”
    Not really a strong point. Fairly sure Muni also blocks traffic a good % of the time in those areas, too.

  • Doesn’t seem like housing is a CEQA issue here, though an EIR is a good idea to figure out what the real impact is. Looks like the shuttle bus issue is all about one big trade-off: regulating the shuttles effectively or forcing a lot of people to drive if they are eliminated or even restricted.

    • lunartree

      We don’t need another costly environmental review to tell us what we already know. There’s not enough housing where jobs are, and our public transit system is not sufficient for the needs of today’s workers. If they want to tax and evaluate this problem fine, but that money should go toward planning new projects to alleviate these root issues.

  • ck

    I think the biggest thing that bothers me about the tech buses is that they’re big, white, rolling reminders that a lot of people living in San Francisco (or Oakland, even) don’t /need/ to live in San Francisco and should be trying to find places closer to where they work, or at least closer to transit. It feeds this impression, right or wrong, that these techies are spoiled and just can’t stomach living in a modest suburb like Hayward or Fremont — they have to be in SF and constantly remind all of their out-of-area friends about it on instagram or twitter.

    • lunartree

      Where do you get off generalizing people like that? It’s not a status symbol. The suburbs in the Bay Area are also very expensive so it becomes a choice between living close to friends and having great restaurants and bars to hang out when you get home vs having to travel long distances to see people. You’re acting like tech workers are robots that simply occupy a space, and that is ignorant. Don’t try to rationalize that people making +$100k a year are sharing 1000sqft apartments with 2 other people because they want to look cool doing it. They want to live in the city for the same reasons you do.

    • Chairman Meow

      Fun fact: 50% of all Bay Area residents cross at least one county line commuting to and from work. There is nothing intrinsically “tech” about long commutes. Try to tamper down on your implicit biases, which seek to draw associations across the most easily identifiable things that are foreign to your personal experience (ie: conjunction fallacy, availability heuristic, cognitive ease, and out-group homogeneity bias).

      • ck

        Yup, I commute too. I work in SF, but live in Oakland. But I already lived in East Bay (since childhood, actually) when I got the job over a decade ago, so I didn’t see the point in moving.

        What’s hard for me to rationalize is moving across the country for a job in Cupertino or Menlo Park and then deciding that you /must/ live in SF or Oakland or Berkeley, over 40-50 miles away. As expensive as housing is in the entire Bay Area, I find it difficult to believe that an apartment in, say, Fremont or Milpitas will be /as expensive/ as SF.

        My characterization definitely gets a bit snarky, for which I apologize. I’m willing to be convinced, but just wanting to be closer to great restaurants and other friends willing to sacrifice an arm an a leg for the same doesn’t strike me as a good reason. (and frankly, does sound a little spoiled) I go to SF a lot too, and love it there, but I don’t think you actually /need/ to live there to enjoy it.

        • Chairman Meow

          Young, adventurous, and ambitious people just have very little interest in living in unwalkable bedroom communities. Suburbs are quiet, predictable, and safe, ie: BORING, and that’s why older people enjoy living in them. The price of housing between the urban and suburban in this region is also pretty much the same.

          I’ve lived in many suburbs around the Bay Area since 1989 and five years ago I moved to SoMa. I can tell you that it is a completely different experience living in the heart of a city than in some nearby town. Your motivation is impacted greatly by the amount of effort and time required to make something as simple as hanging out at a park or beach happen.

          I am able to hang out at the park or beach with minimal time and effort (I can walk or bike to most anything in less than an hour) as opposed to everyone I know living in the suburbs who finds it difficult to accomplish the same because of traffic into the city, parking, and the sheer amount of time, money, and effort lost doing these things. Even people I know who moved from SF to San Mateo end up going from spending a good amount of R&R outside of the home to most of their R&R inside the home. Being a visitor is a dramatic departure from being a part of the community.

          • ck

            You’re basically saying it’d be nice to live closer to fun stuff. That’s really all I’ve heard so far, which is not to say that I don’t sympathize. But it does come off a little spoiled.

            Let me help you guys out by offering another one: If you’re young and new in town, living closer to a place with lots of great social events will help you meet new people. It’s a pretty valid reason to want to live in SF/Oak/Berkeley that actually engenders some sympathy, at least on my part. It’s yours — feel free to use it in the next silly internet forum debate. 🙂

            But there’s just something incredibly unsatisfying behind the notion that *these reasons alone* are all that’s driving the massive demand to live in SF/Marin/Oakland/Berkeley. I think a lot of techies who tolerate dorm-room conditions on a $100k salary seriously need to be honest with themselves about what that is, because I’ve seen the way people smirk about the other parts of the Bay (your response actually exemplifies it). It’s the same way they used to smirk about a lot of neighborhoods in SF and the East Bay.

        • lunartree

          When someone moves cross country for a tech job here there’s there’s one other less obvious consideration when choosing a place to live. People in tech change jobs often, almost every two years, but it sucks having to move. There’s the cost of moving, the stress of finding an apartment, and the fact that every time you move you end up paying more since rent seems to always go up. This is often considered when choosing a place to live.

          I like Oakland a lot, but when I first moved here it would have been completely out of the question. Most of the tech jobs are along the Caltrain line, and the Bart/Caltrain combined commute is absolutely awful. East bay is typically out of the question since newcomers want to be ready for any good opportunity they run into.

  • Chairman Meow

    These shuttles collectively eliminate 327,000 cars and 10,000 tons of carbon every year at no cost to the taxpayer. A net benefit to public coffers and every other public expenditure in need of funding.

  • sotwr9

    McElroy apparently said: “We’ve found that rents have risen dramatically in the areas where stops are located, and so have evictions”. As any student of elementary stats will tell her, correlation is not necessarily causality, and in this case it is more plausible that the causality runs the other way (as the MTA stated in their report, based on data, not bile). These companies of course perform a detailed analysis of their employees’ home locations, and monitor ridership every day to make sure they continue to make most efficient use of their service. The buses therefore go to the areas where these employees have decided to live, which – no surprise – are often the nicer parts of the city, where rents were already higher. So the rents are not higher because the buses are there, but the buses are there because that is where these SAN FRANCISCANS (yes, just as much as anyone else) choose to live. Wave your magic wand and make the buses disappear, and the rents would remain high in these areas. The problem is not the buses, but 20 years of bad planning decisions and nimbyism – but is much easier and more inflammatory to lie down in front of a bus than have a serious debate about planning policy.

  • sfparkripoff

    SFMTA planners pay no penalty when their plans fail, so they have no incentive to get them right. In this shuttle report there is no mention of the buses that are blocking Muni drivers from getting close enough to the curb to operate the bus’ wheelchair lifts?

    There is no mention of the buses that are blocking curbs in front of schools. In fact, most of the shuttle stops have been breaking the rules of the pilot program by doing pickups and drop off outside of their main routes.

    SFMTA calls their shuttle program a great success……and plans to RAM IT DOWN our throats against the objections of residents, schools, and businesses across the city. How exactly do these shuttles fit in with the city’s “Transit First” policy? These buses are not transit.


Susan Cohen

Susan Cohen is an award-winning journalist who recently completed a master’s degree in documentary production at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before making the switch to video, Susan spent four years at the Charleston City Paper, a South Carolina alt-weekly, where she wrote more than 20 cover stories on everything from doomsday preppers to quidditch to world-class chefs. Her writing has also been featured in the East Bay Express, This Recording, and the Hairpin, and she just finished her first short documentary, Today I am a Man.


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a blogger, reporter and editor for KQED News, responsible for online breaking news coverage of topics ranging from California water issues to the Bay Area's transportation challenges. In a newsroom career that began in Chicago in 1972, Dan has worked as a city and foreign/national editor for The San Francisco Examiner, editor at Wired News, deputy editor at Wired magazine, managing editor at TechTV as well as for several Web startups.

Since joining KQED in 2007, Dan has reported, edited and produced both radio and online features and breaking news pieces. He has shared in two Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Excellence in Journalism awards — for his 2012 reporting on a KQED Science series on water and power in California, and in 2014, for KQED's comprehensive reporting on the south Napa earthquake.

In addition to his 44 years of on-the-job education, Dan is a lifelong student of history and is still pursuing an undergraduate degree.

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