Workers board a private bus at 24th and Valencia streets. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)
Workers board a private bus at 24th and Valencia streets. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

The latest salvo in San Francisco’s continuing Google Bus War: A coalition of community and housing activists and a union representing public employees filed suit Thursday to stop San Francisco officials from going ahead with a pilot project to regulate private commuter buses.

The complaint, filed in San Francisco Superior Court, says the pilot project violates both the California Vehicle Code and state environmental law and seeks court orders to halt the program until it’s brought into compliance.

The buses carry thousands of workers to high-tech campuses from San Francisco to Silicon Valley as well as to sites around the city. Over the past year, the shuttles have become the object of repeated protests as the booming tech economy draws workers to the Bay Area, a trend that in turn has played a part in rising rents and an increasing number of evictions.

The hundreds of buses plying San Francisco streets have also been unpopular because they freely use Municipal Railway bus stops. Under state law, that curb space is reserved for public transportation, and private vehicles of any sort are subject to fines of at least $100 for stopping there.

The pilot bus project, approved by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency in January, would allow the private shuttles to use about 200 Muni bus stops for a fee of $1 for every stop each bus makes on its daily rounds. City officials say that fee would raise about $1.5 million over the 18 months of the pilot, enough to defray the cost of the program.

Community and housing activists were quick to criticize the tech bus pilot project. They appealed to the Board of Supervisors to block the program, a request the board rejected last month.

Today’s suit argues that the scope of private commuter bus service in San Francisco, estimated at 35,000 boardings a day on 350 or so buses, requires that the city’s pilot shuttle program undergo a formal review under the California Environmental Quality Act. The complaint also says the pilot program should be blocked because it improperly allows the use of public bus stops for private purposes.

The suit warns that the pilot project could have a wide range of negative effects, including air pollution, increased cancer risks, displacement of low- and moderate-income workers and impacts on pedestrian and cyclist safety. Tech companies and other proponents of the shuttles say that by giving workers an alternative to driving, the buses reduce traffic congestion and pollution.

Plaintiffs include a group calling itself the Coalition for Fair, Legal and Environmental Transit, SEIU Local 1021, and two individuals: Elizabeth “Alysabeth” Alexander, a vice president of Local 1021, and Sara Shortt of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. Defendents include city agencies and officials, including the transportation agency, the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Ed Lee, and a host of technology employers that hire the shuttles to carry their workers, including Google, Apple, Genentech, UC San Francisco and Williams-Sonoma. The suit also names more than a dozen of the private firms that own and operate the employee shuttles.

Supervisor Scott Wiener, a critic of the anti-Google bus protests of recent months, told KQED’s Charla Bear he feels today’s legal action is “counterproductive.”

“Filing lawsuits against the shuttles and trying to suggest that the shuttles are causing our problems when they’re not, all that does is distract attention from actually solving our housing and transportation problems in the city,” Wiener said.

And here (finally) is a copy of the lawsuit:

  • Guss Dolan

    Dear Mr Wiener, you seem confused. The lawsuit is about the (il-)legality of the city running the pilot shuttle program (which you voted for). Solving our housing and transportation problems is an ongoing effort (and always will be) and is not related to the
    lawsuit. Unless you want to consider that maybe if the Board of Supervisors did not approve this program then the time and effort spent combatting, and defending, it could be better spent elsewhere–like solving our housing and transportation problems.


    These shuttle protests are symptomatic of a fringe group on the lower end of the income spectrum that is anxious, afraid, and uninformed about the real and worsening issue of housing supply shortage in the Bay Area. The problem is not tech workers or their employers; it’s decades of broken and neglected housing and development policies that continue to be ignored by the lazy populists in the electorate, government, and local news media….


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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