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    Google Buses Must Pay

    Written by

    Max Cherney

    Image: Chris Smith

    Private tech shuttles, a long-time symbol of the tech industry’s hubris, will now have to pay San Francisco for the privilege of using public bus stops, the city’s transit agency decided after a lengthy public hearing yesterday. The afternoon hearings at City Hall followed a series of blockades during commute time, where several community groups managed to hold up two Google buses attempting to transport workers to the company’s Peninsula-based headquarters.

    The decision will likely be seen as a victory by the tech industry, and a loss by the numerous voices that have long protested the tech boom’s far-reaching effects on the region. At the public hearing, tech companies argued with unions and local activists over the apparent effects of the billions in cash flowing into Silicon Valley: a sharp spike in cost of living, no-fault evictions, and an ever-growing class divide between the rich and poor. 

    Make no mistake: battle lines have been drawn. The opposition believes tech shuttles slow down public transit, hurt poor seniors’ ability to get around, and cause safety concerns—all issues that, because of the relationship between the private shuttles and public buses, disproportionately affect middle and low income residents. For them, the new shuttle regulations don't do enough to address the issue.

    The San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency’s pilot program includes charging a buck for every time a private bus uses a public stop, as well as a scheduling and permitting scheme. Schedules and permits will allow the SFMTA to ticket unlawful use of its stops—each ticket is $270—as well as balancing public and private use of the city-owned infrastructure, in order to avoid delays currently caused by private shuttles. 

    The SFMTA at the City Hall meeting. image: Amos L Gregory

    On average, the program will rake in about $80,000 a year for mid-sized transportation companies, and the larger ones about $100,000, according to the SFMTA. That’s not much for a lot of tech companies, considering the billions in reported profits. “These companies are filthy rich, and we need to squeeze them for what they’re worth,” said Annie Gaus, a San Francisco resident, at the hearing.

    If you’ve never gone to a public hearing, they basically work like this: A government stafferthink Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation but less funnygives a Powerpoint-type presentation. Afterwards, staff on the government commission get to ask a few questions, and at the meeting I attended a couple of municipal politicians also gave short speeches. Then it's time for public comment, an oft-lengthy and rollicking affair where anyone can say pretty much what they want to the entire room for about a minute or so.

    One thing that made this hearing stand out was the presence of national and international media outlets. The room was packed. There were at least seven TV cameras, and a couple dozen reporters, many diligently tapping away on their laptops, keys clacking audibly above speakers’ voices. So many people showed, the sheriff insisted the public waited in the next room until it was their turn to comment.

    The comment portion felt especially theatrical. “The dot com industry came like a train wreck, and the city did absolutely nothing to protect the people in the Mission,” said Roberto Hernandez to the SFMTA Board of Directors with impassioned bravado. “And now the tech industry is here and nothing is being done to protect the people in the Mission District.” Hernandez represented a community group, Our Mission No Eviction, which earlier on Tuesday helped stop two Google buses in downtown San Francisco.

    The hearings drew a large crowd of citizens and press. Image: Amos L Gregory

    Those in support of private tech shuttles—and the SFTMA’s program to include them in transportation planning—provided a bevy of stats to demonstrate their benefits: They lower greenhouse gas emissions by about 11,00 tons, reduce congestion (thanks to 45 million fewer vehicle miles traveled), and encourage people to walk, bike, and use transit when they aren’t commuting, according to the SFMTA.

    “It was a proposal that’s meant to allow us to learn more about the private shuttle system,” SFTMA spokesman Paul Rose told me after the vote, “Shuttles take cars off the road, and coordinating various companies will help minimize disruptions to the system.”

    Employees from at least a few tech companies showed up to support the private bus program as well. “Not everyone at Google is a billionaire,” said Crystal Sholts, a program manager in engineering and one of four Google employees who spoke. Sholts went on to add, “And like many people, ten years after the fact I’m still paying off my student loans.”

    Her colleague Ed Korthof echoed support for the shuttles, indicating that they’ve eliminated his need for an additional “car or motorcycle” to get to Google’s Peninsula headquarters. Korthof made clear that even if the shuttles didn’t exist, he wouldn’t move—an apparent contradiction to a recent study by UC Berkeley that suggested 40 percent of shuttle users would move closer to their job if the shuttles weren't there.

    Protesters blocked a couple of the buses ahead of the meeting. image: Chris Smith

    Google hasn’t had an easy couple of days, in terms of press. On Monday, a leaked memo outlining the company’s directives for employees wishing to comment at the hearing yesterday generated a firestorm of attention. The leaked email chain even went as far as to say, “This message comes off a bit high handed and I don’t think it would be good if it showed up on the front page of the chron [The San Francisco Chronicle] or valleywag [sic].”

    Other, lesser known tech firms in the region have had a tough time too, with recent social media outbursts from founders and CEOs stirring a virtual mob focused on publicly shaming those responsible for the posts, which the SF Examiner wrote in December confirmed to many "how snobbish, entitled, and elitist some in the industry can be."

    While the SFMTA Board—and supporters of the bus pilot program—shied away from addressing the myriad of gentrification-related concerns, there are undoubtedly problems the region will have to come to grips with.

    San Francisco Magazine, for example, argues that the tech boom is, in fact, a net positive for the region, and society more generally. Others believe that we generally misconceive gentrification’s causes—New York hipsters, or a change from suburban to urban consumption patterns—and that, in fact, the boom’s very core, the unmitigated accumulation of capital, is a phenomenon aimed at keeping big businesses' interests safe. “Geeks have turned out to be some of the most ruthless capitalists around,” the Economist wrote in November.

    At this point it’s hard to say whether or not the SFMTA’s pilot program will assuage concerns with private use of public bus stops. If the SFMTA’s projections are accurate, it will likely continue to improve regional transportation options for commuters during the second dot-com boom. Whether or not a buck a stop is a fair price, though, is up for debate. And what’s clear is that for those fighting the social, cultural, and economic changes occurring in the communities near Silicon Valley, the war is far from over.