Nov 18, 2015 ยท 4 minutes

Gone were the pickets and placards of yesteryear, the cheering and booing, the finger-wiggling, the buttons and stickers.

Yesterday an overflow crowd reported to San Francisco City Hall for a SFMTA Board of Directors meeting where the future of the “Google Bus” was on the agenda. Discussion of the shuttle program ultimately lasted over two hours, with prolonged public commentary, but the scene was much subdued compared to the raptures of the barricades of 2014.

The shuttle buses that ferry thousands of Silicon Valley workers to and from work each day, and the provisional program the City installed last year to regulate them, were made permanent by yesterday’s vote, with some tweaks.

For one, the buses will now only be allowed to travel along the “major and minor arterial network,” removing the rolling colossi from the city’s narrower streets. Additionally, the MTA will assign more officers directly to shuttle program enforcement, and begin making improvements to certain stop areas to better facilitate the buses.

In a nod to environmental concerns raised by hundreds of giant diesel buses canvassing the city every morning and evening (the same concerns that led the MTA to convert its own bus fleet to electric-diesel hybrids) the shuttle companies will be forced to comply with a vehicle turnover schedule so that by 2020 all the shuttle vehicles will be 2012 models or newer.

And all shuttle companies will hereafter be required to demonstrate they have a plan to ensure “labor harmony,” a fun euphemism for unionized drivers (city officials and laws can’t openly suggest unionizing). So far only the drivers for Loop Transportation, the shuttle contractor that drives Facebook employees, have completed the process of joining the local Teamsters, though Compass Transportation, which drives workers for Apple, Genentech, Yahoo, and Ebay, is nearing the final stages.

SFMTA analyst Hank Willson presented the agency’s recommendations to the Board of Directors. In addition to the tweaks above he said he hoped to compel the shuttle companies to provide the agency with real time GPS data, though it seems this would still be a voluntary provision (good luck with that).

The new program also maintains the agency’s earlier position that the shuttle operations are exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act and don’t require an environmental review. (This will likely be appealed at the Board of Supervisors, as a similar exemption clause in the Pilot Program was appealed last year. Additionally, a ruling from Superior Court Judge Garrett Wong is expected before the winter holidays in a case heard last Friday, which hopes to compel a full environmental impact review.)

One part of the program remains up in the air: Just how much the shuttle companies will pay to use the city’s bus stops and streets – during the question period Willson and MTA Director Ed Reiskin said they hoped it would be ironed out by the time the new program kicks in to replace the pilot on February 1. Currently, the companies pay $3.07 per stop. The MTA has maintained that it can only recover the costs of the program through these charges. Due to increased enforcement efforts and capital improvements, the price is expected to go up.

Public comment was fairly evenly split among supporters and opponents of the program – an interesting development in and of itself, since opponents far outnumbered supporters in past public hearings. Among the supporters were local and regional Teamsters leaders – supporters of the labor harmony provision which, as one put it, would “keep things from getting ugly out there.” Joining the burly Teamsters were an assortment of shuttle-riding tech workers. In some ways, these workers fulfilled stereotypes: They were all young, and nearly all white. In other ways, they defied them: Nearly all of them began testimony by pointing out that they volunteer regularly and vote in city elections. All but one of them said they would buy a car if the shuttles went away – this is a key claim of the SFMTA for the positive environmental impact of the program. It comes from a survey of shuttle riders conducted during the pilot, which suggested that a significant portion of them would stay in the city even without the free and comfy ride to and from work, and would add thousands of cars to the grid.

Interestingly, several shuttle riders also asked the MTA to consider charging their employers more.

The program’s detractors focused on the disruption the giant and myriad buses cause to MUNI operations, the safety issues they pose to cyclists and pedestrians, their diesel emissions and outsized damage they cause to the roadways. To a lesser extent, they commented on the ethics of public complicity in the coddling of tech workers and the amplifying effects the shuttle services have on gentrification.  

The MTA, the Board of Supervisors, the shuttle companies and the tech companies that contract them have swept a regulatory program into place. Barring a surprise ruling from Judge Wong next month, it will remain for the foreseeable future, with room for continual iteration.

Hopefully, now that they’ve firmed up the tenuous status quo, the city planners and tech geniuses can start thinking bigger about a more elegant solution.