by Sven Eberlein
Yesterday I went to a panel discussion entitled A Story of Shuttles at SPUR, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. For those of you not living in SF (and the Bay Area), what’s come to be known as “The Google Bus” is a whole fleet of privately run corporate limousine buses that are shuttling employees in the tech industry from hundreds of pick-up places near their homes in SF to their workplaces in Silicon Valley. The premise, according to company representatives at the panel, is that their predominantly young, under 35 workforce is “nauseated by the suburbs” and would rather commute up to 80 miles round trip to San Francisco every day than live near their workplace, and so the companies’ job is to make that trip as comfortable as possible, to attract and retain their workforce.
According to the SFMTA, there are now almost 40 companies running these shuttles with over two hundred stops across the city. Google alone runs over 100 buses and 380 trips daily across the Bay Area, which has earned them the honor of being the poster child for the luxury liner phenomenon. However, the trend was first started about 7 years ago by some of the more established biotech companies in South San Francisco like Genentech. It wasn’t really a big deal when there were just a handful, but the last two years has seen such a rapid explosion of these behemoths into our neighborhood streets that it feels a bit like an invasive species.
Most of these buses are anonymous entities that often make everything and everyone else dwarf in comparison and clog up the streets…
but some of them are a bit more ostentatious in their destination…
They load and unload in the public transit (MUNI) bus stops, and quite frequently just double-park right in an intersection.
They are pretty much everywhere now, even on Valencia St, which has been transformed into a bicycle highway and people friendly walking corridor in recent years, but as a cyclist during rush hour you now have to contend with these guys turning on and off at random intersections. I guess this is one way to get big corporate billboards into a neighborhood that prides itself on protecting its small local merchants from chain store invasions.
There are some much touted benefits of reducing automobile trips on Bay Area roads, and I definitely appreciate and applaud the good intentions behind these buses, but as someone who has written quite a bit about sustainable urban design, these buses, while addressing one small transportation sliver of the whole livable city ecosystem, raise a whole range of other social, cultural, economic, and environmental issues that are basically being treated as externalities by the people who are enabling the flooding of these private “yachts on wheels” deep into city neighborhoods, without much public discussion.
SPUR’s description of the panel had me excited because I thought it would delve into some of the broader ramifications of this transformation:
Those big buses are tough to miss. As employer shuttles sprout up across the Bay Area, what do they tell us about our region, its workers and its employers? What are the benefits and challenges that accompany their increasing presence? This forum will take a closer look at how and why some employers manage worker transportation.
Alas, it did not live up to its billing, and my hope is that this letter will spark further discussion and perhaps another panel where this issue can be addressed on a more meaningful level, perhaps inspiring more integrative solutions to the unsustainable way of life we’ve created for ourselves.
Thank you so much for putting together the panel on the corporate limousine buses with the folks from Google, Genentech, RidePal, and SFMTA today. I appreciate you trying to address this new phenomenon that is so rapidly changing our city and our neighborhoods, giving us a chance to listen to Daniel McCoy, Brendon Harrington, Dominic Haigh, and Carli Paine’s side of the story.
That said, I felt that the way this panel was set up and the treatment of the topic was pretty shallow and far from integrative thinking. Right off the bat, Ms. Paine, who I suppose was the lone representative of the public interest on the panel, proclaimed that the discussion would be limited to transportation issues exclusively, not about any social concerns that may be arising from what Mr. Haigh coined the “collaborative consumption for corporate commuter shuttles.”
With all due respect, but for anyone who has seriously thought about livable cities and sustainable urban planning, having thousands of wealthy young professionals (and growing) escorted en masse into vibrant, often working class neighborhoods in supersized luxury coaches is more than a transportation issue. I say this partly as a concerned Guerrero Street resident who has seen the neighborhood I have lived in for over 15 years morph into a pricy boutique destination over the last couple of years — coinciding with the ascent of “The Google Bus” — but also as a core advisor of the International Ecocity Framework & Standards Initiative that outlines 15 diverse conditions that need to be addressed for any city to consider itself ecologically healthy.
5 of these 15 conditions fall into the socio-cultural category, from an equitable economy to community capacity building, and that is no coincidence. Pretty much anyone who has seriously thought about environmental issues in the last 10-20 years knows that solving the problems of climate change and resource depletion are as much, if not more, about social, economic and justice issues as they are about counting carbon or taking a few cars off the road without looking at the effects on people and the commons. There is a reason why the UN has put all its climate change and environmental policies within a sustainable development frame: you cannot solve environmental problems without addressing poverty, inequity, social injustice, and the well being of the most vulnerable among us.
In the context of The Google Bus, what does it say about these companies that they’re so fixated on reaching 30, 40, or 50% customer rates (Yes, both Mr. McCoy and Mr. Harrington kept referring to their employees as “customers”) while rents and housing prices in the neighborhoods that they’re encouraging and actively recruiting their “customers” to live in have risen by the same percentages, if not more (I see small 2 bedroom apartments rent for $4000 a month on my street, and the 1100 sqft condo next door is currently on the market for $900,000, with literally hundreds of buyers lining up). Perhaps even more puzzling to me is that the city, who is supposed to be serving its residents and not “customers” from corporations headquartered in the suburbs (presumably because it is so much cheaper for them than to operate in the city), is bending over backwards to accommodate these private luxury liners on its public streets.
During the Q&A, we were basically told that there is nothing that can stop the rapid expansion of even more buses on more streets. The suggestion that maybe there could be only 10 pick-up and drop-off points was quickly dismissed by Mr. McCoy, who openly admitted that his only concern was with the growth of his private enterprise that would suffer if his “customers” did no longer have the convenience of door to door limo service. Furthermore, the suggestion that perhaps Google build a thriving ecovillage on their campus or invest in making Mountain View more livable pretty much got a non-response. The question whether these corporations should pay the city fees/taxes for road maintenance and using Muni stops wasn’t asked, but it would be an interesting one.
Basically, the Googles and Facebooks of the world are going to keep using San Francisco as a recruiting tool to attract the brightest and most expensive minds in the world but will invest nothing in any kind of public infrastructure to support civic life beyond their own corporate interest. The message here seems to be, tough luck for the old-time residents, the artistic and cultural backbone of the Mission, who are the very reason all the young and hip tech wizards want to move here in the first place; don’t worry about all the traffic every morning and evening, backed up behind growing fleets of diesel-spewing behemoths loading and unloading throngs of headset-clad twenty somethings staring into their gadgets, you’ll soon be priced out of the neighborhood anyway.
I can understand the very narrow and self-serving motivations of these corporations — they are, after all, primarily in the business of making money. I don’t even question their good intentions in terms of wanting to reduce their carbon footprint. I just don’t think they’re quite as smart as they think they are, as their thinking seems to be painfully linear rather than rooted in a deeper whole systems analysis. And even their single-minded focus on transportation is not really yielding the kind of success their powerpoints claim, seeing that last year the Bay Area was one of the worst three congested urban areas in the U.S., on par with L.A.
I have a much harder time though understanding why the city is so single-handedly fixated on transportation stats instead of looking at sustainability from a broader cultural and socio-economic perspective, and why SPUR would fail to get anyone with a deeper knowledge of urban development on this panel. It feels like nothing was resolved at all, and the conclusion of the event was that this is just the way things are and how they’re going to be in the future, just more of it with better apps.
Not to sound too NIMBY about it, but for me as a long-time Mission resident with a starving artist income, that means not only more tinted-window buses double parked outside my house, but more expensive restaurants, more boutique shops I can’t afford, and never being able to move again if I want to continue to live in my city. As far as the highly touted reductions in CO2 from the corporate commuter buses, has anyone at Google ever done an analysis of the type of carbon footprint that comes with the expendable income of someone who can afford a million dollars for a tiny condo? Imagine all the stuff people with a million bucks can and will buy, and the fossil fuels burned to manufacture and ship it. That’s the kind of question I would like to hear addressed on a panel like this.
My hope would be that this discussion could be continued and broadened, talking about the broader social, environmental, and economic effects, a discussion about the meaning of the commons and shared civic responsibilities, the class division between the lavish luxury buses and scrappy old muni buses, the effects of the buses on Caltrain and other public transit, and other things of a more meaningful holistic nature. For example, why not invite someone like author and San Francisco native Rebecca Solnit, who has written a very eloquent critique about the socio-cultural and economic ramifications of The Google Bus? Or perhaps BART Board Director Tom Radulovich who could offer some very valuable livable city insights?
Just some thoughts from a concerned citizen and resident.
Sincerely, Sven Eberlein