San Francisco approves plan to quell anger over tech shuttle buses

The plan will charge companies $1 per stop, and track their traffic via GPS; but tension remains

Members of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco and other activists protest outside of City Hall in San Francisco, Jan. 21, 2014.
Jeff Chiu/AP

San Francisco city transportation officials approved a new pilot plan Tuesday to regulate private employee shuttles operated by tech giants like Facebook and Google, and charge a fee for the vehicles to use public bus stops.

The Municipal Transportation Agency, known as the Muni, voted unanimously for the pilot program in a room packed with people eager to opine about the contentious topic.

The shuttles, which transport thousands of workers each day, have become tangible symbols of growing economic inequality and rising housing costs and evictions in San Francisco. Protesters also say they show how the tech sector uses the city’s resources without giving much back.

However, city and company officials contend that the shuttles remove thousands of vehicles from roads while reducing carbon pollution.

Tuesday's meeting came hours after protesters blocked a Google shuttle bus, hanging a sign that read "Gentrification & Eviction Technologies" on the side as police officers moved in to clear the way.

The pilot program, which goes into effect in July, will allow the Muni to charge $1 per bus per stop made. That, officials say, will help the system collect $1.5 million per year to make the Muni system, and the pilot program better. The city also said GPS systems would be installed in the private transit buses to help monitor the traffic they may cause.

The city estimates medium-size companies would pay about $80,000 a year, with larger firms paying more than $100,000.

“Our approach has been to resolve the problems in an ad hoc way...but the sector is so large now that that's not really a sustainable approach," Carly Payne, a Muni project manager said at the meeting. "We need to be able to keep them honest, and this data will allow us to do that.”

Tom Nolan, chairman of Muni, added: "In my mind, the pilot project is clearly better than what we have now."

San Francisco's public transportation system logs about 700,000 separate trips each weekday. Transportation officials say the worker shuttles have added another 35,000 separate trips a day and pose a challenge to integrating the two systems.

Google employee Crystal Sholts, a program manager in the maps division, said Google employees are not like the stereotypically wealthy shuttle rider being lampooned by demonstrators.

"I'm not a billionaire. Like many people, I'm still paying off my student loans," she said.

But the efforts to quell tension and the announcement of the pilot program did not go far enough for some city leaders.

David Campos, an official on the city's Board of Supervisors, said it's wrong to blame tech workers for housing ills, but the proposed program does too little to satisfy those being displaced by new residents employed by the tech firms.

"A dollar a bus stop, as much as it is a first step, it's a proposition that simply does not go far enough," Campos said to cheers from some onlookers.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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