Google, Apple, Facebook and other businesses, from universities to hospitals, have been using private buses in San Francisco to pick up employees and bring them to their workplaces for years, but in the past, those companies have not contributed money to the city for the upkeep of the stops.
That's about to change later in January when an agreement between the city and the companies that will establish fees for the use of the bus stops is expected to be approved by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA).
The deal between the SFMTA and the private employers has been in the works for more than a year. In December, a Google commuter bus that whisks employees to and from their San Francisco neighborhoods to their workplace some 34 miles away in Mountain View, Calif., was blocked from proceeding by a group of protestors who oppose the Google buses for traffic and economic reasons, according to an earlier eWEEK report.
The new agreement governing the bus stop use was announced Jan. 6 by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and the SFMTA in a joint statement that described the deal as "a commuter shuttle bus pilot program that will minimize impacts to [the city's] Muni [bus, trolley and related services], while maximizing the traffic and environmental benefits of employer-provided shuttles. "
A key benefit of reaching a deal to allow the private buses is that by using them, some 35,000 employees of a broad group of companies use them daily in the city, which eliminates at least 45 million vehicle miles traveled and 761,000 metric tons of carbon every year from the region's roads and air, according to the announcement.
"San Francisco needs a reliable, safe and affordable world-class transportation system," Lee said in a statement. "This agreement will help the City realize the benefits that come with commuter shuttles, such as keeping thousands of cars off our roads and preventing gridlock, while ensuring companies pay their fair share and don't delay our public transportation system."
The December bus protest, which was organized by the San Francisco anti-gentrification group, Heart of the City, was fueled by the group's concern that these commuter buses used by companies like Google, Facebook and Apple use city streets and tie up traffic, yet didn't pay their share of city costs and fees. The group says on its Website that a key complaint with the use of the private commuter buses by large technology companies such as Google is that they "use over 200 [San Francisco] MUNI stops approximately 7,100 times in total each day (Monday-Friday) without permission or contributing funds to support this public infrastructure. No vehicles other than MUNI are allowed to use these stops. If the tech industry was fined for each illegal use for the past 2 years, they would owe an estimated $1 billion to the city. We demand they PAY UP or GET OUT!"
The new agreement that will regulate the use of the stops will be voted on by the SFMTA on Jan. 21. "If the board takes action, the SFMTA will ask shuttle providers to propose stops for inclusion into the bus zone network and will ask San Francisco residents for their input to determine specific bus zones that can be used. Final plans will be approved by public hearing in late spring," the announcement states.
The agreement includes proposals to charge the private shuttle buses' daily fees to use up to 200 city bus stops, which will be approved for use out of some 2,500 stops used by city buses as part of an 18-month pilot project. The daily fees would be based on the number of stops that a shuttle provider or employer makes in order to fully cover the SFMTA's cost of administering and enforcing the program, according to the announcement. Some bus stops would also be improved using those funds. The fees are expected to raise tens of thousands of dollars monthly from the largest transportation providers that use the stops, according to the city.
The shuttle bus operators would also agree to yield to SFMTA vehicles and pulling to the front of the bus stops to make more room for other vehicles, while also avoiding steep and narrow streets, the proposal states. The use of other bus stops outside the agreed upon 200 stops would be prohibited.
"The private commuter shuttle sector has been growing very rapidly over the last few years and our policies are now catching up," Tom Nolan, the chairman of the MTA Board of Directors, said in a statement. "How we deal with shuttles now is not sustainable and this proposal gives the Board an opportunity to vote on a policy that increases safety, reduces impacts on Muni, provides more information, improves the flow of traffic, and reduces driving simultaneously."
In response to an email inquiry from eWEEK, a Google spokesperson said that the company is "excited to work with Mayor Lee, SFMTA and members of the community on our shared goal of efficient transportation in and around San Francisco. We believe the pilot program is an important step in that direction."
This was the second time recently that Google activities were in San Francisco's local headlines with some controversy. In late October 2013, reports swarmed about the then-mysterious presence of a Google barge in San Francisco Bay and another in Portland Harbor in Maine. In early November 2013, Google finally issued a brief and vague description of what was going on by saying that the barges are being built as interactive spaces where people can learn about technology and where Google can show off devices such as Google Glass.