Google Begins Pilot Project Using Ferry Boat for S.F. Employees

Google earlier this week began a pilot project to use a ferry boat to move commuting employees from San Francisco to a port in Redwood City, Calif., so they can get to their jobs.

Google has begun an early pilot test project to use an 83-foot-long ferry boat across San Francisco's South Bay to get employees from the city to a port in Redwood City, where they can catch a private bus to get to their offices each workday.

The ferry boat test was revealed in a Jan. 8 story in The (San Jose) Mercury News, which described the chartered boat as Google's chartered ferry, a "hydrofoil-assisted catamaran" that can cruise at a speed of 27 knots and can carry up to 150 passengers. The ferry also has WiFi service on-board, according to the report.

A Google spokesperson declined to comment directly about the reported pilot project, but said, "We certainly don't want to cause any inconvenience to San Francisco residents and are testing alternatives to get Googlers to work."

The news of the ferry pilot comes the same week in which Google and other companies in the San Francisco area agreed to pay fees to the city to continue to use municipal bus stops where private Google buses have been picking up employees and delivering them to their workplaces at Google's offices in Mountain View, Calif.

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 2013, a Google commuter bus that whisks employees to and from their San Francisco neighborhoods to their workplace some 34 miles away in Mountain View 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. "

The ferry project is being pursued even as Google just came to the agreement that paves the way for the company to continue to use the bus stops.

Peter Dailey, maritime director for the Port of San Francisco, told The Mercury News that Google is "going to see if this is something their employees want, and if it makes economic and logistical sense."

The ferry service test will go for 30 days, twice in the morning and twice in the evening, the paper reported. "While the boat known as 'Triumphant' has only carried 30 to 40 passengers on some initial trips, the service could catch on: The leased boat was designed for high-end ferry service and dinner cruises, with large comfortable decks fore and aft, and a sizable cabin fitted with tables and chairs."

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 don'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 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."

This is the third time recently that Google activities have been 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.