Commuter buses are usually pretty noncontroversial. Governments like them because they get single-passenger cars off the road and reduce air pollution. And riders like them because they can relax on the way to and from work and save on gas and other expenses. Cleaner, greener and more convenient — everyone’s happy, right?
Not in San Francisco, where there’s been a growing fight over the shuttle buses provided by Google, Facebook and other tech companies to ferry workers from their San Francisco homes to their Silicon Valley jobs. Critics say the shuttles stop at city bus stops, delaying public transit and causing bicyclists to swerve out of bike lanes. Activists have protested by blocking buses. In one case, they slashed the tires of a Google bus and hurled a rock through a window.
All this fury over some buses? Not really. The fight against the shuttles is really a proxy fight against rising rents and gentrification, as wealthy tech industry types move into some neighborhoods at the expense of current residents.
On Tuesday, San Francisco transportation officials adopted a compromise designed to address specific concerns with the shuttles. During an 18-month pilot program, the agency will designate public bus stops that can be shared by the shuttles. Tech companies will apply for permits for their buses and pay $1 each time one of the buses makes a stop, which will cover the cost of the permitting and enforcement.
Although the plan addresses the surface problems caused by large shuttles operating in a dense city, the fee seems unnecessary. The buses themselves are a net benefit — reducing traffic on crowded city roads, lessening the need for car ownership and street parking, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Why punish tech companies for offering this service? San Francisco should be holding them up as models.
Frankly, the $1 per stop charge seems punitive, designed to punish interlopers. Critics of the buses and some political leaders lobbied for even bigger fees because, after all, these Silicon Valley companies are so overwhelmed with money, they can easily spare a couple of million dollars as penance for their rich employees desecrating San Francisco’s eclectic vibe.
Rising rents and the lack of affordable housing in San Francisco are serious challenges. Those policy issues should be hashed out by the city’s political leadership. And there is a real tension between longtime San Franciscans and newcomers. That’s a cultural sensitivity issue that industry leaders would be wise to think about.
But San Francisco’s beef is with income inequality and neighborhood preservation. So don’t blame the bus.