Are Silicon Valley's Employee Shuttles Bad for San Francisco?

The city's parallel transportation network, invented by companies like Facebook, Google and Apple, could be creating unforeseen consequences.

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Stamen Design

Buses in this country have a bad rap. You can debate the nature and origin of the bus stigma, and many have, including on this site. But the bottom line is that in most parts of the country, the motor coach and its riders are not usually found at the top of the socioeconomic heap.

In the Bay Area, though, thanks to a fleet of private vehicles ferrying employees from the desirable urban neighborhoods of San Francisco to the suburban campuses of Silicon Valley, the humble bus has attained a rarefied and even mysterious status, according to a great piece from PRI’s Marketplace show. Queena Kim reports:

I met 35-year-old Tanya Birch, who works on the Google Earth outreach team. I asked her what it’s like on the bus.

“It’s pretty sweet,” Birch said. “They let us choose the type of seats and decor inside. And it’s got dim lighting with the Google colors.”

There’s also free Wi-Fi on the shuttles, and Birch said it's basically another hour of work.

The tech world is driven by young, educated largely urban workers. But companies like Facebook, Google and Apple are located in the suburbs of Silicon Valley, which is about an hour south of San Francisco.

“I think a lot of young people who work at the tech companies they want the city life they want something that’s fun and entertaining, and you don’t get that in the suburbs,” Birch said.

The tech giants who pay for these services have tried to run them mostly under the radar, according to Marketplace, although neighborhood residents have complained nonetheless about their effect on traffic. The buses, which often use public bus stops, are regulated by the state but don’t release data about their routes, frequency, or ridership. (Microsoft runs a similar system, with more transparency, in Seattle.)

That didn’t stop Eric Rodenbeck, creative director at a company called Stamen Design. He and his colleagues used a mixture of social media clues, bike messenger spies, and old-fashioned on-the-ground observation to map San Francisco's private bus routes. Their data visualization is elegant and revealing. Rodenbeck estimates that the shuttles move some 14,000 people per day, about 35 percent of the ridership of the Caltrain commuter service.

Courtesy Stamen Design

What is especially intriguing is that the buses seem to be having an impact on the city’s already sky-high real estate prices. Proximity to a bus stop, which has often been seen as a negative where the public bus system is concerned, is now a perk that is touted by real estate agents:

“Unquestionably the shuttle stops are transforming real estate values,” says [Amanda Jones, a realtor in San Francisco for nearly a decade]. “When I interview new clients, we get out the real estate map and they want to show me where their corporate shuttles are. I recently sold a house. He does trading for Google and gets in early in the morning. Literally, if it wasn’t five blocks from a shuttle stop, we didn’t look at it.”

Jones says even fixers-uppers and homes with shaky foundations are selling for a premium if they’re located near a private shuttle bus stop.

“They have so little time to have with family and their friends they want to go home and be able to walk to the restaurant and not be stuck in their car for two hours,” says Jones.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is now studying this parallel transportation system, and there are probably some great lessons to be learned about how to create useful routes and buses that attract the much-coveted “choice” transit rider.

But the emergence of the tech-elite buses and the privatization of transportation services raises some serious questions, too. Sure, it’s great that these people are able to live in the walkable neighborhoods they desire. It’s great that they aren’t driving to work. On the other hand, these services put real and perhaps underacknowledged strains on public infrastructure. And if these über-privileged riders are not using public transportation — if they are cocooned inside their customized motor coaches — they are probably less likely to support the regular system or to identify with the people who use it. In an era when public transit systems around the country are being weakened by tight budgets, that could be a real problem.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.