Did San Francisco's Google Bus Deal Just Set a Price for Curb Space?

Charging tech companies to use city stops opens up a discussion about who else should pay to hog the street.

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San Francisco just announced a deal with the much-maligned private tech buses to charge them a fee for using city bus stops. Under the reported terms, the buses that shuttle commuters to and from Silicon Valley will pay the city about $100,000 a year — about a dollar a day per stop. The response so far has focused on whether or not this appeases the protestors, but that misses some of the larger picture: San Francisco just decided how much curb space is worth.

"They've established that there's an economic value to having dedicated curb space," says Columbia University planning scholar David King. "This is a huge issue if we're thinking about not just the shuttle buses but taxi services, ride-sharing services, and other things that could really take advantage of having space at the bus stops."

What San Francisco has (seemingly inadvertently) done is expand the discussion of street pricing beyond parking spots to the rest of the space at the curb. Since city dollars pay for city streets, giving out free space at the curb is a de facto taxpayer subsidy that creates traffic and encourages driving. That's exactly why some cities (including San Francisco) have embraced progressive policies that charge a market rate for street-parking spots in commercial districts.

But what would happen if the whole curb were priced? Transit vehicles should surely get an exemption to dwell there, but what about Chinatown buses, or delivery trucks, or Uber and Lyft and Sidecar drivers, or even official taxis? How long must a vehicle hog the curb to need a curb permit? Will cities that generate revenue from curb space be more inclined to eliminate existing paid parking spots in areas where the street might be used more efficiently for another purpose?

"We should either allocate space at the curb economically and let everyone choose how much to pay — though that includes the transit agency — or we should just enforce restrictions," King says. "But bus stops become an oasis, a place to stop."

This is a constructive conversation for cities. Some of the benefits are obvious; curb fees could help cover the cost of infrastructure maintenance and transit investment, and they shouldn't be too tough to enforce (surveillance cameras capable of detecting permit stickers and capturing license plate numbers would do the trick). We'd expect some harmful side effects (like companies passing along fees to customers) but surely this untapped revenue source deserves discussion.

It's not even clear that San Francisco has explored the full potential of its curb value. California state law prevents the city from charging tech buses more than the new fee program costs to implement, which suggests Google is being undercharged. And the tech buses aren't allowed to use the most heavily trafficked (read: highest value) stops. San Francisco might have been trying to end one fiery debate with this deal, but in doing so it may have sparked another.

Top image courtesy of Flickr user cjmartin.

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