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The Reach of the Bay Area's 'Tech Buses'

Privately run shuttles make at least 800 trips through San Francisco each day, according to a new report.

Traffic over the Bay Bridge heading into San Francisco. (Ben Margot/AP)

In February, a group of activists gathered at the bus stop on corner of Cesar Chavez and Valencia streets in San Francisco’s Mission district. It was 8:45 in the morning. Signs reading “Save Our Homes” hung from their hands, waiting to be waved in front of the fleet of tech buses carting workers to and from Silicon Valley.

Protesting the Bay Area’s tech buses was not a new concept—according to organizers, that day in February marked the 26th anniversary of the first time activists attempted to block a Silicon Valley bus to speak out against the tech industry’s amplification of inequality in the area. The demonstrations have caused a racket, but not enough of one to remove the buses from the road—in fact, according to a first-of-its-kind report from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), they’re proliferating.

Over 800 shuttle buses transport an average of 34,000 passengers per day throughout the Bay Area. In 2014, the last year for which a full data set was available, the buses carried over 9.6 million people, according to The Mercury News, which added that “there are so many of the large, privately owned shuttles operating in the Bay Area that if they all fell under a single agency, they would be the seventh-largest transportation provider in terms of ridership.”

(Metropolitan Transportation Commission)

The hatred of the buses, which are operated by around 35 different companies, goes hand-in-hand with other gentrification-fueled unrest in the area, most notably over housing prices. The tech industry’s dominance has cramped living quarters and driven rents sky-high; it’s also gridlocked the roads into and out of San Francisco, and turned BART, the old-faithful cross-bay transit system, into a sweaty mess of human Tetris. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project has detailed the increase in evictions around San Francisco tech-bus stops; the buses themselves are an easy target for anger.

But speaking to The Mercury News, Adrian Covert, the Bay Area Council’s policy director, said the boom in shuttle service is a response to the housing crisis, not a cause. “The private sector is responding by providing shuttles that go further distances to pick up employees,” Covert told The Mercury News. “The bad news is that we have to do this in the first place…because the housing stock has not kept pace with demands.”

There’s also the fact that many workers have to make the trip between Silicon Valley and San Francisco whether or not the buses exist. The shuttles have managed to defray some of the environmental side effects, taking 2 million single-passenger car trips off the road and reducing carbon emissions by 2,000 metric tons, according to the Bay Area Council.  

Transit officials in the Bay Area are still wrapping their heads around how the shuttles fit into the existing transit market. Rick Ramacier, the general manager of County Connection in Contra Costa County, told The Mercury News that he sees the shuttles as complementing, perhaps even boosting, other transportation options.

Employee shuttles are also taking hold in other innovation hubs. UrbanTech NYC, a 100,000 square foot workspace, opened in the Brooklyn Navy Yard over the summer. The Navy Yard houses now 7,000 jobs, a number expected to grow to 16,000 by 2020. The complex occupies a part of the borough notoriously inaccessible by subway. To streamline transit access, the nonprofit Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation will launch a new shuttle service next spring to connect the Navy Yard with 13 subway lines and the Long Island Rail Road. In a statement, Deputy Mayor for Housing and Development Alicia Glen* said this transit expansion will allow for more integration and continued economic growth in the outer boroughs.

The Brooklyn shuttles, like the tech buses, are part of an effort to bridge gaps between where people live and where they work. John Goodwin of the MTC was careful to note that because the tech shuttles in the Bay Area are privately owned, they’re more difficult to monitor and oversee. But he thinks the need for more service outweighs a call for more oversight. Speaking to The Mercury News, he said: “I’m not necessarily convinced that a larger public role at the regional level is needed. This is an organic response to the challenges of a growing economy.”

*CORRECTION: This post previously stated that Alicia Glen is the Brooklyn Deputy Mayor. She is the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Development.

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