Why I'm Not Embarrassed to Have Been Fooled by the Google Bus Protest Hoax

People are angry about Silicon Valley's private shuttles for some very real reasons.

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Over the summer, a guy named Peter Shih pissed a lot of people off. Shih, a tech entrepreneur who created an online service called Celery that processes pre-order payments for retailers, wrote a manifesto called "10 Things I Hate About You: San Francisco Edition." Appearing on Medium, the self-publishing web platform, the screed raised hackles by dissing the city’s weather in misogynistic terms (“like a woman who is constantly PMSing”), its homeless people (“Stop giving them money, you know they just buy alcohol and drugs with it right?”), and a group of women he refers to as “49ers” (“No, not the football team, they’re great. I’m referring to all the girls who are obviously 4's and behave like they are 9's”).

Shih also singled out the city’s transportation system for scorn:

Why the fuck would I want to go anywhere if I have to choose between spending an hour on a bus where homeless people publicly defecate or an equally enraging hour of circling the same 4 street blocks trying to find parking on a 45 degree hill.

Shih’s post unleashed a flood of outrage in the Bay Area (and was soon removed, although Valleywag preserved the parts of it quoted here). He became the poster boy for all the worst things that the tech boom has brought to San Francisco, and a punching bag for those who say that the city is being ruined by entitled, selfish rich kids who see the city as a personal fiefdom and are pricing everybody else out of town.

There was a protest Monday on San Francisco’s Valencia Street that could be seen as an attempt to strike a blow against the Peter Shihs of the world. Organizers billing themselves as the San Francisco Displacement and Neighborhood Impact Agency blocked a shuttle bus for Google employees with signs reading “Warning: Illegal Use of Public Infrastructure” and “Warning: Two-Tier System.”

Buses run by Google and other tech giants with Silicon Valley headquarters often use public bus stops to move as many as 14,000 people a day, without paying fees to the city for the privilege. The buses have drawn criticism as one of the most visible manifestations of an increasingly unequal urban culture, in which people who work for the right companies can essentially avoid dealing with the everyday problems and concerns of the rest of the region’s citizens – like the wholly inadequate funding for the Caltrain service that connects Silicon Valley to San Francisco. I wrote about this issue a year ago, and asked then whether the tech buses create a class of people who can afford not to care about things like how a region designs and pays for public transportation.

What pushed this protest from the local to the national level of awareness was a videotaped exchange in which a young guy in glasses started arguing with one of the protesters, spouting the most entitled-sounding rant imaginable, including this memorable line: “This is a city for the right people who can afford it. If you can't afford it, it's time for you to leave." Video of the exchange spread quickly.

The assumption by media initially reporting on the event was that the mega-jerk in the video was a Google employee angry about being delayed. The assumption was wrong. He turned out to be Max Alper, a local union activist who had been a perennial presence in the Bay Area’s Occupy movement.

Alper later described his outburst to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, one of the duped outlets, this way: "This is political theater to demonstrate what is happening to the city. It's about more than just the bus." (The protester he was yelling at told the Bay Guardian she had not been prepared for his action and was fooled as well.)

What Alper said was off the charts, insensitivity-wise, and in retrospect it’s easy to say that more people should have called B.S. on it sooner. But it seemed enough like something someone might actually say – someone like Peter Shih – that it fooled a lot of people, at least briefly (I will confess to being one of them).

Alper’s attempt at political theater, while clumsy and misguided, played to the fears of many people who live in and love economically successful cities such as San Francisco, New York, and London. These cities are being rapidly transformed by an infusion of wealthy residents, many of whom appear to be insulated by their incomes from the problems of less fortunate people around them.

That’s nothing new in big cities, and the Google buses are a far less offensive or destructive manifestation of inequity than limousines or gated communities. As Matt Yglesias notes, at least these tech-industry employees aren’t driving solo to their jobs. As for the connection to rising rents, the city’s tough limits on density are at least in part to blame.

But as mass transit consultant Jarrett Walker has written on his Human Transit blog, the Google buses are indicative of a bigger, more generalized problem with much of the tech sector in the Bay Area. Its employees like urban living, but the companies themselves are clinging to a suburban model of corporate campuses that is looking ever-more 20th century. Walker wrote last year:

Finally, this joke is on the lords of Silicon Valley itself.  The industry that liberated millions from the tyranny of distance remains mired in its own desperately car-dependent world of corporate campuses, where being too-far-to-walk from a Caltrain station -- and from anything else of interest -- is almost a point of pride.  But meanwhile, top employees are rejecting the lifestyle that that location implies.

Geeks whose brilliance lightens the weight of our lives have bodies that must be hauled 70 or more miles every day, at a colossal waste of energy and time.  Is this really the future?

Will the next generation of tech entrepreneurs abandon the suburban campus model that makes Google buses necessary? We’ll have to wait to find out, although the rise of the tech sector in New York – where public transportation and pedestrian culture are more robust than anywhere else in the United States, and the bubble of privilege is less impermeable – may be one indication that things are changing.

In the meantime, the obnoxious tech guy who wasn’t a hoax, Peter Shih, did try to make amends. After his offending entry on Medium came down, Shih posted a note of apology on the site:

I don’t deserve any forgiveness for the stupidity of my actions and words, but I sincerely hope to demonstrate by my future behavior to humbly build up and not tear down the communities and people around me.

I'm inclined to give Shih the benefit of the doubt, and Alper, too. Not to mention myself. We're all just trying to figure this out, after all. And sometimes it's the mistakes you make that teach you the most.

About the Author

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