On the contrary, according to a new Muni review, they’re great for the city’s transportation system.
The tech buses that shuttle commuters from San Francisco to Silicon Valley catch a lot of heat from locals who see them as a symbol of gentrification or displacement in the city. But a new analysis of their impact by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, aka Muni, suggests they don’t bear much blame for the affordability crisis. And from a transportation perspective, the tech buses actually do the city a whole lot of good.
A quick recap: In January 2014, following waves of protests, Muni announced a pilot program to charge the private shuttles a fee to access public bus stops. The logical (and, in a planning sense, fresh) idea was that Apple, Google, Facebook, and the like should have to pay for taxpayer-funded transit infrastructure. In August the 18-month pilot went into effect, and officials have now had about a year’s worth of data to consider.
First the good: as expected, the tech shuttles reduce car-reliance. Muni reports about 17,000 boardings on an average weekday, equivalent to some 8,500 daily riders. These are folks who can presumably afford a car, and yet a rider survey found that 45 percent don’t own one, with the shuttles being a major reason. The survey also found that nearly half the surveyed riders would drive alone to work without the shuttles—eliminating some 2 million car trips a year from congested city streets, and an estimated 12 million vehicle miles.
The shuttle program also accomplished its goal of reducing congestion at Muni bus stops. Instances where the private tech buses blocked city public buses were down 35 percent from before the pilot, according to the review. All told, only 3 percent of all shuttle “stop-events”—basically any time a bus pulled over to pick up or drop off riders—resulted in blocking a Muni bus. That’s not perfect, but it doesn’t appear to be more egregious than the normal amount of bus stop blockage that occurs on a daily basis in a big city.
Meanwhile, the shuttles generated a non-trivial amount of money for the city. The review doesn’t report any totals, but the current fee is $3.67 per stop-event. At that rate, with some 3,000 weekday stop-events reported by Muni, the tech shuttles are paying about $11,000 a day—equivalent to $2.86 million for 260 work days a year. That’s hardly chump change, says Columbia University planning scholar David King, who sees the program as a “very encouraging” policy for shifting commuter habits and pricing local congestion.
“This strikes me as being a good model for other cities to copy,” says King. “If you look at this from an overall regional perspective, these shuttles have been part of the solution for how do you get suburban, auto-oriented employment centers to have a low solo driving mode share. In that they’re successful.”
Local frustration with the tech shuttles—or, at least, the inequality they’re perceived to represent—persists despite these benefits. A group of activists filed suit against the pilot program in May 2014, driven by a belief that the shuttles raise rents and evictions in San Francisco neighborhoods. Supporters of that ongoing action have mapped connections between stop location and eviction rates, and according to the San Francisco Examiner, would like Google et al to pay a fee for residential displacement on top of stop access.
What’s not clear to others who’ve examined that link is whether the tech buses are causing the displacement or merely following its lead. Evidence in the new Muni analysis supports the latter. The agency reports no shuttle activity at 14 of the approved bus zones, with seven of these no-shows having been included without tech company requests. Meanwhile, all 25 of the most-used shuttle zones had been explicitly requested by the firms—suggesting that the buses are going where employees already live (hence the requests) rather than nudging workers toward certain neighborhoods:
To some extent, shuttle-riding populations attract shuttle operators to where they live, rather than shuttle-riding populations being drawn to shuttle zones…
So anger directed at the tech buses in San Francisco—like that of cereal cafes in London or crochet installations in Brooklyn—might by missing the main source of the city’s affordability problem. But the shuttles are an easier target than, say, the nebulous forces responsible for a dearth of housing in the Bay. Nor should the city be too quick to celebrate the situation: as Rebecca Solnit pointed out in Guernica last year, some environmental gains made by the buses will be counterbalanced by workers forced out of the city who must now commute back in.
King thinks the program should consider using some of the fees to subsidize transit passes for low-income residents living near the shuttle stops. That would lower their overall costs of living, if not their rents. He also suspects the city could charge more for stop access—using the price of building parking spaces in Cupertino or Mountain View or the like as a barometer. But at the end of the day, he says, many of the social problems attributed to the tech buses would be happening in San Francisco whether or not they existed.
“There’s no question this is a benefit that accrues to a very select group of people who have the most choices,” he says. “It very well may be constraining the options of those who are displaced. I think that’s a real concern. That’s a concern with gentrification—not with these buses.”