Activists Challenge SF’s Google Bus Program On Environmental Grounds

San Francisco city supervisors and affordable housing activists butted heads again over a new pilot program to manage tech commuter shuttles from Silicon Valley-based companies like Google and Facebook.

A handful of activist groups say that the new pilot program, which charges tech companies $1 per stop, must undergo environmental review. That would involve a lengthy legal process that could take months or years. Update: The Board of Supervisors voted 8-2 against having the pilot program go under environmental review.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency had previously exempted the pilot program, which was passed back in January, from environmental review. The program is set to charge $1 per stop fee, in part because the city’s transportation agency wasn’t legally allowed to create a revenue-generating program. So the pilot program can only pay for its costs, which are expected to be $1.7 million.

Richard Drury, a lawyer for the coalition of activist groups including SEIU 1021, the Housing Rights Committee, the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club and The League of Pissed-Off Voters, said, “These are pirate shuttles.”

“This is the opposite of school busing,” he added during testimony before the Board of Supervisors at City Hall. “We’re busing wealthy, predominantly white adults into low-income neighborhoods, where they in turns displace low-income people. This is the reverse of affirmative action.”

Scott Wiener, a supervisor who represents parts of the Mission and the Castro neighborhoods, challenged Drury. He said that the issue wasn’t even about environmental impacts. The implication is that the suit is abusing California environmental law to halt or slow the process of gentrification happening in neighborhoods like the Mission.

“This has to do with a political current, that involves a pretty significant set of assumptions that technology workers aren’t real San Franciscans,” Wiener said. “But as anybody who knows, quite a few of them have lived here for a very long time. Many of them used to drive and now take the shuttles.”

A study from the city’s budget and legislative analyst’s office yesterday found that there were just over 8,000 boardings per day on shuttles from companies including Google, Apple, Facebook, Genentech and Yahoo. That suggests that there are about four thousand tech workers using these shuttles every day.

A separate study from a pair of UC Berkeley graduate students found that 40 percent of the shuttle riders would move closer to their job if the buses didn’t exist.

“Let’s just assume that for the sake of the argument that that entire percentage leaves SF. That’s about 1,000 of these workers leaving San Francisco and moving to the peninsula. Put that in the context of a population increase of 75,000 people [over the last 10 years],” Wiener said.

Drury pointed to some other findings from that city study, that showed that the buses weigh around 60,000 pounds and cost the city more than $1 per mile in damage to road pavement.

“We should minimize the impacts on the city, and maximize the benefits by charging the shuttles more than $1 to load 100 people when I have to pay $2 per ride for MUNI,” Drury said.

SF Shuttle Study