If you're used to riding to work on a crowded, lurching Muni bus that arrives late and costs too much, consider this: Some San Franciscans commute on 50-foot luxury coaches with cushioned seats, wifi, air conditioning and mini television screens. The state-of-the-art vehicles arrive on time — and the service is free.
The buses aren't regulated by the city and pay nothing for the use of public streets. But these giant private beasts freely and without penalty stop in the Muni zones, clogging traffic, and sometimes preventing the city's buses from loading and discharging passengers. They barely fit through narrow corridors in neighborhoods like Noe Valley and Glen Park.
City officials agree the fleets of private commuter buses have created a problem — but so far, they've done nothing about it.
And most people don't realize that some of these luxury bus lines are, in effect, open to the public.
The buses primarily serve the city's growing status as a Silicon Valley bedroom community, carrying commuters to and from the corporate campuses of places like Genentech and Google.
Private shuttle buses have been booming in San Francisco. Genentech has more than 6,000 employees registered in commute programs on 56 routes. Google's Gbus service transports more than 3,500 daily riders on more than 25 routes, with about 300 scheduled departures. Then there's Zynga, Gap, California College of Arts, Apple, Google, Yahoo!, and Academy of Art. And the University of California, San Francisco has its own fleet of 50 shuttles.
The good news is that the buses take cars off the road, giving tech workers a much less environmentally damaging way to get to work. Google's transportation manager, Kevin Mathy, noted in the GoogleBlog that "The Google shuttles have the cleanest diesel engines ever built and run on 5 percent bio-diesel, so they're partly powered by renewable resources that help reduce our carbon footprint." He continued, "In fact, we're the first and largest company with a corporate transportation fleet using engines that meet the Environmental Protection Agency's 2010 emission standards."
But nobody at City Hall has any idea how many total buses are running on the San Francisco streets.
Jesse Koehler, a planner at the city's transportation authority, conducted a study on shuttles that identified a number of problems, most linked to a lack of local regulation.
Requested by then-Supervisor Bevan Dufty, the study, completed in 2011, found that, while shuttles play a valuable role in the overall San Francisco transportation system, there's little policy guidance or management. In fact, there's no local oversight, the study found: Shuttle operators are licensed by the state, but the California Public Utilities Commission is mostly concerned with the safety of the equipment and the licensing of the drivers. Local concerns aren't under the agency's purview.
And there are plenty of reasons for local concern. Under city law, only Muni buses are allowed to pull over and use the designated bus stops — but Koehler reported, "Shuttles are generally also using these Muni bus spots. Some cases prevent Muni buses from entering the Muni bus zone and having the passengers board late."
The study notes that "the large majority (approximately 90 percent) of shuttle stops occur at Muni bus zones." The shuttles take much longer to load and unload than Muni buses (because of their size and the lack of a rear door) and often force the public buses to wait, delaying routes, or to pick up and discharge passengers outside of the bus zone, creating a safety problem.
Local residents surveyed had their own complaints. The study quotes critics saying that "the shuttles can be noisy, especially at night when there isn't much other traffic or when they are the kind with diesel engines" and "large coach shuttles are noisy on small neighborhood streets."