The private bus problem

Corporate behemoths crowd city streets and block Muni stops

A UCSF shuttle illegally blocks a Muni stop, tying up buses and traffic at 16th and Missio
Guardian photo by Danielle Magee

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.

Shuttle carnage

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."


Really? The way to fix thus is with more bureaucracy? Dunce.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 18, 2012 @ 9:55 pm

Would it be better if this private buses openly invite the public to the take them too? It might solve some of the congestion problem if the public can also take the buses to some places on the way to their original intended destination. However, it still would not solve the problem of them being noisy at night. Bureaucracy is definitely not the best option, I agree.

Posted by Thomas on Oct. 23, 2012 @ 10:55 pm

Whatever they do you will complain, such is the nature of our progressives.

It is article of faith amongst progressives that a new tax on business to bring their workers back and forth would solve all sorts of problems. Business cuts out the middleman and their still is carping.

Stop them from using MUNI stops fine, the rest is stunted ideology.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 19, 2012 @ 8:45 am

What if every one of those corporate employees had a car and drove to work? Or even if 20% more of them did in response to well-intentioned punitive action.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 19, 2012 @ 8:51 am

Corporate Behemoths? USCF is a gov't owned university and one of the largest employers in San Francisco. Yes, they have shuttles to connect their campuses- but that is because they've invested all across the city of San Francisco instead of decamping to the peninsula like was discussed in the late nineties.

Its been 10 years since the Mission Bay campus opened, 5 years since the TEP was completed and still no east-west MUNI service to the campus! Maybe if the city served Mission Bay with the 22, there wouldn't need to be a commuter shuttle.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 19, 2012 @ 9:15 am

Biking home yesterday down New Montgomery towards Howard, avoiding the increased enforcement on Market, the Academy of Art University's shuttles were blocking 2 lanes near Howard and created a traffic backup across Market that led to gridlock and delays of the Market Street surface Muni routes.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 19, 2012 @ 9:36 am

Marcos, nobody give a shizz where you ride your bike, or why you chose a certain route. Why does every post by you have to contain a little anecdote about how you live your life?

Posted by greg on Apr. 19, 2012 @ 8:07 pm

As usual, the BG didn't even attempt to hide it's bias against these buses. It seems to me the biggest legit issue is them using the bus stops. Personally my favorite line was how they don't pay anything for using public streets. Seriously, we are going to charge a company for use of our streets now????

Honestly, I am not seeing this as a huge issue. If these buses are there longer than a minute or so, then I can see it being an issue, but I see these things all over town and don't see long lines of money buses stacked up trying to get into the stops. Heck half the time, the bus doesn't even pull over, it just stops in the middle of the lane and lets people on and off.

Honestly this article seems like a solution in search of a problem. The corporate buses help people get around, saving people money, getting people out of cars, etc.

Posted by Dnative on Apr. 19, 2012 @ 10:30 am

If there is an issue of a the shuttles illegally blocking a Muni stop that is something that is simple to address.

Beyond that one issue, I do not get understand the reasoning (or lack of it) of this article. Private shuttle buses have just as much right to use a city street as a private car or public bus. They are not regulated, so long as they are not of excessive size or violating general traffic rules, because the city would likely get sued if it tried to prevent private buses from using a city street or if they were charged some sort of fee.

The city supposedly has a "transit first" policy. It would seem having workers taking a shuttle bus would be encouraged by the city, not discouraged. Would the SFBG be happier if all these individuals drove private automobiles and clogged the roads with thousands of cars?

Posted by Chris on Apr. 19, 2012 @ 10:37 am

Think later. The SFBG motto.

Posted by Chromefields on Apr. 19, 2012 @ 11:18 am

Couldn't agree more. THIS IS NOT A PROBLEM. Every large city has employers that use shuttle bus services, and most well-run universities with multiple campuses do, too. Foolish, trifling article, trying to create a problem where none exists!

Posted by Guest on Apr. 21, 2012 @ 8:30 pm

This is actually a very thoughtful and balanced piece. To deny that these shuttles cause problems for actual public transit that the general public relies, and does so in violation of the law as a free rider, is a very legitimate issue. I was once on a Muni bus that couldn't even get near a stop where people were waiting because a mammoth Google bus was parked in the Muni stop and wasn't moving any time soon. In fact, the Muni driver couldn't even see if there were passengers waiting. This is a big problem and one that people who don't work for the rich tech companies suffer. Yes, it's a good thing to have this supplementary private transit service and to get cars off the road. I'm all in favor of that. (But it is indeed a sad state of affairs that as a society we've come to de-funding public transit for all and relying on a crutch of increasing private balkanized services that do not make themselves available to the general public and cater to the generally well-off techies). But it has to be clearly open to the general public to use and there have to be rules and penalties for bad actors.

That said, many of the private shuttles are clearly open to the general public. I would put UCSF on that list. Kaiser too. There's free rides to be had around town if you know where to look.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 19, 2012 @ 1:22 pm

interest in ensuring that high performers and achievers, who create significant wealth, should have priority over the kind of people that take the number 14 bus, you know?

Not everyone makes an equal contribution to society and if the high achievers get to work quicker, then we all gain.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 19, 2012 @ 1:33 pm

Honestly, these buses cause congestion on public streets they use the roads paid for by San Francisco tax payers and the city officials agree the buses are a problem so why not find a way to regulate them. I believe all people are equal and the common Joe has to get to work on time just like the hi tech employees riding these buses.

Posted by Guest on Jan. 27, 2013 @ 12:36 pm

Have to make itself available to the public? Defeats the purpose of a private service.

Posted by Dnative on Apr. 19, 2012 @ 7:59 pm

And the google bus isn't much use unless you want to go to google - they dont make request stops.

I can see some locals in the know using the UCSF shuttle. But if a smelly homeless vagrant tried to board the apple bus, I suspect he'd find himself quickly right back in the gutter.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 20, 2012 @ 12:17 pm

The author went out of her way to use loaded adjectives and descriptive words to describe the private buses and shuttles. Just looking at the headline, it is easy to tell where this is going. Typical of the BG though- about as balanced and subtle as Fox News

Posted by Dnative on Apr. 19, 2012 @ 8:03 pm

Priority for High Performers, Achievers and Wealth Creators sounds like financial segregation to me.

Wealth Creation for whom ? Not for the kind of people who rides the 14.

Who is the "we" in we all gain ? It's probably not the low achievers who cleans the facilities where the High Achievers performs. Or the ones who supply the food for the High Achievers - who lives in many neighborhoods including the ones who rides the 14 - who take longer commute time during the off peak hours or the wee hours of the night.

How does the High Achievers, Performers with priority make an "equal" contribution ?

Posted by Irked on Apr. 19, 2012 @ 7:45 pm

Communism just didn't work out. Time to move on.

Posted by Dnative on Apr. 19, 2012 @ 8:01 pm

people want to succeed - for that good life. While those who slack and squander have a harder time. That's the way of the world, even in communist countries.

It's how the system works - if there were not rewwards for having more money, who would work and why?

Posted by Guest on Apr. 20, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

Imagine if every single person who rode one of the shuttles drove their car to work instead.

This article is a solution in search of a problem.

Posted by Troll II on Apr. 20, 2012 @ 11:52 am

Most of the shuttle routes complement existing transit like BART and Caltrain. The shuttles don't compete with Muni, but offer a variety that Muni that isn't doing well, and freeing up resources for Muni to focus on main line transit on major corridors.

The shuttles don't require a subsidy from Muni. They are paid by private employers and some public funds. If say these shuttle were to be replaced by Muni, then the service would be more expensive to run, slower, less comfortable, and take resources away from existing Muni lines.

Occupying Muni stops is a problem that can be addressed on a different level, but it doesn't make shuttles bad. Safety is always important whether it is Muni or private shuttle provider and everyone needs to take it seriously.

Posted by Andy Chow on Apr. 20, 2012 @ 8:39 pm

While I believe the private buses serve a purpose, I can understand the concern about funds for the streets. Behemoth vehicles shorten the lifespan of the street. Cities and their taxpayers have to pay for resurfacing. Is San Francisco, or any other city, so flush with cash that it is easy to fix streets? If these companies are going to operate heavy vehicles, they should pay some kind of tax just to maintain the streets.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 21, 2012 @ 4:58 pm
Posted by Guest on Apr. 21, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

I am feel better seeing most of the comments are more reasonable than the article.the article should have concluded "it's great how today's companies are good corporate citizens and are helping to address the issues of traffic, transportation and parking without just dumping it on the city".

Posted by Balanced on Apr. 21, 2012 @ 6:48 pm

The private buses should have to pay to use the public facilities.

I once read a report that claimed the buses actually removed cars from the streets and highways, but it was dubious at best. We know for a fast that any expanded capacity of the roadway network -- local streets, the 101, etc. -- are rapidly filled up again, so why would private buses create a long-lasting effect where no other technology/solution ever has?

Simply put -- it has not. There are at least as many cars on the road as before, and potentially even more, and more single-passenger vehicles to boot.

Posted by Peter Smith on Apr. 22, 2012 @ 2:05 am

If you have a bus with 20 people on it, that means 20 people are not in cars.

Why should private buses pay for the use of "public facilities" when UPS, fed ex etc... doesn't have to pay? They are paying by the way, fuel taxes, payroll taxes, business license fees, and whatnot.

Posted by Matlock on Apr. 22, 2012 @ 2:48 am

SFBG mantra, that anything private is bad but if the exact same thing is public, then that suddenly, miraculously makes it "good".

Posted by Guest on Apr. 22, 2012 @ 7:41 am

then there certainly is a problem. Where I draw the line is when they get in the way of Muni buses at stops.

I don't accept your premise that 20 bus riders represents 20 fewer car trips, but rather think that many of these bus services are promoting inter-city commuting by those who wouldn't be living in the city otherwise -- let alone driving cars.

And they facilitate intra-city movements which is at the convienience of the institutions and corporations they serve rather than the sort of absolute need represented by most Muni trips.

Posted by lillipublicans on Apr. 22, 2012 @ 8:57 am

Or just 10, you can't deny that either way it represents less trips in a car and that is a good thing yes? Would you rather have 10 cars causing more pollution and traffic or one bus? Private or public?

Posted by D. native on Apr. 22, 2012 @ 9:29 am

You self appointed people are always so obsessed with what other people are doing and these make believe and created scenarios.

If cats barked and dogs meowed.

"I don't accept your premise that 20 bus riders represents 20 fewer car trips,"

And creationists don't accept evolution.

Posted by Matlock on Apr. 22, 2012 @ 10:47 am

but rather only questioned the validity of your premise, so your counterargument is already rhetorically suspicious grounds. It is *not* like questioning darwinism in favor of creationism; more rhetorical slime.

The fact may be that those private buses contribute to inflated rents in areas where the residents wouldn't own cars anyway. The patterns of waiting five minutes at a stop before hopping on the freeway for a jaunt down the peninsula may be very destructive in regard to Muni service.

It is YOU who don't know and yet act as though your belief is unassailable except through ignorance or madness: ironic.

Posted by lillipublicans on Apr. 22, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

I understand that we are all lab rats to people like you, still, those people live in SF, they takes private buses to work, they are not driving their cars, if there were no buses you would be upset for some other reason.

Human beings make choices that benefit themselves, be they progressives who get something out of their pseudo altruism and happy face authoritarianism, or yuppies who live in Noe Vally with their 1.5 children yapping dog. Everyone is driven by a certain amount of self interest.

People have made the choice to ride private buses to work, if they didn't have those buses they would be driving. It might be good to keep them out of MUNI stops, beyond that it's all sour grapes that you can't coerce people to behave a certain way.

Evolution needs a basic lack of understanding of science or will full disbelief, making up these extended what ifs to make the world fit your politics is no different.

What if we banned these buses, then these people would move away and I can live in my eden?

What if Satan planted bones in the ground to fool the secular humanists?

Posted by Guest on Apr. 22, 2012 @ 2:58 pm

more like one of the motley ones that carry diseases and crap where food is kept. It never occured to me until just now.

Posted by lillipublicans on Apr. 22, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

that high value producers are saving time over those whose time is worth far less, thereby benefitting society.

If a number 14 bus full of homeless people gets slowed down, what would the passengers do with all the time saved and how would that benefit society?

Posted by Guest on Apr. 22, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

benefits the high value producers AND NOBODY ELSE. (Unless you want to implement a Benthamist from-each-to-each remuneration system.)

Actually, your absurd theorum is emblematic of the kind of vacuous and self-serving rationication that is all too common in this world. Screw you.

Posted by lillipublicans on Apr. 22, 2012 @ 8:44 pm

the time to produce more because that adds to GDP and taxes in a way that a number 14 bus full of homeless, unemployed activists and artists can never do.

That's why we have private planes, cars, buses, helicopters etc - because some peoples' time is worth a lot more than some others.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 6:23 am

Higher GDP does not benefit society.

Posted by marcos on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 7:48 am

packed with crap that thinking is no longer possible. Such a plainly stated negation of a basic (false) premise such as you make will be met by incredulity and rage.

Maybe trying a softer approach can have as good an outcome: Guest, your concept of "high GDP benefits society" aside, don't you mean to claim that high-value producers are always producing? That is ridiculous. Even if "high-value producers" *were* doing something that "raised all boats" and didn't have *specific* deleterious effects on society -- and I can think of plenty of examples of that -- can't you see that saving time for these types is really just giving them more leasure time? No, I suppose not.

You think yourself among this vaunted group and are in danger of having your shoulder out of whack from patting yourself on the back over it; or maybe your head will explode from the pressure of your own bloated ego.

Posted by lillipublicans on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 9:06 am

GDP is a singular measure of economic activity that has little to do with generalized economic health.

I question whether high economic value has anything to do with high value as measured by different standards.

Posted by guest on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 9:28 am

point where money changes hands. So, the more activity there is, the more taxes there are, and the more services that can be provided. It's really quite a simple concept.

Ever taken a flight? Notice how the people up front in first get better seats, food, drinks and then get off the plane first? See, that's the thing - if you pay more, you get more. That's why people like money.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 10:26 am

Taxes are not applied every time that money changes hands. Much money flows through General Electric, for example, but very little of that money is taxed.

From the number of people who don't take flights or sit in coach, apparently people like their money enough to not spend it on first or business class. But they don't care very much about their business' money, nor does the federal government, because those dollars spent on first class and coach are written off of income as business expenses and those dollars are not taxed.

Posted by guest on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 11:17 am

mortgage mess and, given that it is taxed on it's profits, obviously it hasn't been making any to be taxed on them.

Even so, GE does pay property and payroll taxes, collects income taxes and SSI on behalf of its employees, and of course there is sales tax on purchases and sales.

The principle behind US taxation is that money is generally taxed when it changes hands. Even gifts and inheritances are taxed in many situations. And the faster money changes hands (the so-called "velocity of money") the more tax is collected.

So, at least in broad terms, GDP is taxed and an increase in GDP leads to more tax. So if high producers get faster service, we all benefit.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 11:41 am

Your classical economic model only works on broad terms and fails miserably when confronted with the realities that lie on the 49.5% of phenomenon on either side of the middle broad case.

See GE's stock dividend figures:

For a company that is taking a bath on profits, it sure finds ways to share those losses it made with shareholders.

Purchasers pay sales tax, workers pay SSI tax, GE does not pay those taxes.

Come back at me when your economic model can explain and maybe even hope to predict asset bubbles, okay?

Posted by guest on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 11:53 am

It predicts that they will occur from time to time. And they do.

Whether GE pays dividends is a matter purely for its shareholders, as I feel sure you know already.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 12:10 pm

Neoclassical economics does not explain bubbles, it predicts equilibrium.

Firms that pay dividends are profitable. Profitable firms are supposed to pay taxes. GE paid a dividend but did not pay taxes.

Posted by guest on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

I simply pointed out that more economic activity leads to mroe taxes.

Again, GE dividends are a matter for their shareholders, not you.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

You argue classical economics. You said GE did not have to pay taxes because it lost money. Firms that lose money don't pay dividends to their stockholders. You really are confused.

Posted by guest on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 12:58 pm

The shareholders are free to pay themselevs divi's out of retained earnings from earlier years on which taxes have already been paid.

Posted by Anonymous on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

So you're saying that it is okay for companies to pay dividends which represent profit, current or accumulated, but not pay taxes to speak of?

Posted by guest on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 1:44 pm

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