The private bus problem

Corporate behemoths crowd city streets and block Muni stops

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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."

Comments

Employers and employees both pay SSI and medicare.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 26, 2012 @ 9:50 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 @ 2:07 am
Posted by Guest on Apr. 22, 2012 @ 4:52 am

This is not privatization, because the Google buses and UCSF shuttles provide the service that Muni and other transit agencies did not provide before, nor plan to provide in the future.

If your concern is that some other cars are going to replace the cars removed because of private buses, then they must also replace cars removed by Muni, BART, and Caltrain. So that means we should never expand transportation capacity.

I think it is about the jealousy among some folks that some people get to enjoy a relatively direct and comfortable bus service, and that the rest of us have to settle for mediocre Muni.

Posted by Andy Chow on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 1:16 am

You pay more and get more comfort, service, convenience and time (expedited check-in, boarding de-planing etc.)

Why is anyone here shocked that high-paid applers and googlers have it better than most of the rest of us? Isn't it obvious?

Posted by Guest on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 10:28 am

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

They do pay for it. More accurately, when I pay property taxes in SF, I pay for these "public facilities" and any legal vehicle that I choose to use on it. And using a shared bus actually has less impact on the city than if I drove my own private vehicle, so I don't see what you're complaining about.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 24, 2013 @ 10:41 am

I also don't think that this is a huge problem. In fact, I'd LOVE it if passengers waited in actual queues at Muni stops instead of just AX and BX limiteds.

I agree that they shouldn't stop in Muni bus stop locations. Instead, corporate bus fleets should all pay annual fees into a system of private stops, and those stops should take the place of existing parking spaces. After all, if we are saying that these buses reduce the need for a car, then why are we still providing the parking spaces for those cars?

Posted by Guest on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

need MORE car parking!

Why? Because now we have extra cars parked during the days.

I see no issue with more than one bus using a muni stop. After all, many muni stops have more than one route using it, and it rarely causes a problem.

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

Of course you have no problem with a public facility like a bus stop subsidizing a private firm if the only cost is the convenience and time of San Franciscans waiting to use public transit.

Posted by guest on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 12:27 pm

there is no incremental cost to a few more buses using it since their utilization rate is trivial, if the amount of time i have to spend waiting for a bus is anything to go by.

I'd rather the private buses used existing infrastructure than take away parking for what is only used for a few minutes each day at rush hour.

Posted by Guest on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 12:43 pm

The subsidy is in delay for thousands of Muni passengers when private buses lumber up to a public bus stop and prevent public buses from loading and unloading.

Posted by guest on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 12:57 pm

And where is your evidence that, even if that is true, that the economic value of that delay is greater than that to those with high value jobs?

My bus runs every 20 minutes. A stop takes maybe 30 seconds, So stop utilization is perhaps 2%? Trivial.

Posted by Anonymous on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

700K+ rides per day on Muni, a hundred or so shuttle buses stopping at public bus stops mostly during peak hours, so, yeah, thousands of Muni riders are delayed each day. Add that up and we're talking about shifting money from average folks' pockets into Google, Apple and Facebook corporate and employee pockets.

If the payroll tax is a job killer, than clearly the private shuttle tax threatens western civilization as we know it.

Posted by guest on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

But yes, I'm sure those two or three google buses that leave in the morning are taking cash right out of the pockets of the city's most needy. Keep it up.

Posted by Anonymous on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

Not the most needy, but Muni riders from all walks of life are being made to waste their time without compensation so that private buses can use public resources without compensation.

It is abhorrent, job killing taxation when it goes the other way, but nothing significant when it delays people's commutes to work and might cost them a job.

Posted by guest on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

just because some successful enterprises elect to provide more efficient transit for their key producers.

Posted by Anonymous on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

while taxes are a political issue. You appear to be confused about the distinction.

Anyway, what does that have to do with the fact some economic entities like to provide transport for their staff? That's hardly new or controversial.

Posted by Anonymous on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

Taxes are coercive and confiscatory. Private vehicles delaying transit coerce public transit to be delayed and confiscates vehicle and rider time and therefore confiscates money from honest, taxpaying citizens and from the government that we fund with our taxes and transit fares.

Posted by guest on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 2:16 pm

Or do you just instinctively hate someone else having a perk or privilege that you haven't worked hard enough to get for yourself?

Posted by Anonymous on Apr. 23, 2012 @ 2:31 pm

Yes, I hear the privatizers loud and clear, they should read about transit during the turn of the last century, the early 1900s, there were several private transits racing around recklessly then, trying to haul more people for less, damn the consequences.

Posted by sf24hr on Apr. 25, 2012 @ 7:49 pm

Safety concerns could be an issue if those private buses were to pick up non-employees into private grounds. The bus drivers do not check identifications, and trespassing could soon be an issue. Also, since anyone can take these buses, the city buses might end up losing money to them. Add road congestion to the problems and we see why regulation is needed.

Posted by Thomas on May. 22, 2012 @ 1:58 am

I wish more parts of the world operated this way, and that the government stepped up their efforts to resolve the problem in a way that benefits everyone. Shuttle services are nothing new, and if the public transport system cannot handle the pressure, soon more people are going to resort to these.

Posted by Thomas on Jun. 17, 2012 @ 6:21 pm

As said before, Muni is not well-run, despite its truly tremendous efforts. It has a 1940's idea of public transportation in mind, while trying to deal with the 2010's. Muni tries to fix the small parts, but does not concentrate on the real issues at hand. Because of Muni, San Francisco isn''t growing that much. Had Muni made better decisions in the 60s and 70s, San Francisco would be a quarter larger in population or more, most likely with the same feel it has today.

Why is Muni so hard to steer? Because of the political set-up in this town. There is just one party, so we should not be surprised to find Eastern-European (pre-wall) transit conditions of a large bureaucracy, focusing more on paper lions, while not addressing the true basic issues at hand. Sure, the unions do not always help, but the real culprits are found in the political system: one party equals not having a democracy, equals not having a real discussion about what is best for all. To fit on top of this poli-roli reality, Muni has high-paid managers in place, controlling the issues, but do not steer the organization to where other world cities have steered their public transit.

Posted by Fred-Rick on Jun. 19, 2012 @ 1:18 pm
Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

I applaud these companies for: 1) offering free transportation to and from work for their employees, and 2) helping keep extra cars off the roads. HOWEVER, I live on Van Ness, and most of these buses have decided to set up shop on my block.
They start a little before 7 a.m. every week day, and one stops in front of my building on average every 10 minutes, for about three hours. Instead of stopping in the bus stop, they stop BEHIND it, which is directly in front of my building, blocking our building's garage spots and one street parking spot in front of it for 5 minutes at a time. These buses have an exhaust on the back right end that is so loud, it literally shakes the windows in my bedroom, relentlessly waking me up over and over every morning (I work until 11:00 every night, sometimes later).
Last week, one was parking in public parking spots across the street and left the bus in reverse for 20 minutes (back up siren going the entire time, it was 7:15 a.m. when I had dressed and come outside to ask him to turn it off). The very next morning around the same time, one was loading (again right in front of my window) and honked on his horn for what felt like forever. I again dressed, and drug myself downstairs to ask him to refrain when he told me "it got stuck" but no apology.
It's not just the noise, they also block our garages, as well as the street parking spaces. Furthermore, since they stop BEHIND the bus stop, they frequently stop traffic behind them, INCLUDING THE PUBLIC BUSES trying to get to the actual stop, making traffic back-up in the lane for blocks.
Unless you have these buses doing the same thing in front of your home, you probably won't understand my frustration. I literally broke down in tears the day the bus "backed up" for 20 minutes, to a neighbor I barely know when I passed her walking her dog as I walked back from the bus. I am exhausted and I am actually thinking of taking the legal course against what I firmly believe to be a serious nuisance. If they can figure out a different approach, more power to them. But the way they are approaching it at the moment is absolutely unacceptable.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 26, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

"HOWEVER, I live on Van Ness,"

Van Ness is a busy and noisy street, full of trucks and delivery vans, and it's always been that way. You knew that when you moved there. Presumably, you pay less for your rent because of it (or got a better deal when you bought your condo).

"I am exhausted and I am actually thinking of taking the legal course"

Why not just move?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 24, 2013 @ 10:37 am

From the author " Instead of working with the city and the region to improve transit for everyone, these tech firms have decided to create a private system of their own..

And that may be the most disturbing trend of all."

Wow...the author is so enamored with government services that privatization is a horrible, horrible thing.

That is unbelievable. Please provide me with a few solid examples where the public sector is just doing a great job. Muni is a joke...so don't start there.

Can't we just agree that capitalism, while regulated properly by the government, is the best option in nearly everything?

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Posted by BkCcheni on Jan. 02, 2013 @ 5:18 am

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Posted by BkCcheni on Jan. 02, 2013 @ 6:20 am

I pay property taxes in San Francisco, property taxes that are supposed to pay for roads. I choose to ride a shared bus to ease congestion (I could also just drive my own car). You now want to charge me again for use of the roads I pay for? That's insane.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 24, 2013 @ 10:30 am

The problem is happening in most countries.

Posted by 3Dmats Inc. on Mar. 18, 2013 @ 6:46 pm

Yes I am totally agree with you that private shuttle buses that have been booming in San Francisco has more than 6,000 employees registered in commute programs on 56 routes. These buses take cars off the road and solve most of the problems like congestion problem.

Posted by Wheel & Tires on Apr. 16, 2013 @ 11:11 pm

all this griping about private shuttles taking business away from public transit, how does one come to the conclusion that the shuttle riders don't pay taxes?
The employers pay taxes as do all the riders being picked ip by the private shuttle services.
I ride bart and use an employer paid shuttle service because there are no buses to or from the area I work in so essentially my employer is subsidizing my transportation even though they and I both pay taxes that subsidize public transit.

Posted by Skylar on Apr. 22, 2013 @ 7:58 am

the city have to find some ways to regulate these buses, legalize them and enforce them to follow the regulation.

Posted by Jeff on Apr. 23, 2013 @ 11:56 am

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