Each weekday, gleaming white buses operated by Google and other Silicon Valley tech giants roll through congested San Francisco streets and pause for several minutes in public bus stops, picking up passengers bound for sprawling tech campuses.
Using bus zones for private passenger pickup is not legal — but so far, that hasn't resulted in any kind of systematic enforcement. It did boil over as an issue when it became the focal point of the Dec. 9 Google bus blockade, a Monday morning rush hour episode staged by anti-gentrification activists that went viral thanks to Bay Guardian video coverage, spurring commentary by Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and dozens of other media outlets.
The significance of the private buses as a symbol for an economically divided San Francisco, private service that spares a high-salaried class of workers from the delays, crowds, and service breakdowns that can plague Muni, has never been more resonant. The shuttles are frequently mentioned in conjunction with eviction and displacement, since apartment units in proximity to shuttle routes have become more desirable and expensive.
And as more shuttles are sent out to transport passengers, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has come under increasing pressure to solve the logistical and other problems they create.
"Our policies are catching up to this new transportation mode," SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose said in a recent phone call. "The shuttle service has been growing very rapidly."
Accordingly, SFMTA is working on a pilot program to allow Google and other providers of private shuttle buses to share space in Muni bus zones in an organized fashion. The policy would establish a set of guidelines around boarding and alighting, implement measures to prevent Muni delays, create a formal permitting process, and require the shuttles to display identifying placards.
Although Muni needs funding to improve its aging infrastructure (see "Street Fight"), this plan to accommodate private shuttles would not result in any new revenue collection for the agency. Google and other private shuttle providers would be charged a fee under the program, but it would go only toward cost recovery, allowing the agency to break even.
Leslie Dreyer, one of the masterminds behind the Google bus blockade, calculated that the SFMTA could theoretically collect $1 billion if it aggressively targeted private shuttles for violating the Curb Priority Law, which prohibits vehicles other than Muni from using designated bus zones.
"It's a ballpark estimate," Dreyer said, describing her project as more of a thought experiment to illustrate a broader point. "We were trying to get people to think about ... the bigger issue of what these things symbolize: evictions, gentrification."
Dreyer based her findings on a color-coded chart released by SFMTA in July, showing the frequency of shuttle stops at 200 known locations. Paul Rose insisted the $1 billion estimate was too high because the total number of daily private shuttle trips is actually lower. He added that it's more than just Google that is using the stops: At least 27 institutions and employers provide private shuttles in SF, according to data compiled by SFMTA.
But even based on the information that Rose provided, that same calculation shows that Muni could collect $500-600 million in fines from all the shuttle providers. That's theoretically enough to augment a sizeable portion of Muni's annual operating budget, which is around $800 million.
The pilot program for sharing bus zone space with private shuttles is expected to be reviewed by the SFMTA board early next year, and it could be implemented by July of 2014. It does not require approval by the Board of Supervisors.