Muni could collect millions in fines against private shuttles — but it won't
In the meantime, given that Google and other private shuttle providers are in rather obvious violation of a law prohibiting them from doing what they do every weekday like clockwork, why doesn't the SFMTA bother to enforce the law?
Rose offered several answers to this question, but most just pointed to more questions.
The fine for violating the law that prohibits vehicles other than Muni from using bus zones is $271, Rose confirmed. According to a Strategic Analysis Report prepared for the SFMTA in June of 2011, which notes that the Curb Priority Law is part of the City Transportation Code, "enforcement ... has been limited."
"We have only so many resources, and most enforcement is based on complaints," Rose explained.
But the same strategic analysis report, dating back to 2011, shows that a great number of complaints have flowed in from disgruntled transit riders.
"The frequency of public comment and complaints regarding bus zone conflicts ... may indicate a more problematic situation than these limited data imply," a portion of the 2011 study noted after presenting the results of a field study, in which some analyst was presumably sent out to physically observe the private shuttle buses (illegally) stopping in the bus zones.
Rose's contention that a lack of complaints was behind the lack of enforcement didn't really seem to hold up, but he offered another reason, too. "We'd have to ID the bus," he explained. "There isn't an identity placard or permit to ID them specifically."
Establishing an identification system is one of the goals of the pilot program now under consideration, he added. Then again, Google buses have license plates. And if SFMTA has the capability to do anything well, it's to harness license plate data as a mechanism for collecting fines from offending motorists.
In fact, officers under the parking enforcement division of the SFMTA use an automated system called AutoVu Patroller, made by a tech company called Genetech (not to be confused with Genentech, a pharmaceutical giant that has its own fleet of buses transporting San Francisco employees to its South Bay campus).
EASY TO TRACK
The AutoVu patroller starts automatically when a parking enforcement officer fires up the on-board computer. It works by scanning license plates as the parking vehicles cruise down the street, using plate recognition technology to feed the data into a system that checks the identifying numbers against an existing hotlist.
When a hit occurs, it's automatically flagged on screen. With the flick of an index finger, an enforcement officer can instantly bring up a vehicle's model, year, and VIN. If a vehicle lacks a permit, it automatically generates a hit, signaling that enforcement may be needed. Then there's the obvious point that Google buses and other shuttles are highly visible, and stopping all the time — whether or not an enforcement officer has a license plate scanner or not.
But at the end of the day, the private shuttles are treated differently from other kinds of vehicles that are found to be in violation of the transportation code. No matter what the laws on the books say, it's difficult to imagine the SFMTA or the SFPD, which also has enforcement power, causing tech employees to be late to work as they roll through the city in climate-controlled coaches with tinted windows.
Far from targeting the shuttles for enforcement, an in-depth conversation has actually been taking place between the shuttle providers and SFMTA for quite some time, with representatives from the Planning Department and other agencies brought to the table as well.
The SFMTA actually regards the shuttles as being somewhat helpful, Rose said, since they get drivers out of their cars and into pooled transportation modes, thereby helping to alleviate congestion.
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