San Francisco officials approve pilot plan to charge tech companies for worker shuttles

SAN FRANCISCO – City transportation officials approved a new pilot plan Tuesday to regulate private employee shuttles operated by tech giants such as Facebook and Google and charge a fee for the vehicles to use public bus stops.

The shuttles, which transport thousands of workers each day around the city and to Silicon Valley, have for some become a symbol of economic inequality and rising housing costs and evictions in San Francisco.

The Municipal Transportation Agency voted unanimously for the pilot program in a room packed with people eager to opine about the contentious topic.

“In my mind, the pilot project is clearly better than what we have now,” said Tom Nolan, chairman of the MTA.

The meeting came hours after protesters blocked a Google Inc. shuttle bus, hanging a sign that read “Gentrification & Eviction Technologies” on the side as police officers moved in to clear the way.

The city and companies say the shuttles remove thousands of vehicles from roads while reducing carbon pollution.

San Francisco’s public transportation system logs about 700,000 separate trips each weekday. Transportation officials say the worker shuttles have added another 35,000 separate trips a day and pose a challenge to integrating the two systems.

The pilot program, which would go into effect in July, would charge the companies such as Facebook Inc. $1 for each stop made by the shuttles. The city estimates medium-size companies would pay about $80,000 a year, with larger firms paying more than $100,000.

City officials say the 18-month program could reduce vehicle miles by about 45,000 and eliminate some 11,000 tons of carbon emissions.

Under California law, the city cannot profit from the program, so the fees are meant to recover the costs associated with administering and enforcing the program.

Under the pilot program, operators will have to purchase permits from the city, which is designating 200 of its roughly 2,500 bus stops as shuttle stopping zones. The buses would be outfitted with GPS to help the city monitor their whereabouts, and they could receive citations for stopping at unapproved bus stops.

Still, the program did not go far enough for some city leaders.

Supervisor David Campos said it’s wrong to blame tech workers for housing ills, but the proposed program does too little to satisfy those being displaced by new residents employed by the tech firms.

“A dollar a bus stop, as much as it is a first step, it’s a proposition that simply does not go far enough,” Campos said to cheers from some onlookers.

Google employees appeared at the meeting to support the busing regulations and spoke freely despite an email from the tech giant’s internal transportation team that provided talking points to workers who wanted to testify and was leaked to reporters.

Drew Sherwood, a 39-year-old father of two uses Google’s shuttle, said the time saved in driving allows him more time to spend with his kids, and makes him shop at local businesses in his neighbourhood rather than fitting in trips during his commute.

Google employee Crystal Sholts, a program manager in the maps division, said she is not like the stereotypically wealthy shuttle rider being lampooned by demonstrators.

“I’m not a billionaire. Like many people, I’m still paying off my student loans,” she said.