Opposing sides rally troops for tech bus throw-down

|
()
The first Google bus protest.
Photo by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Tomorrow’s (Tue/1) San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting will feature a hearing on the environmental impact of commuter shuttles, including Google buses. In what promises to be a telling moment in a polarizing controversy that started in late 2013, supervisors will be forced to pick a side.

This past January, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) voted to approve a pilot program that would allow private shuttle operators, including a host of tech companies, to stop in designated Muni bus areas for a fee of $1 per stop, per day.

The narrative is by now well-worn, with the well-connected, deep-pocketed tech industry on one side and seasoned local activists concerned about gentrification and private use of public bus stops on the other. 

While tomorrow’s hearing comes amid a larger debate about the tech sector’s role in fueling displacement through rising housing prices, it will focus on whether or not to sanction an appeal of the pilot program under the California Environmental Quality Act. 

The proponents of the shuttles -- Google, Genentech, Apple and others -- maintain they take cars off the road. Many workers commuting to the South Bay, for instance, would drive were it not for the existence of the shuttles.

The CEQA appeal was filed by the SEIU 1021, the League of Pissed Off Voters, and the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club. The groups contend that the private shuttle system is helping to push long-time residents out of the city. Studies show that in areas around the shuttle stops, rents fly high and displacement is rampant

A key argument in favor of conducting an environmental review is that those displaced workers then have to drive into SF to get to work from places like the East Bay, negating any environmental benefits. By calling for a CEQA study, appellants hope to city will study how shuttles are linked to displacement and its associated environmental impacts. 

Tomorrow, the Board must decide whether to allow the 18-month pilot program to move ahead, or to delay it until after an Environmental Impact Review has been completed.

In preparation for tomorrow’s hearing, both sides are drumming up support from their ranks.

SF.citi, an alliance of San Francisco tech companies, sent out an email blast (and web post) that reads like a call to arms: “Divisive shuttle opponents are now suing the City to challenge this pilot program before it has the chance to get off the ground. We need YOU to tell the Board of Supervisors in person that you want them reject this lawsuit and let the pilot program go forward.”

The activists’ call to action takes a similar tone, with liberal use of caps lock: “PLEASE JOIN US TO SUPPORT THE APPEAL AND TO TELL THE CITY TO HOLD BIG TECH ACCOUNTABLE FOR THE ACTUAL IMPACT THEY HAVE ON OUR COMMUNITIES AND NEIGHBORHOODS! 

“We can not do this without a thorough review, which includes robust research and study of what the actual broad impact is. Without it, we can not be assured that tech is paying the fair price for their use of our streets and our transit infrastructure.”

To have your say, go to San Francisco City Hall tomorrow afternoon for the Board meeting