Activists, union challenge Google bus pilot program

Activist poet Tony Robles in the reflection of a tech bus, during a protest
Photo by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

San Francisco activists and labor filed an appeal of the controversial commuter shuttle (aka, the Google buses) pilot program to the Board of Supervisors today, alleging it was pushed through without a proper environmental review. 

The appeal was filed by a coalition of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, SEIU 1021, The League of Pissed Off Voters, and Sara Shortt of the Housing Rights Committee. 

The shuttles, mostly to Silicon Valley tech firms, pick up passengers in Muni bus stops. The use of public bus stops would incur a $271 fine for private autos, and often do, but the shuttles have largely received a free pass from the city. Last month, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency approved of a pilot plan hatched behind closed doors that allows use of 200 bus stops by the private shuttles, charging only $1 per stop, per day.

The appeal alleges that the program needed review under the California Environmental Quality Act, which asks for projects to be analyzed for, among other things, land use, housing, and public health impacts. 

“CEQA actually identifies displacement as an environmental impact,” attorney Richard Drury, who filed the appeal on behalf of the coalition, told us. “Almost no one knows that. Honestly I didn’t know that, until I started researching all of this.”

If the Board of Supervisors doesn’t back the appeal, there may be a court battle on the environmental impact of the shuttle stops, which increase rents and home prices nearby. 

Paul Rose, spokeserpson for the SFMTA, responded to the complaint in an email to the Guardian.

"We developed this pilot proposal to help ensure the most efficient transportation network possible by reducing Muni delays and further reducing congestion on our roadways," Rose wrote. "We are confident that the CEQA clearance is appropriate and will be upheld.”

In the meantime, Drury told us, the coalition is performing environmental research of its own. It has experts from the US Environmental Protection Agency and other organizations analyzing diesel outputs from the shuttles, as well as the impact of shuttles on displacement. 

“CEQA review needs to have a review before they start the pilot, not after,” Drury said. “They’re basically doing it backwards: let’s have 200 stops and 35,000 people in the service, and figure out what happens.”

Some studies conducted already show that affluence rises wherever the shuttle stops are placed. One by Chris Walker, a 29 year old in Mumbai, India, shows rising property values in and around the Google bus stops from 2011 to 2013.


This heatmap shows a rise in property values appreciated near shuttle stops.

“We see the Google Bus as a part of a larger effort to privatize public spaces and services, displacing both current residents and the public transportation system we rely on,” said Alysabeth Alexander, Vice President of SEIU Local 1021, in a statement. “San Francisco has a long history and tradition as a union town. With the tech takeover, San Francisco is becoming inhospitable to working class families. Our wages are stagnant, as the cost of everything is skyrocketing. This is a shame.”


is there a more worthless description than "activist poet" ?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 20, 2014 @ 7:56 am

Investment banker

Posted by Greg on Feb. 20, 2014 @ 8:07 am

That is, way too many unproductive slackers and trust fund layabouts.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 20, 2014 @ 8:16 am

These union hacks never stop.

"SF has always been a strong union town." Is that why the cops are so lazy and our pedestrians get killed daily, SFFD gets drunk and runs people over (covering it up), Muni is complete crap, there are potholes everywhere, a parking ticket is $72, no one bothers to search stairwells, you can get run over laying down with your dog in a park - and all this with an $8 billion budget. I'm so happy SF is a strong union town.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 20, 2014 @ 9:52 am

their agenda is so nakedly selfish and one-dimensional?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 20, 2014 @ 10:20 am

Are they going after UCSF, The Art Institute and all the other private shuttles in town?

Posted by GlenParkDaddy on Feb. 20, 2014 @ 4:08 pm
Posted by Guest on Feb. 20, 2014 @ 4:24 pm

Is a CEQA exemption appropriate for such large, disparate, private transportation services? Is there a good likelihood that a substantial impact is being created by these fleets operating daily in SF's neighborhoods?

There certainly are stakes if this appeal is successful. If there is an impact, it needs to be identified, mitigated or over-ridden by the approval body. The city would have to conduct and approve an EIR with over-riding considerations justifying ignoring the environmental impact, slap down the subsequent appeals to the BOS and Bd of Appeals, and then face a lengthy court fight. So if the judge agrees that an exemption was too easily granted, this could put the shuttles on ice for several years.

Hell, even if the BOS denies this appeal, these folks can appeal to the Bd of Appeals and, having "exhausted all local remedies", can then file a lawsuit in court. I suppose at some point they can also file for an injunction (which they may not get but still...) but I don't know the hows or whys or whens. Still, this play sets the stage and gives these folks a host of options. (In some ways, the BOS's smartest move would be approve the appeal and try to steer the project into a mitigated neg dec where the appeal rules are cloudier and there's greater flexibility for managing the impacts. Although an MND is also more vulnerable to a legal challenge so maybe it's a bad idea...).

That said, I really doubt the lawyer Drury can make a direct link between the Google buses and displacement, as he purports. I believe a direct link would be requisite for it to be considered a substantial impact.

But his logic, that a couple of dozen buses stopping at 200 sites to collect and transport 35,000 people daily will create sufficient likelihood of substantial environmental impact to merit a broader environmental review, appears quite sound. I mean, at the very least, shouldn't there be a scoping hearing and study to determine whether a more complete review is necessary? I don't know this process very well so perhaps that already happened?

On the other hand, the 38 transports more people than that every day and the shuttle stops are located in busy, urban areas that already feature busy bus lines and car traffic. This is an expansion of use, not a change of use.

So what exactly would be the "substantial impacts"? Increased pollution impacting established air quality standards? Questionable and debatable. Culture, history, aesthetics? Nothing really there. Displacement as the lawyer says? Quite the stretch to legally connect a mode of transport with real estate speculation by outside players. I suppose increased traffic congestion is possible but wouldn't that be site specific instead of program wide? I mean, in the grand traffic picture, these buses are just a drop in the bucket of vehicles moving to and through town. Locally, a well placed shuttle stop on busy Divis is going to have very little impact overall whereas there might be a shuttle stop or a shuttle route that is much more quiet and is indeed impacted by the shuttles. But then wouldn't the city simply reroute instead of conducting a full EIR?

In any case, this isn't a policy question, its a CEQA question. Regardless of what the BOS does, these folks can now carry this issue upstream and onto legal ground where their chances of success are less clouded by politics. I suppose that brings us back to the middle and where the BOS votes sit and how voters will react to another poorly planned Ed Lee scheme laid to bare for all to inspect. This hasn't worked well for him in the past but he's pretty upbeat and teflon. I mean, it's not like the buses are a divisive issue that our consensus mayor can't handle or anything. Oh wait...

Posted by Becky Bayside on Feb. 20, 2014 @ 4:49 pm

I do not see this cheap shot going far at all.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 20, 2014 @ 5:13 pm

It's about process, information and standards. If there is a decent liklihood of a significant impact in one of the CEQA categories, the City can be compelled to do an EIR, either now or later.

But the environmental merits are almost irrelevant at this stage. Even if the shuttle opponents can't prove there's a liklihood of significant impact, they can continue to file low-barrier appeals at City Hall and in court for the next year or two. That's just the process under city and state law. If they shuttle opponents want to keep this issue alive, they now have the means to do so.

If they can't demonstrate irreparable harm is being caused by allowing the buses to operate while this issue is being adjudicated, this may just be an exercise in public relations. But if they can show that real harm is being cause within a CEQA category, they could try to get the buses shut down until the matter is settled.

Posted by Becky Bayside on Feb. 21, 2014 @ 3:48 pm

this is only a 18 month trial project anyway.

The purpose of a trial is to see how it works. I suspect any arbiter will simply say - let's do the tests and look at the results.

An EIR review about charging a buck when they haven't been paying anything at all is just plain silly.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 21, 2014 @ 4:03 pm

These folks will claim victory. Stop staring at the pieces and see the whole board.

The purpose of a CEQA appeal is not to see how a program is working. The purpose of a CEQA appeal is to determine whether the standard of review has been met.

Silly or not, these folks took the initiative the other day and now the City, shuttle firms and sponsoring companies will be on defense for the foreseeable future. Ring the lobbying firm mentioned in Tim Redmond's column today and ask them what the future holds. Betcha dollars to doughnuts they are already booking tickets for repeat visits to Appeal City.

Thing I still can't figure out is why the sponsoring tech companies haven't waded in publicly. I get the desire to avoid local pissing matches but at some point one would think they would recognize that this was getting out of hand, employees are getting threatened, and try to engage in some way - directly funding of a popular arts collective in jeopardy or rebuild Jose Coronado playground or give away 1,000 SF State scholarships or something to show some degree of community stewardship in the City. Their silence feels dismissive. Maybe that's how they regard the situation, maybe not. But who would know?

I also wonder what happens if the pilot project isn't extended. How do all these employees get to work? Will they really drive? How many have cars? Will the sponsoring firms really switch to shuttle boats? Those trial boats had a really limited capacity and would be costly to run so that seems unlikely but maybe possible? Would anyone really move out of town or not move in as the anti shuttle folks believe? Would the sponsoring companies shift any operations to SF? Will this have any impact on recruiting efforts for these firms? Seems unlikely but it would be one less perk enticing folks to join the big teams.

Maybe the firms don't have the answers and so are cautious about joining the public discussion. But as a result, there are a lot of unknowns and a great deal of uncertainty. I'm no titan of industry but have heard it said many times that uncertainty is very bad for business.

Posted by Becky Bayside on Feb. 21, 2014 @ 5:12 pm

They are free to travel along city streets in the same way that all vehicles are. That's the whole point of streets!

So the only issue is where they pick up and set down. And again like any vehicle, they can pick up and set down anywhere they want that is legal.

For instance, I've noticed that the drivers know where and when the street cleaning hours are. They can easily stop there without even using a Muni stop.

So the ONLY issue here is whether a buck is enough to pay for that. And we have 18 months to work that out.

This "appeal" is without merit. SFMTA should simply be allowed ro do their job.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 21, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

the environmental merits are almost irrelevant at this stage?
that is an odd thing to say when supporting the California Environmental Quality Act.

This lawsuit seems practically frivolous, and it is nonsense like this that makes people want to further reform CEQA because it becomes abusive, a tool to delay projects as opposed to what it is intended to do: make them more enviromentally friendly. That's a shame.

And it seems odd to me that they are filing suit against the bus program. Lets say that program is found to be CEQA deficient. That doesn't mean that the buses are going to stop, just the program. Say what you will about the program, it is better than not having any rules in place for these buses. Seems like the opponents could end up just making things go back to the way they were.

Posted by guestD on Feb. 21, 2014 @ 4:43 pm

I'd love to see CEQA reformed and agree it's almost exclusively used in SF to delay projects so opponents can win by attrition. We've all seen it many times and it can be effective if the exemption or EIR wasn't airtight. I haven't seen this exemption and would assume Planning knew this could end up in court. But the city's process rewards the appeal with delay, regardless of the merits or vote count.

Good point. I suppose the program would stop but the buses could collect passengers outside of bus stops. I think Redmond threw that on the table this morning too. I imagine that's a pragmatic direction some people will advocate as the solution as it largely eliminates the bus zone exception complaint. Heck, pick the right location and you could present it as a win for the local business/nonprofit, etc...

That said, I'm not sure I agree with you that we should settle for weak rules. I mean, I'm mixed on the value of the shuttle buses but charging a buck a stop seemed like a slap in the face to the residents concerned about the impacts. And the weak rules didn't address any of the concerns. It really seemed too clever by half and people didn't buy it.

Posted by Becky Bayside on Feb. 21, 2014 @ 5:27 pm

We're talking about a stop of maybe 2 minutes, ten times a week.

What these activists are really trying to do is tie the shuttles to housing costs. There is quite simply no way any such link could be proven, even if it exists, which I doubt.

They're just bad losers.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 21, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

Ideally, Google, Apple, and friends will lease more office space in SF.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 21, 2014 @ 11:31 am

SF. If the city really wants them, and they should, then we need to make the Twitter tax break universal and permanent

Posted by Guest on Feb. 21, 2014 @ 11:39 am

If they create a larger presence in SF, they can work toward improving the regulatory environment.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 21, 2014 @ 12:08 pm

Twitter were not given a permanent tax deal but they were given a five year deal. That is long enough to be worthwhile and serves as a test to see how it works.

To get Google, Apple etc to come to SF they'd need a minimum of a five-year "incentive" tax break. Then, during that time, they could work to bring about more permanent change along the lines you suggest.

But business does not pre-pay for promises. Rather, they respond to action.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 21, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

100,000 workers commute OUT of San Francisco every working day, but 500,000 workers commute IN to San Francisco every day.

In other words, the suburbs provide five times as many homes for the workers that SF needs than SF provides homes for their workers.

So overall, inter-county commuters keep SF home prices and rents much LOWER than they otherwise would be. If everyone lived in the town they worked in, we would see much higher rents, more evictions and more speculation..

Posted by Guest on Feb. 21, 2014 @ 11:03 am

Facts are useless. Come back again when you are motivated by emotion. Preferably hatred for wealth of any kind.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 21, 2014 @ 4:32 pm

I was a bike messenger for years and always rode my bike in San Francisco and I have seen first hand as the street level hundreds of times where autos get tickets for parking in the bus stops. Quit your deflecting you corporate tools, the fact is the Silly Con Valley companies abuse San Francisco by using these stops without investing in making them or keeping them up. They also force the crowded MUNI buses to sit and wait while their geeks get on board. This also causes traffic on the street. Yes, it is good these techno nerds commute by mass transit to their jobs, but it would be better if these subsidized companies paid their fair share for this luxury at San Francisco residents tax costs.
Better yet, these geeks need to relocate closer to their jobs and quit causing troubles.

Posted by Guest Richard on Feb. 26, 2014 @ 7:18 am

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