Are Tech Shuttle Buses in Bay Area a Threat to the Environment?

Tuesday, May 06, 2014
Protesters block Apple employees in San Francisco (photo: Beck Diefenbach, Reuters)

A coalition of labor, environmental and tenant activists filed a lawsuit last week challenging a new San Francisco ordinance that lets private shuttles use public bus stops to transport residents to work at tech companies throughout the Bay Area.

The lawsuit challenges the ordinance on state environmental and traffic grounds, but its supporters freely admit the legal action is at least partially in response to how wealthy high-tech employees are reshaping San Francisco by driving up rents, forcing evictions and annoying the hell out of less-affluent city dwellers.

John Shinai described a scene in the Mission District for USA Today “where fleets of luxury coach buses fight for pavement space with low riders, crowded city buses and working-class parents getting their kids to school . . . in a place so hotly congested, where everyone is working hard just to remain in the neighborhood.”

The Board of Supervisors approved a pilot program last month that legally endorses the handshake agreement that has allowed a network of more than 350 commuter buses, with 35,000 boardings to utilize 200 municipal bus stops.

“What the buses do is facilitate the ability for highly paid tech employees to live in our city who otherwise would not, and when we have an extremely limited pool of housing stock available, what that does is push folks at the lower income levels out of the city,” Housing Rights Committee Executive Director Sarah Shortt told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The tenant advocacy group is a party to the lawsuit, which contends the private shuttles violate the California Vehicle Code by letting them use bus stops designated as red zones. The code states: “No person shall stop, park, or leave standing any vehicle whether attended or unattended, except when necessary to avoid conflict with other traffic or in compliance with the directions of a peace officer or official traffic control device” unless it is a “bus engaged as a common carrier. ”

Private buses are not common carriers.

The lawsuit also argues that the ordinance violates the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires an environmental impact report to assess damage it may cause to roads, the air, bicyclists, pedestrians and human health in general. The city maintains the 18-month pilot project is exempt from the law because it “consists of basic data collection, research, experimental management, and resource evaluation activities which do not result in a serious or major disturbance to an environmental resources.” 

CEQA also considers significant environmental impacts to include the displacement of “substantial numbers of people, necessitating the construction of replacement housing.” The lawsuit argues that research shows that is already happening. “From 2011 through 2013, 69% of no-fault evictions in San Francisco occurred within 4 blocks of a known shuttle stop,” the lawsuit says.

Supporters of the so-called “Google buses” claim that the shuttles are actually good for the environment because people who use them would otherwise be driving solo in their automobiles. But critics say the place to make that assessment is in an environmental impact report, not a Board of Supervisors meeting.

Demonstrators have been confronting the shuttle buses for months. Dual demonstrations in S.F. and Oakland last December attracted dozens of people, hoisting signs, chanting slogans and, in one exuberant expression of frustration, smashing a bus window.

The protesters garnered some media attention but no political response to their liking. Now the matter heads to court where a more dispassionate, but perhaps more effective, airing of grievances will proceed.

–Ken Broder  


To Learn More:

SF Tech Commuter Bus Network Sued on Environmental Grounds (by Joe Mullin, Ars Technica)

S.F. Tech Bus Program Targeted in Lawsuit (by Marisa Lagos, San Francisco Chonicle)

Activists Sue San Francisco over Controversial Tech Bus Program (by Mary Papenfuss, Reuters)

Tech Commuter Bus Issue Moves From Streets to Courts (by John Shinal, USA Today)

S.F. Housing Crisis Bubbles over in Protests of Tech Employee Buses (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Coalition for Fair, Legal and Environmental Transit et al v. City and County of San Francisco (San Francisco County Superior Court) (pdf)

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