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By Paul Bendix

About this blog: A 32-year resident of Menlo Park, I regularly make my way around downtown in a wheelchair. This gives me an unusual perspective on a town in which I have spent almost half of my life. I was educated at UC Berkeley, and permanentl...  (More)

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The Good, the Bad, and the Google Buses

Uploaded: Feb 16, 2014
The Google bus, Armistead Maupin recently wrote, is the Emperor's carriage. The author of Tales of the City, which chronicled 1980s San Francisco bohemian life, was describing public anger over private transit.

Commuter buses for employees of big Silicon Valley companies stop in City neighborhoods. These unmarked coaches whisk riders off to work in our area, nonstop and free of charge – and many long-term San Francisco residents are not pleased.

The issue, whatever it may be, is remote from our suburban experience. It's also pretty far from Maupin, who now lives in Santa Fe. So what is he worrying about?

Maupin has his finger on the pulse of the times. Corporate buses, which are eminently green and reduce commuting's carbon footprint, should please everyone, right?

No. The answer is that they don't. Some San Francisco neighborhoods have even organized small protests against high-tech company buses.

Okay, but why should we suburbanites care?

Because there is no ignoring the nation's widening economic inequality. Many San Franciscans see 'elite' high-tech professionals moving into neighborhoods, driving property values up -- and driving locals out.

Never mind that this 'elite' is environmentally conscious and tends to be, if anything, socially idealistic. No, it doesn't make a lot of sense.

But neither does today's political divide. The Americans most hurt by privatizing and deregulating are, you guessed it, most in favor of privatizing and deregulating. And so San Franciscans who normally support green transportation...are opposing this form of green transportation.

Or, more precisely, they fear being squeezed out of their own neighborhoods by people who come and go in anonymous coaches. In Menlo Park we may not think of ourselves as the high-tech elite, but there's no escaping today's economic schism and political climate.

So, what is the answer to 'Google buses' in San Francisco?

Mark them, one City official confided, with free advertising for local nonprofits. That means bus posters for the likes of San Francisco's Glide Health Services, ODC Dance Downtown and so on.

This may not solve any problems. But there is no problem to solve. There is a cultural gap to bridge.

Silicon Valley companies may be used to thinking out of the box. But they're in a political box now. Unintended, unfairly. But welcome to hard much of the country. They are interesting times, of course. And we all need to rise to their challenge.
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Posted by steerage class, a resident of another community,
on Feb 16, 2014 at 4:42 pm

Paul, thanks for this perspective. I want to address one point you make. You write: "Never mind that this 'elite' is environmentally conscious." Here's something most people don't think about and yet is a simple fact. Wealthy people may be *more aware* of environmental problems than poorer people (I don't actually think that's true, but I'll grant you that argument if you want it), but their negative impact on the environment is nonetheless greater than that of poorer people. As a simple example, wealthier people fly far more than poorer people, and airplane passenger-mile environmental impact accumulates about as fast, and in many situations faster, than automobile passenger-mile environmental impact.

To be clear, the reason there is a robust private bus system around here is not because it's better for the environment than individual autos -- though happily it is -- but rather because it lets workers live where they want -- in SF -- rather than near their workplaces, and that helps to attract workers.

Posted by Tunbridge Wells, a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park,
on Feb 17, 2014 at 10:49 am

Tunbridge Wells is a registered user.

"And so San Franciscans who normally support green transportation...are opposing this form of green transportation."

But that green transportation is also driving some demand. If Google did not provide those buses, would all those people still live in San Francisco? Probably not. It may be an unintended consequence of a green transportation program, but making it feasible for more people to live in the city and commute down to the peninsula has had a very real impact on the rental market in San Francisco. Furthermore, creating a private bus system that works for the lucky few tech employees does nothing to fix the very real problems with public transit both in San Francisco and on the Peninsula.

Posted by peninsula resident, a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School,
on Feb 17, 2014 at 1:16 pm

Thank you for the interesting, and I felt very objective, blog. A few thoughts:

1) If the google/facebook/apple/genentech/ebay/etc shuttles were banned, you likely would see some drop in tech workers commuting from SF to Silicon Valley. But less than I'm sure the opponents of bussing would like and it'd have unintended side-effects:

a) Definitely an increase in cars on the streets in SF, even less parking (!!!), and more congestion during commute hours;

b) Caltrain would become even more crowded (which I think is mostly a good thing in the long run, and I know Caltrain is working on improving crowding). However, I guarantee you you'd start hearing people complaining about all the tech workers hogging Caltrain;

c) Rents would go up on the peninsula & south bay;

2) If the techie population in SF did drop enough to stop the large rental increases, that would result in the "relatively affordable" SF being appealing to others who want to move in but couldn't afford it.

3) The people that are complaining about techies displacing other residents likely displaced someone else in the past that couldn't afford SF;

4) Housing costs have been a long-standing issue in the bay area, pre-dating the current and previous tech booms. Prop 13 was passed in the 1970s, and the SF rent-control laws long pre-date the tech booms as well. This is nothing new.

Posted by really green?, a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks,
on Feb 21, 2014 at 3:11 pm

Paul, I'm not sure I understand your analysis: "The Americans most hurt by privatizing and deregulating are, you guessed it, most in favor of privatizing and deregulating." If you're saying that the people who want green transportation are the ones most in favor or privatizing and deregulating you're making a dangerous generalization which assumes that privatizing the bus system is the most effective way to have green transportation.
If public transportation isn't working for their employees, why don't the google/facebook/apple/genentech/ebay/etc corporations do something good for the community as a whole and invest the money they're spending on privately shuttling their elite employees into the PUBLIC transportation system to upgrade it to a standard acceptable to their employees with the routes they need?

Posted by Hmmm, a resident of another community,
on Feb 22, 2014 at 1:27 pm

One of the significant issues not raised enough in the media reports of these buses is the public safety problem. These buses stop at public bus stops, which means that those using real public transpo have to endanger themselves getting on and off public buses in SF, as the public buses can't stop the right way in the right places.

And of course Menlo is full of the tech elite. Unfortunately, in addition to other negatives, you get the elitist attitudes, as well. Menlo is the new Shallow Alto.

Peninsula Resident - rents have *already* skyrocketed on the Peninsula & in the South Bay.

Posted by peninsula resident, a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School,
on Mar 1, 2014 at 11:04 am

Hmmm wrote:
> rents have *already* skyrocketed on the Peninsula & in the South Bay.

I agree they've increased significantly over the last 3+ years, though I wouldn't say they've "skyrocketed" to the same degree as The City.

One of the biggest reasons for the increase in rental cost in the City is the shortage in housing. The City has a long-standing resistance to building new housing; the influx of new residents far outstrips new construction. And with the City being roughly 50 sq miles, one of the more effective solutions is to build up. But some residents are resistant to taller buildings.

If the City allows more housing be built, prices will stabilize. It's simple supply & demand.

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