If you live or work in San Francisco, Google bus sightings are as common as the tech-hipsters they serve. These behemoths of steel, plastic and laminated glass, moving like whales in crowded city streets, ferry tech workers to and from their plush Silicon Valley jobs – and have become a divisive symbol of everything that’s wrong and right about the tech industry’s perennial boom.
Coined “Google buses,” the long-haul commuter shuttles (most operated by third-party vendors) transport Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo and other tech employees day-in and day-out. Riders hop on at designated stops throughout the city to leave their urban dwellings for corporate campuses about an hour’s drive south of San Francisco, where most are bestowed with free food, on-site laundry services and massages, among other amenities.
According to the 2015 Silicon Valley Index (PDF), an annual profile of the area’s people, economy and society, San Francisco’s workforce is predominantly young and well-educated, with 47 percent of the population between the ages of 18 and 44, and 53 percent with a bachelor’s degree or higher. About 12 percent of the city’s inhabitants work in tech, with average annual salaries of $125,000. Comparatively, tech jobs make up only 4 percent of overall jobs in the state of California.
This is all well and good, except that the influx of tech workers to San Francisco in the past years has driven up the cost of living, housing prices and rental rates, thanks to the laws of supply and demand, and left many local citizens disgruntled and asking questions. Not to mention this stands in stark contrast to the area’s rising poverty levels.
Protests and lawsuits
Last year, a group of residents decided to officially take issue with the buses, citing illegal use of public bus stops.
“On an average weekday, these illegal commuter shuttles (“Illegal Shuttles”) have more than 35,000 boardings per day, on more than 350 shuttle vehicles, and use more than 200 MUNI [public bus] stops around the city,” wrote plaintiffs in a pending lawsuit filed against the city and county of San Francisco in 2014. “The city has allowed these Illegal Shuttles to operate illegally.”
The Coalition for Fair, Legal and Environmental Transit, the SEIU Local 1021, and other local activists filed the lawsuit in the state court to bring attention to the “significant environmental impacts, including air pollution, impacts to pedestrian and bicyclist safety, delays to public transportation systems, and displacement of low- and moderate-income members of the community that live and work in areas near proposed shuttle stops,” as stated in the court documents.
Concerns about gentrification and displacement of city residents was top of mind to many protesters who famously picketed in front of tech buses back in 2013.
Buses here to stay
At a recent San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s (SFMTA) meeting, the board of directors unanimously voted to permanently approve a Commuter Shuttle Program that began in August 2014 and has also caused much controversy.
“The notion that shuttles are causing gentrification … is simply not connected to the data that we have,” said SF board of supervisors member Scott Weiner at the hearing, as quoted by CNN. “Whether or not they have access to shuttles, they’re going to live here.”
The new version of the Commuter Shuttle Program goes into effect on Feb. 1 and will include stricter regulations, including restricting larger shuttle buses from smaller streets, charging a per-stop fee of $3.67 and requiring greener fleets to reduce emissions.
According to a recently published SFMTA report, commuter buses transport about 8,500 people for round-trips every day and actually help remove nearly 4.3 million vehicle miles traveled from the region’s streets each month. The report also states that about half the riders would drive to work without the shuttles, indicating that the buses do in fact help decrease traffic and pollution.
“It’s a mixed bag,” said a former Google employee, who preferred to go unnamed and now works in San Francisco. “The buses are making it more likely that Googlers are choosing to settle in San Francisco, and at the same time, equally to blame in this whole debate is the city of San Francisco itself, which has opposed the construction of new housing. That would help ease the supply constraint, which would in turn bring back down the housing market to a reasonable level. Yeah, you can blame the millionaires, but it’s never that simple.”
Unionization: The next frontier
Amidst lawsuits and protests surrounding San Francisco’s commuter buses, Facebook shuttle drivers, officially employed by the contractor Loop Transportation, voted 43-28 to join the Teamsters Local 853 last year.
The union and Loop Transportation reached an agreement earlier this year to include an hourly wage increase to $24.50, hourly pay differential for drivers who work split shifts, a six-hour minimum for drivers who do not want to work split shifts, and corporate contributions to defined pension funds.
Prior to this agreement, Facebook drivers were paid $18 an hour and split daily shifts. Some drivers were said to have to sleep in their cars or at the company’s shuttle yard in the hours between driving Facebook employees to work each morning and returning them to the city in the afternoon.
A week after Facebook drivers unionized, drivers at Apple, eBay, Yahoo and Zynga voted to join the Teamsters, too.
On bus driver well-being, Apple had this to say: “Over 5,000 Apple employees in the Bay Area take advantage of our commute alternatives program every day. We’re working with the bus companies to help make a number of changes for the more than 150 drivers of our commute shuttles, including funding a 25 percent increase in hourly wages, premium pay for coach and shuttle drivers who work split shifts, and improving the driver break and rest areas.”
Google remains the last fleet of drivers that is not unionized. Earlier this year, the tech giant announced to its bus contractors that it would increase driver wages by 20 percent, to an average of $24 an hour. That caused union leaders to speculate that Google’s actions were motivated by the desire to prevent drivers from unionizing, a claim which underpins a recent federal complaint filed by the San Francisco office of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
With or without unions, Google bus drivers are part of an ever-changing landscape of tech entitlement that is changing the city of San Francisco and all of its inhabitants. Those who can afford to stay do, some get creative, and others leave. What becomes of those in the middle remains to be seen.
Requests for interviews with Google and Facebook went unanswered by press time.