Silicon Valley shuttles change the face of public transit in San Francisco

By Mary Ebeling

The high tech world is fueled by young, well educated, and largely urban workers. Companies hiring these workers – Facebook, Google, and Apple for example – are located in suburban Silicon Valley, about an hour south of San Francisco. To compete for and retain this talent pool, many of these companies provide transportation to employees through corporate-sponsored shuttle bus services between the San Francisco metro area and company headquarters. The plush, Wi-Fi enabled express buses deliver some 14,000 employees a day to work sites, reducing Single Occupancy Vehicle trips and helping both the city and county of San Francisco meet its air quality and congestion reduction goals.

So what’s the problem? As the popularity of these bus services increases, issues with the large charter buses clogging municipal streets and blocking city (Muni) bus service are increasing. The current challenge faced by San Francisco transit planners, the Muni service, and city residents is to craft a solution that recognizes the benefits of the shuttle buses while reducing their negative effects on Muni riders and city residents.

San Francisco, like many other urban areas, is experiencing a “reverse commute” trend, where young professionals choose to live in urban areas but commute out of the urban core to suburban work sites.  Traditionally, municipal transit only provides limited service to these suburban destinations.

The shuttle services are new players on San Francisco’s transportation scene and emerged from humble beginnings – private arrangements between coworkers who rented vans or carpooled from San Francisco to the tech campuses in Silicon Valley. These impromptu arrangements matured into corporate-sponsored shuttle services. Google, Facebook, Apple, eBay, and others run shuttles during the most popular work commute times, sometimes stretching into the late evening. Buses can cost as much as $500,000 apiece.

Ghost buses map

The extensive network of shuttle bus routes has only recently been documented, and the semi-secret and changeable nature of the bus routes and schedules has hampered city efforts to coordinate with the shuttles. Consultants mapping the shuttle services went as far as to employ bicycle messengers to follow the buses and record their routes. Tech savvy employees checking in at bus stops using Foursquare also helped pinpoint the bus stops and routes. The resulting map counted buses from Apple, eBay, Electronic Arts, Facebook, Google, and Yahoo and found they ran through almost every neighborhood in San Francisco.

All this traffic creates tensions in the municipal transit system and with neighbors. “There’s definitely a divide. People are waiting for their Muni bus, and they see a fancy Google bus delaying their bus, so people who don’t even work in San Francisco can get to their high-paid jobs on time,” said one city resident.

Despite the challenges associated with the shuttle services, they have become an important and growing part of the transportation system in San Francisco. By taking thousands of private vehicles off the roads, the services are supporting the city’s greenhouse gas emissions goals and reducing highway congestion. The development of policies to govern shuttle operations and better weave these large vehicles into the local streets network and address neighborhood concerns is gaining increasing attention, however. Particular issues raised include the impacts of these large buses on the flow of pedestrian, bicycle, and municipal transit traffic in neighborhoods, many of which are characterized by quiet, narrow streets not compatible with large buses.

Currently the city’s transportation policy framework does not fully incorporate these shuttle services into decision-making. The city’s bus service, Muni, is working to build relationships with shuttle providers, riders, and neighborhood residents, and to understand their varied needs and concerns. The Muni Partners Program is the start of the process to integrate the private shuttle sector into the city’s overall transportation system. Full integration of the shuttles into the transportation schema of the city may resolve some concerns and also help with the shuttles’ PR problem with both Muni riders and the population at large.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.