Not being evil: Google pays for bus passes for low-income kids

By Mary Ebeling

Google is funding bus passes for more than 30,000 low- and moderate-income youth in San Francisco. This announcement is seen by many as a first step toward greater civic engagement by Silicon Valley tech giants, and city government thinks it is a good first step for partnering with the tech industry more generally. The $6.8 million gift alone will not address other stresses for this population, such as displacement as many formerly affordable neighborhoods gentrify in the city. Stronger policies will be needed to manage housing affordability and other rising costs that push out working-class and lower-income residents. Access to quality transit is a big part of the affordability equation for residents in San Francisco, but access to affordable housing and living wage jobs will also help moderate this growing tension.

Luxury shuttle buses chartered by Silicon Valley’s tech giants such as Google, Facebook, and Apple first raised public ire because they use publicly funded infrastructure—Muni bus stops—to load and unload passengers, making it difficult for Muni to operate its service. Commonly referred to as the “Google” buses, the charter buses have come to symbolize the growing economic disparity between long-time residents and the young, highly compensated employees of the tech firms.

Google admits that city residents have every right to be frustrated with the impacts the shuttle service has on their community. The company is also part of a pilot program with the city to pay $1 per day per Muni stop used by the charter buses. The agreement covers all the private shuttles, which gives access to 200 of Muni’s 2,500 public bus stops. However, the agreement has not appeased groups focused on housing costs and evictions. These groups have filed an appeal to the approval of the pilot program, seeking an environmental impact assessment under California’s environmental law, CEQA.

San Francisco is not the only city struggling to balance public transportation needs and housing affordability with job growth. Halfway across the country, the success of Epic Systems, a medical IT company in Madison, WI, is resulting in similar pressures. Like San Francisco, Madison has yet to settle the housing affordability issue. But on the transportation front, things are different. Epic, knowing many of its employees prefer to live in the city rather than near the company’s suburban campus, reached out to the city’s transit provider, Madison Metro, and arranged to pay for transit service to their new research/office campus outside the city limits. Epic employees do not get a free charter bus, but they do have access to efficient bus service with Wi-Fi on board. The buses are over capacity after operating for only a few years. The routes are open to the general public, and many suburban residents are also taking advantage of the new service, making both directions of travel popular.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.