SFMTA Board approves tech shuttle plan

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After sitting through hours of commentary in which people said the pilot was a bad idea, the SFMTA board approved it.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of directors approved a pilot program today that allows operators of private commuter shuttles to use public bus stops, something they’ve been doing illegally for years on a very predictable basis.

The program will establish an “approved network” of 200 designated San Francisco stops where private shuttles may pick up and drop off passengers. It will issue permits and identifying placards to the private buses and require them to adhere to certain set of rules, like yielding to Muni buses if they approach the stop at the same time. (There’s already a Curb Priority Law stating that any vehicles not operated by Muni will be fined $271 for blocking a bus zone. But the city has chosen to ignore that law when it comes to private commuter shuttles.)

Finally, the program will charge shuttle operators $1 per stop per day, which covers the costs of the program implementation and no more.

The meeting drew a very high turnout that included the protesters who have been blockading the buses, Google employees, private commuter shuttle drivers, and residents of various San Francisco neighborhoods.

Sup. Scott Wiener spoke at the beginning of the meeting, saying he was fully supportive of the pilot program, which was developed over the course of many months in collaboration with tech companies who operate the shuttles.

“These shuttles are providing a valuable service,” Wiener said. He said he was sensitive to widespread “frustration and anxiety” around the high cost of housing and rising evictions, but thought it was unfair to blame tech workers. “We need to stop demonizing these shuttles and these tech workers,” Wiener said.

Then Sup. David Campos addressed the board. “I think it’s really important for us to have a dialogue to find common ground,” Campos said, adding that pushing shuttle riders into private automobiles was not a good outcome. But he also urged the SFMTA board to send the proposal back to the drawing board. “It’s a proposal that simply does not go far enough,” he said.

Campos was also critical of the SFMTA’s process of studying the growing private shuttle problem for years, drafting a proposal in collaboration with members of the tech community, and waiting until the eleventh hour once the plan had already been formulated to seek comment from community members who are impacted.

“Public input is being sought after the fact,” he said.

That feeling of being frozen out of the process was echoed in comments voiced throughout the public comment session, which went on for hours.

“I’m opposed to the $1 charge,” one woman said. “I believe it’s way, way, way too low.” She told a story of receiving a ticket for being parked in a bus zone very briefly. “It wasn’t a $1 ticket,” she said.

Another woman, who said she was born and raised in SF, said she’d been riding Muni since she was in diapers. “It makes me really sad that we have regional shuttles and corporations that are saying, you can’t just fix that system, we’re going to go around it,” she said. She urged members of the transit agency board to find a better system that would work for everyone, “because you are in charge.”

A Google employee told board directors that she is very pleased that the shuttles have made it possible for her to live in San Francisco. “Not everyone at Google is a billionaire,” she said. “Ten years after the fact I am still paying my student loans. This is a choice, I know, to live in San Francisco and commute to Mountainview. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Her perspective, however, came in sharp contrast to that of Roberto Hernandez, who spoke on behalf of Our Mission No Eviction and said he was worried that displacement caused by rising rents have forced many members of his community to move to the East Bay.

Hernandez also brought up a little-known consequence of transit delays caused by private shuttle buses.

In the elementary schools near 24th Street in the Mission, he said, “They have the breakfast program for people who are low-income. So if you show up late, you don’t get breakfast.”

Here’s Hernandez addressing the SFMTA board members.

In the end, the transit directors approved the pilot with very little discussion. “At the end of the day, this is before us as a transit issue,” said board member Malcolm Heinicke. “And we’re better with something than nothing.”