Private commuter shuttles operating in San Francisco public bus stops have been a bone of contention for several years now. This practice violates a good law — California Vehicle Code 22500.5 — which prohibits operation of any vehicles but public carriers (public transportation accessible to all), cabs, and in some instances school buses, in public bus stops.
In early 2014, when the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) was preparing to adopt a pilot program to regulate these vehicles, the Sierra Club took a position opposing operation of the vehicles in public bus stops and supporting an environmental impact report for the legal parts of the program (regulated operations in white zones, for example).
The Sierra Club position has been confusing to some of our members, given the common perception that private shuttles get cars off the road. Maybe, but maybe not. Private shuttles have impacts the Sierra Club believes should be assessed and mitigated.
Disruptions to Muni
While Muni bus operations are dispersed throughout the City and operate throughout the day, private shuttles concentrate their operations in particular desirable neighborhoods during particular hours. Approximately 30 to 40 private shuttles can be counted along Van Ness Avenue within a few minutes during the morning commute. Similar numbers have been counted along 24th Street in Noe Valley and elsewhere. The buses pull into one of 125 stops, one after the other, frequently blocking Muni buses and interfering with the ability of public bus riders — especially senior citizens and the disabled — to safely board and disembark.
Unknown air quality impacts
While the SFMTA is increasingly moving to a clean-air fleet, the private shuttles are almost all diesel. The long-term air quality impacts of such a fleet have not been assessed, especially in comparison to a plan in which workforce housing is built in the communities where the jobs are located.
It should also be noted that the shuttles go back and forth between the Silicon Valley and San Francisco several times a day, wasting fuel during the return (or “deadhead”) runs with no passengers.
Mounting evidence suggests that the availability of the private shuttles to well-paid tech workers is fueling skyrocketing housing prices and displacement of lower-income individuals and families to the suburbs. People forced out of the city by necessity become more car dependent. A 2014 study by TransForm found that low-income households displaced to the suburbs more than double their vehicle miles traveled, and that the replacement of these households by high-income households in dense, transit-rich city neighborhoods results in a net increase in emissions.
Some of the shuttles are intra-city, but about 75 percent of the people who ride the shuttles live in San Francisco and work in the Silicon Valley. Right now, that’s about 8,500 people — a number that will likely grow as tech companies in the Silicon Valley expand. Apple alone intends to hire 27,900 more people. That would mean more private shuttles. In July 2015, the SFMTA had issued 479 shuttle placards (equal to more than half of the entire Muni rubber-tire fleet). Less than a year later, more than 700 shuttles have placards — and there are no limits on the number of shuttles that can receive them.
So, on balance, are the shuttles getting cars off the road?
And what happens to the ability of the public transportation system to expand to address climate change if bus stops are increasingly monopolized by exclusive private carriers?
A permanent shuttle program unlimited in duration or ability to expand was to have started on February 1st, but negotiations between SEIU 1021 and a coalition of housing and public-transportation activists were able to restrict the life of the program to one year, with a six-month review. Meanwhile, the SFMTA will explore options for removing private carriers from public bus stops. Local government will also commission a study on the housing impacts of the shuttles.