January 20, 2017

Too many buses, too little information–SF needs to study shuttle buses and tour buses

Three corporate shuttles in a row at a Muni stop. Photo by Sue Vaughan.

Three corporate shuttles in a row at a Muni stop. Photo by Sue Vaughan.

Update (March 25, 2014): The appeal of the categorical exemption for the shuttle-bus pilot program will be heard at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, April 1, 2014.

Controversy has been raging in San Francisco over the private commuter shuttle buses that ferry workers from San Francisco to South San Francisco and points south. The San Francisco Group of the Sierra Club calls for the city to enforce the law prohibiting private shuttles from pulling into Muni bus stops, as these buses have been doing for many years now, but also to find alternative stops for such private buses, charging the corporations or schools that operate the shuttles for the expenses.

In the meantime, the Club has also called for an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the pilot program and policy adopted by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) on Jan. 21. Key questions include:

  • do the buses serve a vital environmental purpose by getting cars off the road–or do they undermine Muni and Caltrain by diverting riders–or both?
  • how significant is the buses’ competition for curb and street space with Muni, Golden Gate Transit, and SamTrans?
  • do the buses contribute to skyrocketing rents, increasing evictions, and displacement of average to low-income San Franciscans to auto-centric suburbs?
  • what about the buses’ diesel emissions?

Without solid facts how can the city respond effectively? That’s why the city needs to prepare an Environmental Impact Report, under the California Environmental Quality Act, to assess the true impacts of these buses.

We do know that these shuttles–often large, sleek buses with tinted windows, and sometimes double-decker–have been pulling illegally into bus stops on Park Presidio, Haight, Divisadero, Fillmore, Van Ness, Mission, Valencia, and Noe for several years now, and seemingly in increasing numbers. This has happened as the Bay Area tech sector has been surging without a commensurate increase in housing near tech work centers such as Cupertino, Mountain View, Menlo Park, and South San Francisco.

The shuttles operate on behalf of Google, Apple, Facebook, LinkedIn, eBay, Box, Genentech, and other companies. Some shuttles also serve educational institutions, such as the Academy of Art University and the University of California in San Francisco. Some serve businesses within San Francisco.

Under the new program, the SFMTA will hold a few public hearings, restrict the private shuttles to about 200 stops, and charge the companies operating the shuttles $1 per stop per day. The Board declared that this pilot program is categorically exempt from the requirement to prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

On Feb. 19 attorney Richard Drury filed an appeal of this declaration on behalf of appellants including Sara Shortt of the Housing Rights Committee, the Harvey Milk Democratic Club, the League of Pissed Off Voters, and the Service Employees International Union. The appeal will be heard at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, April 1. The Sierra Club believes that the city needs an EIR to gather the kind of information needed for a sound decision.

Google has announced that it is donating about $6.8 million for two years of free Muni passes for low- and middle-income youth–a program that the Club supports–but this does not compensate for the ongoing obstruction of Muni service by the buses. And Google is just one of the many companies running the buses.

The extent of the problem

The SFMTA estimates that the private shuttles currently provide about 35,000 person-trips per weekday (about 5% of Muni ridership). Many of the trips are within the city, but a survey by the Regional Planning Department at UC Berkeley estimates that about 7,000 people use the buses to commute from San Francisco to the Silicon Valley, that about 20% of those riders would otherwise use public transportation if the private shuttles were not available, and that the availability of the buses–and the absence of adequate housing in the Silicon Valley–are influencing rider decisions to live in San Francisco. Close to 50% of those surveyed said they would drive alone if the commuter buses were not available, and another 40% said they would move somewhere closer to their jobs.

The UC Berkeley study also found that most of the people who use the buses to commute out of San Francisco make $100,000 or more, and are drawn to San Francisco’s walkability and cultural amenities.

In the meantime, housing prices in San Francisco have skyrocketed (up 10.6% in December 2013 over the previous year according to Trulia), and evictions are increasing. In particular, owner move-ins and speculator use of the Ellis Act to evict tenants are both going up. The Ellis Act is a state law, passed in 1985, that permits landlords, without necessarily selling their property, to evict tenants and get out of the business of renting. The Ellis Act was little used until the late 1990s and the start of the first tech boom. Ellis Act and owner-move-in evictions skyrocketed and then dropped back down a little after 2000 and the first dotcom bust. Now, both Ellis Act and owner-move-in evictions are going back up. In 2012 – 2013, according to San Francisco Rent Board statistics, Ellis Act evictions went up 81%, for a total of 116. Speculators who purchase a building with rental units frequently evict tenants under the Ellis Act and then sell the building at a vastly increased price to a group of people who share the mortgage under a tenancy-in-common.

Unknown are the numbers of tenants who are accepting speculator “buy-outs” not regulated by the Ellis Act or local ordinance. When tenants are threatened with Ellis Act evictions, they often accept buy-outs, getting more displacement money than when Ellis Acted out of their homes.

Tour-bus update (bus encounters of the third kind)

In October the San Francisco Group called for the initiation of a planning process to regulate tour buses throughout San Francisco (see Dec., page 4). The SFMTA, however, adopted a plan just for Alamo Square (similar to existing plans for other neighborhoods such as Seacliff and the Marina). It did not address the need for citywide planning.


Write to the clerk of the Board at Angela.Calvillo@sfgov.org and/or to your individual supervisor at:

City Hall
1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, #244
San Francisco, CA 94102

or through www.sfbos.org. Urge them to prepare an EIR on the shuttle buses, and to study the problems of tour buses throughout the city. Your letter needs to be received before the appeal is heard on April 1.

Sue Vaughan, chair, Sierra Club San Francisco Group


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