Hey Tech Buses: Just Pay Your Fair Share, Please

The SF League of Pissed Off Voters’ Position on Tech Commuter Buses

Pissed Off Voters SF
6 min readJan 20, 2014

Holy cow! The City has gotten a little heated on the topic of the tech buses (let’s call them what they are: luxury buses, not little shuttles) that are occupying the Muni stops. Opinions are flying from local bloggers, international press, housing activists, environmentalists, a psychotherapist, a few tech workers, (crickets from the tech companies, except for this…), to the point where we’re all getting a little sick of it.

But on Tuesday, the SFMTA Board will vote on the proposed pilot program, and we want to weigh in with our position and call attention to a few points we feel have been lost in the shuffle.

We’re not here to point fingers at tech workers. About a third of SF League’s steering committee either currently works or has worked in tech. SF tech workers, like lots of people who move to San Francisco, want to live in a dense, walkable city. We should all be natural allies on a lot of stuff: pedestrian, bicycling and transit issues, fighting climate change, etc.

At the recent Environment Commission hearing, Carli Paine from the SFMTA mentioned a survey of the tech bus riders done by U.C. Berkeley grad students. The League tracked down the study, and its results reinforced two key points we want to make.

1. Although tech buses do take cars off the street, they also create car-trips through displacement.

Of course we agree that buses are better for the environment than everybody driving by themselves, but it’s not that simple with the tech buses. Hear us out on this. The Berkeley survey said:

When asked if they would move if the shuttles were discontinued . . . 40% said they would move somewhere closer to their job. This finding suggests that the provision of shuttles does indeed enable a substantial minority of the sample to live in neighborhoods of San Francisco that are further from their workplaces than they would otherwise live.”

That means that a large chunk of the car trips that the tech buses eliminate are actually being replaced by other car-trips from displaced workers forced to commute into the City. If 40% of the tech bus riders moved out of the City, there would be a little more room for lower-income people who work here to live here. This shit is complicated!

2. Tech bus riders’ high incomes are impacting housing costs.

The survey results on the tech bus riders’ reported incomes are kinda mind blowing: 2/3rds make over $100,000 and 1 in 5 make over $175,000! (In contrast, San Francisco median household income is just over $70,000.)

We’re not saying they suck because they make big money, but if 40% of them wouldn’t live here without the tech buses, that means the buses are putting a lot of upward pressure on the housing market. That makes it even more expensive for the City to build new affordable housing. That’s why we think the tech buses need to pitch in to help with the housing crisis.

(Note on sample size: Although the Berkeley survey sample size was only 130, it is still statistically significant. Citywide opinion surveys typically rely on 500 phone responses, so 130 people out of the small population of tech bus riders seems pretty representative.)

Talking about tech buses inevitably leads to talking about the larger housing crisis in the City. That’s an important long-term conversation we want to participate in, but it’s easy to let the minutiae of housing policy distract us from the topic at hand: how to regulate tech buses.

Quick sidebar on housing in SF:

It is hard to talk about the pressure on housing costs, development and real estate without understanding housing San Francisco’s history: redevelopment, rent control, speculative real estate, the displacement of tenants to create TICs and condos, and sucky state laws that preempt what we can do about all of it.

The most quoted talking points on solutions have been by SPUR, a think tank of smart well-meaning people who are paid by many of the biggest corporations in SF. We think it’s important to remind people of SPUR’s ugly history with “urban renewal” in the City — they supported the bulldozing of huge chunks of SOMA and the Fillmore/Western Addition, displacing thousands of families.

Yes, we agree we need to build more dense, transit-oriented housing in SF. But just building market-rate housing is not going to make the City affordable. The demand for luxury housing is too great and the parts of the City with good transit are too small. We’re happy to debate the fine points of in-laws, inclusionary housing, the cost/sq. foot premium of steel vs wood construction, etc., but please, just not today! We’re focusing on tech buses paying their fair share. </end housing sidebar>

What do we want?

We’re not opposed to the tech bus pilot program, but we think the current proposal is insufficient.

  1. First of all, the companies need to pay their fair share. Charging $1 per bus, per stop is a joke. The fee needs to be increased to compensate for delays to Muni and for the tech buses’ impact on housing costs. A lot of the media reports have misleadingly indicated that state law prohibits the SFMTA from charging more, but that’s not true. There are three ways to get around the Prop 218 limit on cost-recovery fees:
  • If the companies were willing to pay more, they could just negotiate a fair price with the City. Done and done.
  • Or the SFMTA could do a nexus study to quantify the impacts on Muni and housing and charge a higher impact fee.
  • Or we could put a higher tax on the ballot. Ideally we would all negotiate an amount to charge that everyone could support—the City, housing activists, tech workers, and tech companies. How about if they paid enough to also cover the cost of electrifying Caltrain?

We think the tax should have a progressive structure in two ways: the giant double-decker buses should pay more than the short shuttles, and the cost-per-stop should escalate depending on the number of stops a company has.

2. We also think the SFMTA needs to take a closer look at the number and location of stops and what roads the tech buses should be allowed on. A few ideas:

Driving in the Mission and Noe Valley, oh my god, it is such a nightmare going through there. The lanes are really small. It is so dangerous. Thankfully nothing has ever happened, but there were lots of close calls. People would open their doors and I’m doing 35 [mph]. I had to swerve because I don’t want to hurt anyone. In a split second I would rather crash into the car next to me than take their door out.”

  • We need to see and evaluate the routes the buses are taking. They should be kept away from the most dangerous pedestrian intersections, and the giant tech buses should not be allowed on bike routes. It’s pretty scary to bike alongside them. That’s a tragedy waiting to happen.
  • The tech buses need to avoid the busiest Muni stops. When evaluating stop locations, top priority needs to be keeping Muni running—not the convenience of the tech buses.

3. Lastly, we want the tech companies and tech workers to be good neighbors. As David Taylor said, tech workers need to “own their privilege and engage in their communities and not just reshape them to be comfortable.”

If you are new to the City (or even if you aren’t!), read up on San Francisco’s rich history of activism and politics (City for Sale, Season of the Witch, Mayor of Castro Street, Infinite City, etc). Listen and try to understand what activists are saying — not just repeating talking points form SPUR. And for godsake don’t think you have all the answers to fix our housing crisis! It’s not as simple as fix Prop 13 and “build baby build.” Join us in working to repeal the Ellis Act, support tenant groups, don’t buy condos or TICs where people were evicted, give to local charities and nonprofits, find some time to volunteer. Basically, just be good, empathetic neighbors — and together maybe we can keep San Francisco special.

Who is the League of Pissed Off Voters?

We’re a bunch of political geeks in a torrid but troubled love affair with San Francisco. We’re blessed to live in America’s most progressive city, but we’re cursed to live in a city where most of the youth who grow up here can’t afford to live here. Frisco has its own dark history of injustice: redevelopment, environmental racism, the “old boys” network. All of us lucky enough to enjoy the San Francisco magic owe it to our City to fight to keep it diverse, just, and healthy. What are you doing to make a difference?

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