Fixing San Francisco's Tech Bus Problem

Photo: Steve Rhodes/Demotix/Corbis

Activists blocked a Google bus in San Francisco on 1 April 2014.

The level of hostility long-time San Francisco residents direct to the influx of tech buses—the luxurious, free, Wi-Fi equipped monster machines that shuttle workers from all over San Francisco to their jobs in Silicon Valley—seems to be climbing. And, to make matters worse, one of the proposed solutions may lead to another problem, and more complaints from residents.

If you're not familiar with the tech bus debate, here's a primer: As one of the many perks offered to their employees, Silicon Valley companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook provide free bus service to workers who live in and around San Francisco. In the beginning, there were just a few buses. But as more tech workers decided to live in San Francisco and its surroundings (because of the nightlife and other benefits of living in a big city), the buses multiplied, and the complaints began. Residents claim that the buses make traffic worse, block city streets and bike lanes, and otherwise disturb quiet neighborhoods with their sheer size.

As you'd expect, the tech workers love the buses—and, indeed, are driving up rental prices near prime bus stops. And San Francisco residents love to hate the buses. “They are huge and dark,” one San Francisco resident I know told me. His house is close to a pickup spot, he works at home, and he sees them going by constantly. “They’re like Darth Vader. They’re just not San Francisco.”

Bus proponents and critics have been trying to reach a compromise, but progress has been slow.  A proposed experiment designed to try to reduce the impact of tech buses on traffic by allowing the buses to use existing municipal bus stops, for a fee, has been pushed out to 1 August as public hearings over the exact placement of the bus stops continue. The problem with this solution is that it will likely create another problem: the plan calls for the elimination of a certain number of parking spots near the stops to make room for the tech buses. San Francisco is already a parking challenged city, and even just taking away a couple of spaces here and there means that going forward residents will blame tech companies for their parking struggle, as in “Google ate my parking space!”

Photo: Joe Mabel/Wikipedia
Furthur traveled to a festival in Seattle, Washington, in 1994.

The San Francisco resident I spoke with would like to see the buses gone. But he admits that's not likely to happen. So he proposes something that could at least make them fit in a bit better with San Francisco's unique culture and history: making them psychedelic. Perhaps they could be painted like Furthur, the bus that once carried Ken Kesey’s band of Merry Pranksters. Fans of Furthur recently started trying to raise money to restore the iconic bus. Maybe Google could donate the funds needed and paint the rest of its buses in homage to Furthur. Then Yahoo could restore the “Nobody for President” campaign bus. Apple could think different, and hire some of the amazing Mission District muralists to decorate its buses.

There's a precedent, sort of. When San Francisco added a street car line along the Embarcadero, it scoured the country for historic streetcars.

And then, maybe, just maybe, instead of the sight of a tech bus triggering a head shake of disgust, it might just get a smile.

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View From the Valley

IEEE Spectrum’s blog featuring the people, places, and passions of the world of technologists in Silicon Valley and its environs.
Contact us:  t.perry@ieee.org

Senior Editor
Tekla Perry
Palo Alto
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