Protesting Private Buses

One of the more ridiculous debates going on this month is the protests over Google and other companies providing commuter bus services for their employees in the San Francisco Bay Area. No one ever comments on how much better it is for the environment that people are taking buses to work instead of driving. No one ever comments on how the fact that at least 18,000 people take private buses to work is a devastating indicator of the failure of the region’s expensive transit system.


Protesters object to “illegal use of public infrastructure,” referring to private buses stopping at public bus stops. But the real issue is revealed by the “Stop Displacement Now” sign. Click for a larger view. Flickr photo by C.J. Martin.

Instead, the debate is about gentrification. The protesters fear that high-paid Silicon Valley employees are driving up the cost of housing in San Francisco by buying homes currently being rented, evicting the renters, and moving in.

San Francisco has responded to the debate by charging shuttle buses a $1 fee per stop. This is expected to work out to well over $100,000 a year each for Google, Apple, and Facebook.

But that doesn’t satisfy the protesters. They want “a moratorium on all no-fault evictions” plus “preservation of rent-controlled housing.” If San Francisco were to adopt these policies, rental housing would eventually disappear completely as no one would ever build a new rental dwelling and existing landlords would convert dwellings to other uses as soon as existing renters moved or died.

The Antiplanner used to count himself a member of the tongue-in-cheek James G. Blaine Society, a group of native Oregonians who swore to tell everyone else not to move to Oregon because it rains all the time. (Reality: it is cloudy or rainy most of the time in the Willamette Valley, which occupies one-seventh of the state. Most of the rest of the state, even the coast, enjoys lots of sunshine.) But, seriously, I’ve never been able to figure out how some people can believe that they are entitled to live somewhere they don’t own, to the exclusion of everyone else, simply because they got there first.

A San Francisco venture capitalist has compared the protesters to Nazis. That’s a stretch. A much more accurate comparison would be to those who think we can solve America’s problems by building a giant wall along our border and letting no one in. Keeping immigrants out, especially those willing to work, because of a fear they will somehow drive up prices or create shortages betrays a lack of understanding of basic economics.

Too many people see the economy as a zero-sum game. If one person gets rich, they think it must be at everyone else’s expense. The report that the 85 wealthiest people in the world have assets equal to the 3.5 billion poorest people is supposed to trigger outrage that anyone should be that rich.

In fact, it should trigger outrage that 3.5 billion people are that poor. Most of those people are poor because they live in countries and regions that have governments that keep them from building wealth. Taking money from the wealthiest will not help the poor; it will just confirm that (as a friend of mine once wrote) government is the most efficient engine ever devised for the generation of plunder. When government gets out of the way, the economy becomes a positive-sum game: people get rich mainly by making others better off as well. Markets aren’t perfect, but they are far better at generating and distributing wealth than government.

San Francisco is one of the most romantic cities in the world, easily the equal of Paris and Venice and ahead of just about everywhere else. When governments draw urban-growth boundaries around the City’s suburbs, housing prices are bound to be high. To blame those prices on private shuttle buses is to completely miss the point. If you want to live in a desirable city that has (with your support) shut off development at the urban fringe, you are going to have to pay the price.

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25 thoughts on “Protesting Private Buses

  1. prk166

    I’m curious as to how they were able to use the bus stops in the first place. Does this mean there weren’t any ordinances in place stating those stops were only for a specific transit agency? I’m not familiar with city ordinances but I’d think they would have something in there stating that private vehicles, taxis, etc. may not use them.

    Rochester, MN has bus stops that private companies use. No one here seems to be outraged by it. Maybe it’s because it’s used by companies hauling people in from far away towns like Lake City and Northfield to work in the city rather than to leave the city to work elsewhere?

    On a plus note, could this be setting the stage for more private bus service? A decade from now could we see the gov’t. getting out of the business of running the transit service and instead focus on providing the public infrastructure for it with that infrastructure funded only by user fees?

  2. gecko55

    “This is expected to work out to well over $100,000 a year each for Google, Apple, and Facebook.”

    Better than nothing. But, an entry level software engineer fresh out of college with no professional experience makes $100k @ year at Google.

  3. herdgadfly

    Since the Antiplanner tells us that all public mass transit operates only with government subsidy, why is Google, Facebook and Apple taking customers away from the public bus transit routes? Never mind answering the question – company managements that choose to locate major facilities in the Peoples Republic of San Francisco – complete with Soviet-style central planning – are categorically ultra-liberal.

  4. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    Instead, the debate is about gentrification. The protesters fear that high-paid Silicon Valley employees are driving up the cost of housing in San Francisco by buying homes current being rented, evicting the renters, and moving in.

    Where should these people live instead? In “sprawling” counties like Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara?

    And doesn’t this type of arrangement contribute to the goals established by the so-called One Bay Area plan?

  5. Sandy Teal

    It is interesting that upper middle class hipsters will gladly take a bus that is provided by their employer, but would not take a public bus. Some of that may be that the bus is direct transportation to their worksite rather than multiple transfers and end of the line walking, but I bet mostly it is because they can count on the other riders of the bus to be courteous co-workers.

    Instead of spending billions of dollars to build separate transportation systems to just separate the upper middle class Google workers from the lower class A1 California School of Trucking and Urban Planning enrollee types, it would be much cheaper to use other sorting devices like worker-supplied buses and price separation.

    Most people who took/take the Concord flights and Acela trains do so more to have a better class of people around them rather than just to save some time.

  6. Fred_Z

    prk166’s aside that “I’d think they would have something in there stating that private vehicles, taxis, etc. may not use them.” says it all.

    Everyone knows both consciously and subconsciously that governments, especially municipalities, require monopoly rights on the services they insist that only they can provide, lest odious comparisons be made.

    The assertion by the protesters that the Google buses somehow use more “infrastructure” than they ought simply by stopping at city bus stops is excellent. It points out how profoundly unserious the protesters are.

    I see Dan is unchanged, and neither accepts nor understands that the successful insistence on regulation piled on regulation by Dan and his kind prevents the poor from competing with established interests and keeps them poor. Google can and will get around the protesters. An ordinary guy with a bus and a dream of a private bus service using city stops has no hope of defeating the Dans of the world.

  7. The Antiplanner Post author

    herdgadfly: The answer to your question, “why is Google, Facebook and Apple taking customers away from the public bus transit routes?” is: they aren’t. In California, bus agencies are organized at the county level, so buses rarely cross county lines. The Google etc. buses move people from San Francisco County through San Mateo County to Santa Clara County. No public buses serve those routes.

    CalTrains does serve that corridor with trains from San Francisco to San Jose. But CalTrains stations are nowhere near the Google and other campuses where the employees work. It is possible that the private buses are taking customers away from CalTrains, but I suspect most of the people who take the private buses would drive rather than deal with the hassle of transferring from a bus to a train to a bus to get to their destinations.

  8. The Antiplanner Post author

    prk166 says, “Does this mean there weren’t any ordinances in place stating those stops were only for a specific transit agency?” No, there are such ordinances. One of the complaints of the protesters is that people who stopped at Muni bus stops were subject to $150 fines, but such fines were never imposed on the private buses. This $1 fee is meant to legalize such stops.

    A book called Curb Rights argues that cities should give private buses the right to stop at specific curbs for a fee, exactly as San Francisco has done. Whether $1 per stop is the correct fee is subject to debate (they probably should have bid it out), but the protesters’ argument that the only proper fee is one that keeps people from gentrifying neighborhoods is simply absurd.

  9. JOHN1000

    Bus stops are created to have a place for buses to stop and pick up/discharge passengers safely in a place designated for that purpose.
    A bus stop provides benefits to society as a whole – only if it is used. Otherwise it is wasted space.
    These private buses increase the benefit to society by using space that is allocated for buses.
    From using and observing bus stops for many years , I would estimate that they are empty more than 90% of the time, so no extra cost is incurred (and safety is increased) by allowing the private buses to use the stops.
    The problem for the protests is these are private buses – period.
    If the private buses were required to hire municipal unionized bus drivers (and all the ancillary positions that would follow), the protests would immediately disappear.

  10. eeldip

    as someone who has actually taken public transit regularly in SF, i can say that the there is an extra cost incurred for increased usage of the bus stops. while they sit empty most of the time, bunching is very common and any increased use incurs a cost in the form of a delay in the system. paying a fee is a great way to account for the increased costs, but as someone mentioned above, $1 is probably NOT the correct fee.

  11. Frank

    They want “a moratorium on all no-fault evictions” …But, seriously, I’ve never been able to figure out how some people can believe that they are entitled to live somewhere they don’t own, to the exclusion of everyone else, simply because they got there first.

    Perhaps I’m taking this too personally as my family is facing a no-fault eviction, but my resentment has nothing to do with being here first. In my case, when the landlord—a family friend—declared, when asked mere months ago, there is no intention to sell and declares in writing that my family can rent as long as we want, that leads, if not to a sense of entitlement, then a sense of word-as-bond contract. It’s even worse when family makes decisions based on that word—like to retire early and to create a startup—based on stable housing, and the landlord springs decision to sell mere days after the new year, at the height of rent costs in a city with tight inventory.

    Well, that leads to a questioning of the system as a whole.

    If a written statement is not protected by law as contract, and one cannot trust even a family friend, then in a city where half the population rents, it becomes obvious that in this system, power lies with landowners, and anyone can be kicked out of their home. Bias against renters of condos is codified; rent a SFH and get 90 days to find another place after sale is finalized; rent a condo and get 20 days to scramble to qualify for a place on one verifiable income.

    Hope that helps you figure out why someone would feel entitled to live somewhere they don’t own, at least in this one situation, which I doubt is unique.

  12. bennett

    FTA must be pulling their hair out over this. They want (pretty much above all else) coordination of services between various transportation providers and human service agencies. Many transit agencies around the country have private services that use public transit facilities. Usually some sort of minor business deal is worked out, but seeing as seamless coordination of service will increase ridership for all providers, it usually doesn’t take much more than a little foresight and political will. This is one of the best examples I’ve seen of NO coordination. What a cluster.

    I for one love the company buspools and while I sympathize with the residents, I think it’s a stretch to take on the buses in the war against gentrification.

  13. bennett

    eeldip said: “as someone who has actually taken public transit regularly in SF, i can say that the there is an extra cost incurred for increased usage of the bus stops. while they sit empty most of the time, bunching is very common and any increased use incurs a cost in the form of a delay in the system. paying a fee is a great way to account for the increased costs, but as someone mentioned above, $1 is probably NOT the correct fee.”

    An even better solution would be to coordinate the schedules so that the different providers aren’t competing for space at the same time. On the other hand, bunching is a result of timed meets, allowing passengers to transfer routes/services with minimal wait.

    It seems to me that this issue doesn’t have anything to do with the private buses or the public facilities. It’s about housing. Not that the two are completely mutually exclusive but the fight against high property values may be better served on a different battlefield.

  14. The Antiplanner Post author

    One of the peculiarities of the protests was a report in the San Francisco Bay Guardian that a Google employee had shouted at the protesters–but it turned out the Google employee was in fact a union organizer engaging in what he called “political theater.” Could it be that the real backers behind the protests are the transit unions who are upset about non-union bus drivers?

  15. bennett

    Mr. O’Toole,

    Are you sure the private bus drivers aren’t unionized? Also, my experience with transit workers would have me assume that they don’t really care until the private bus is blocking them from their stop.

  16. LazyReader

    “San Francisco is one of the most romantic cities in the world, easily the equal of Paris and Venice and ahead of just about everywhere else. ” Yeah from a architectural perspective. Otherwise it’s half ghetto, half rich playground. It’s parks are a homeless strewn needle infested wasteland which is a shame as they have beautiful public parks and attractions. People I know go to Golden Gate Park stepping in human feces. San Francisco is down the road. The same city that can’t figure out how to handle it’s homeless problem, can’t fix it’s school system, has African American families fleeing in droves, has had economic troubles (with the tourist summer of 2007 being the only positive thing since 2000) and can’t get a single movie company to film in the city.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGHAEuB3M6Y

  17. MJ

    This is one of the more bizarre protests I’ve seen, but no surprise at all that it happened in the PRSF.

    It seems unreasonable to me that workers who are residents of San Francisco should be asked to pay again for the privilege of using bus stops in that city, especially since similar charges are not levied on MUNI buses (yes, MUNI users pay fares, but they account for only a fraction of the cost of providing the service, and the workers in question already pay for the subsidy by virtue of the fact that they live there).

    Looked at differently, MUNI should be encouraging these kinds of services to proliferate, since they reduce MUNI’s costs by managing the peak loads and reducing the need to provide expensive additional peak capacity that can only be used a couple of hours out of the day. This is the way Houston METRO views the “slugging” that takes place at stations along its busways that are located in the medians of major freeway corridors.

    The fact that the protesters are asking for such a small ransom is kind of surprising. One would think they would try to extract a larger “pound of flesh”. I’m sure that Google, Apple and others will fork over the hush money in order to make this is issue disappear (albeit temporarily). They have deep pockets, and this is a relatively small price to pay to avoid an ugly PR battle. However, I’m sure this won’t be the last word on the subject. As soon as the protesters see that they can successfully hit up targets like the tech companies, their demands will undoubtedly increase.

  18. MJ

    Isn’t employer provided transit an ideal transportation impact mitigation measure? No pleasing some folks.

    Ironically, it was mandated for a brief period of time in California in the early 1990s. If that law (Regulation 14) were still in place, these companies would be required to develop on-site demand management plans. It’s amazing what innovative ideas people can come up with when confronted with the pressures of competition.

  19. MJ

    It is interesting that upper middle class hipsters will gladly take a bus that is provided by their employer, but would not take a public bus.

    Don’t be silly. We’ve been told time and again that middle class people won’t ride buses. They’re dirty and smelly, or something.

  20. sprawl

    I’m not sure how this is much different then a school bus picking up a load of students going to a sporting event and taking them to their end destination, without a bunch of stops in between.

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