updated 01:00 am EST, Wed January 22, 2014
Protesters see shuttles as symbol of ecomonic inequalities
In a move that may spark more protests, the transit authority for San Francisco has voted to accept a pilot program set up by tech companies that is intended to encourage mass transit by providing free shuttle busses that take workers from the city out to the Silicon Valley area. Google, Apple and other tech companies will pay fees of $1 per stop, totaling some $1.5 million in annual income. Protesters have said the program is aggravating spiraling cost-of-living increases that are driving out non-tech workers from city neighborhoods.
In step with nationwide protests over minimum wage standards and the widening income gap between most Americans and the wealthiest one percent, the shuttle program has angered residents of the city. They complain that the dramatically-higher wages of tech workers is causing a "gentrification and eviction" effect, causing landlords to force out working-class citizens in order to attract the wealthier tech workers.
The special busses, underwritten by the tech companies, carry what the protesters call "billionaire riders" to their jobs, but allow them to live in the city itself rather than the suburbs -- driving up real estate prices, school fees and other costs, creating a housing crisis even as it offsets traffic and the resulting air pollution.
The costs of the program and the new fee will be paid proportionally by the tech companies, with larger entities like Apple and Google paying more than $100,000 per year, while medium-sized firms will pay less. The money given to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) is mandated by law to be put back only into the program, offsetting the administrative and other costs of the program to the city.
The program is scheduled to start in July, and is "clearly better than what we have now," SFMTA Chairman Tom Nolan told the San Jose Mercury News. Protesters have also complained that the shuttles, which were initiated by Google, caused traffic congestion by using city bus stops, particularly at rush hours, and that paying only the actual costs to run the program will not contribute to the infrastructure and related "hidden" costs of the program. The advertising and search giant has resorted to placing security guards on targeted shuttles in response to the protests, and is looking at setting up a ferry program as an alternative.
The Los Angeles Times quoted San Francisco Supervisor David Campos as saying the program doesn't charge enough, and does too little to address the displacement of people from San Francisco, calling it a "first step" that "simply does not go far enough" to address the economic inequalities it creates. The tech companies say that the bus program has considerable economic and environmental benefits, keeping thousands of vehicles off the road and circumventing the need for additional land for parking facilities in both the valley and the city.
Google has likely inflamed resentment towards it further when it was discovered that the company had sent out memos to its SF-dwelling employees to attend to meeting and swell the ranks of supporters and armed them with "talking points" about how they weren't "billionaires" and that their living in the city was good for small and local businesses. The points are likely to ring hollow with critics, who mostly make far less than even the lowest-paid Google employee.