The so-called Google Buses (most big tech companies including Apple, Facebook, and Yahoo, have their own, but the Google name stuck) are giant, logo-less, wifi-enabled commuter buses that shuttle some 35,000 techies between San Francisco and the Valley. Techies love the perk to the point that a nearby shuttle bus stop can increase real estate prices by tens of thousands of dollars.
For some, though, the tinted behemoths are symbols of the city's increasing economic and cultural divide. The shuttles' track record of blocking public bus stops, stopping traffic, and taking over bike lanes doesn't help. The city is exploring new rules that, among other things, would charge shuttles to use public bus stops.
So what is it like to be behind the wheel and in the middle of all this? Rick Fuchs, a driver for Bauer, which operates commuter buses for companies including Facebook, Linked In, EA, and CISCO, shares his view from the driver's seat.
I used to be a city bus driver in Portland. [Passengers would] bring syringes on, punch their fellow seatmates, have not showered in three weeks, and maybe sneak on a flask and drink in the back. I remember a woman who, when I pulled up, said, "Well, it is about time. I thought you would be here yesterday. Step on it." That will ruin your day.
The clients I have [now] are really polite — Good morning. How's your morning?— and at 7 a.m. that's pretty special. It is like night and day. They are really thoughtful and generous. I used to have a guy who brought me a cup of coffee every morning.
Whenever I make an announcement, I always say the same dorky thing: "Hello ladies and gentlemen, this is your driver Rick." When they get off, they say, "See you later Rick" "Have a good day Rick." I know a lot of my customers' names. We are on first name basis and so I just develop kind of like, it sounds weird, but kind of a bond. I feel totally protective over my passengers.
There's a different vibe with the different bus routes. There are like the snootier [ones], the partiers, the complainers. You find a whole cross section based on what the culture of the company is. We have like the really, really geeky. I'm sure they are all on their devices and not talking because they are so socially inept; they don't know how to talk to the person next to them, and they want to write some code on the way home.
It is [usually] a year before burn out and then we request another route. I make the same turns every day. I try to vary it a little bit so it's not so boring, but you burn out.
I really like my route. It is pretty lively, almost like a party bus. I do overhear company gossip. I can't repeat anything I hear. We go over that in training. There is a confidentiality sort of mantra, that anything in the bus stays in the bus. I'm sure I can tell my girlfriend or whatever, but as far as repeating it to another driver, like, "Hey, this company that I work for is going to be purchasing another company and this might be a good time to buy stock." I would never share that.
But I kind of tune it out because there's a lot of chatter and a lot of different languages and dialects. They don't talk to me and I'm good with that. I've said to people before, "I really can't talk to you because there is so much to concentrate on." There are flocks of pigeons that come at my windshield, bicyclists, crazy drivers, motorcyclists, police, emergency vehicles, fire hydrants, and telephone polls.
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.
Pedestrians and motorcycles and cyclists are all sort of trying to, in my mind, kind of sabotage me. It is important that I keep level headed and keep the task at hand. "You have a couple minutes to blow, so don't worry about that bicyclist that just hit the mirror." Because that happens a lot.
I will be sitting at a stop sign or a red light and a bike will come and they will hit my mirror on purpose, or accidentally bash their head on it. In which case it puts me out of service. Because my bus is so long, those are my eyes. I literally almost can't even move. One of our road supervisors has to come out, because you have to be sitting in the seat and have someone else adjust it.
The [public Muni buses] and the private transit companies seem to kind of work with each other. It's kind of a symphony on wheels. I get the feeling that Muni drivers are a little perturbed, but they will still work with you. They beep the horn and it is my gut instinct that they are upset. I totally understand because I used to drive public transit.
Pretty much every time I pull in, I'm lucky if I can get a spot. If I have no place to park to drop my passengers off or load them up, I will park in the front part of the Muni spot, so that Muni can swing around me. A lot of times I'm sticking out a little and I block the train and I kind of get freaked out.
I don't expect to have my own spot. It is awkward, but I am stopping so infrequently and Muni is stopping every seven minutes all day long. On Van Ness they are making stops that we can rent. That would be helpful. But it is expensive.
There are over 70 routes in our system. My bus line has five drivers. We are staggered so there is one 15 minutes before and after me. We meet with the clients frequently and kind of try to improve the route and drops offs and time points. My routes are evolving. I used to go up Fillmore and Pierce and Lombard and Van Ness but ridership was sporadic. Now I just stop at Fremont [Street] and the Ferry Building.
Buses get a bad rap for being in the fast lane [on the freeway.] It is a big bone of contention. I have a lot of angry fellow drivers if I'm in the fast lane, and they can't get around me. When they do pass in front of me, they cut so close, and then slam on their breaks. They almost kill me. It takes a football field to stop this thing going 65 miles an hour. They are angry because they think that I'm in the fast lane to be a jerk. In fact I'm there for safety reasons because a lot of my blind spots are on my left. If I was one lane over there would be cars on both sides of me and there would be twice as many things that could happen to my passengers. In the slow lane there is merging traffic. If I have to keep stopping and hitting breaks it is dangerous.
My responsibility is to my passengers. The fast lane is the lane of least resistance. I would never make it if I was in the slow lane. I would be 30 minutes late.
I'm not 100 per cent sure why all the buses aren't wrapped [with their company logos on them.] It is certainly not a money thing because the companies have tremendous amounts of money. Not all the companies want to advertise that it is their employees on the bus, that there are 50 people on the CISCO bus. I think they are trying to side on the safe side, offer a little bit of privacy.
In all fairness to the companies, they didn't design the buses. They come from the factory like this. All the buses have tinted windows. If there wasn't the dark glass on the outside there would be so much glare for passengers and the driver that it would be dangerous. Limos on the other hand, I think that is a privacy thing.
I get it [why residents on bus routes complain.] I have lived on a street with a speed bump, and when a big vehicle goes over it, you can hear it in the house. I live a block away from SamTrans. I can open my door and see the train. I think the convenience is terrific. I know these neighbors can't use the buses unless they work for the company, but it really is reducing the amount of cars and helping the environment. I see more positives than negatives. But you will always have a group of people who aren't going to like things.
I'm pretty environmentally aware. I'm a composter and recycler. This bus holds 52 people and that is 52 cars that are not on the road in one trip, and we have 70 routes in our system. That's thousands of cars everyday. There are the exceptions, people who may otherwise take Bart, but I don't think so. A lot of these people can't take public transit. They could take it part of the way and transfer and maybe transfer again, but that doesn't make sense. I bring people from Mountain View and Santa Clara to San Francisco. It would take you forever with public transit. You would have to take the VTA to SamTrans to Caltrain to Muni. It would take like two hours.
You can't convince me that it is not a good thing to keep cars off the road.