Inside Tech Companies' Private Bus System

Tech shuttle buses have taken over San Francisco's streets, creating a transportation caste system. I wanted to know what it was like inside. So I got on.

Day and night in San Francisco, tech company bus shuttles zoom along the streets, some stopping at the public bus stops, others whizzing right by. Or not whizzing so much as hulking. Physical manifestations of the fact that tech suffuses every square inch of the city, they dwarf the cars, the bikes, even the buildings.

At first, the buses were all the same to me. But over time, I learned to decode the owners of these six- to eight-wheeled, air-conditioned, Wi-Fi-enabled magic carpets of progress. The giant green Genentech bus ferried people up to the tonier Noe Valley. Apple's gleaming, mostly white iPods on wheels pick people up across the street from Google's armada — black buses, white buses, double-decker, and single-story. Every now and then, a garish Electronic Arts van swings by, with noisy decals and what looks like a video game console near the front. Facebook stops nearby too, but its shuttles display the charter company's logo, like camouflage. And just last week, I noticed that Apple had started leasing giant, brightly colored shuttles.

All of them have smoke-tinted windows, though, in case you're tempted to peer in. And who doesn't want to peek inside? These private bus system are sleek and shiny, potent symbols of the whole tech lifestyle — the free lunches, the big salaries, the endless opportunities to jump from job to job.

The public buses limp behind them like dirty dishrags. San Francisco's MUNI service is legendarily awful: I've been groped, flashed, sexually harassed by a pre-teen and doused with vodka over the last decade of riding San Francisco public transit. I walk miles to avoid boarding a city vehicle. I wanted to know what it felt like to be literally inside the tech boom, part of a private transit system.

So I got on the bus.

How widespread is shuttle use? Until recently, when data powerhouse Stamen Design decided to map the routes themselves, this information was unknown. The tech companies guard information about the timing and location of their shuttles tightly. Stamen had to confirm information about the stops posted on Foursquare with actual eyeballs on the buses: a team sat at a stop in the Mission to count and paid others to watch the vehicles. The volume was pretty astounding: Stamen saw that Google alone runs 125 trips daily, and they estimate that ridership is as much as 40% of those who ride Caltrain, a regional commuter train.

At Stamen's website, I noticed that they mentioned several employees live on bus routes. I asked Eric Rodenbeck, the studio's founder, about whether, in general, they perceived this big private transportation network as a positive or negative for the city. He offered no value judgment, but remarked that it was an opportunity to collect data on "this whole thing that's happening in the open."

But he also acknowledged the power of the shuttles as a symbol, an "ambassador," as he put it. "The buses bring the values of the Valley into San Francisco," Rodenbeck said.

As I stood on the pavement, queued up for the tech company bus, I was nervous. It was a public sidewalk but I was a pretender, crashing a very private party. Most of the dozen or so people standing around played with their phones. Two guys near me talked enthusiastically about something.

You need a badge to get on the bus. I had solicited advice from many tech friends, and it seemed that the only point of contact was the card reader near the door. In my sweaty palm was a badge that a friend had given me, with the assurance that it was totally easy to get on the bus. I wouldn't let you do this, he said, if I thought either one of us would get in trouble. Still, I tried to give the badge back to him: The work ID has a photo, and that photo looked nothing like me. He insisted.

Hyperaware, I scanned the little squares already pinned to people's clothing. I pictured biometric readers on the bus and a security guard not just physically tossing me from the vehicle's roof but shaming me for the ridiculous borrowed badge. What a stupid idea. Who cares about the tech bus. And then — gasp — I dropped the badge on the ground, in full view of the line.

Nobody looked.

Finally the bus pulled up and the driver hopped out, smiling and making banter about sports with the group on the sidewalk. The line trudged forward to "badge in" — flash the badge over a beeping reader.

The people around me couldn't have looked more bored by the routine. A man shoved past me on the sidewalk, knocking me back a little. A few people walking past glanced at the group, but did not meet my gaze — which was too bad, because I was trying very hard to smile with my eyes. I have a very good eye smile!

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And sometimes buses aren't meant for S.F. hills.

From an urban planning perspective, the buses do great work, cutting down on the number of single-occupancy cars. "This is an incredibly positive phenomenon," said Egon Terplan, regional planning director at SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research, a nonprofit focused on urban planning and good government). He explained that their research showed that shuttles were on track to "ultimately reduce the emissions of the Bay Area" — all without pulling a penny from perpetually drained public transit coffers.

"On a historical note, the carpool rate used to be really important. It declined a lot after 1980s, when jobs started spreading out in more places," Terplan said. "Now, the shuttles are capturing a whole new set of people."

In spring 2012, San Francisco released a report on the shuttle buses, noting that public transit and private companies were rarely in communication with each other, and that possibilities for partnerships remained untapped. It's not surprising, then, that when San Francisco launched a new Mid-Market bus line to coincide with the big Twitter headquarters move into the long-troubled neighborhood, Twitter had already decided to run its own private shuttle to ferry employees from Caltrain and other stops, leading local media to run stories about the wasted resources on the empty route.

The tech shuttle situation has gotten the attention of certain city officials, though. A few weeks ago, John Avalos, a supervisor, proposed legislation that would regulate shuttles — as it currently stands, the only regulation comes from state shuttle licenses. Citing approximately 36,000 daily one-way trips in the city, at over 200 stops, he said that "we need sensible City policy to prevent this from growing into an unregulated Wild West era of shuttles competing with Muni for curb space."

As it happens, I didn't even use the badge: With the bus driver still on the sidewalk, no one noticed a missing "beep." No SWAT team, no hysterics, nothing. Plunking myself down on the roomy seat, I opened my laptop. Oops, no Wi-Fi password. A woman two rows ahead of me laid her head against the window and napped. I took notes on my phone: "smells nice," "quiet." I looked out the window, at the blur of the city and then the highway. People had told me that the buses sometimes smell and are crowded, but my bus was perfectly roomy and isolated and smelled like new car.

Thirty, forty minutes passed in the most unremarkable of fashions. The stress of the morning melted away and I found myself smiling at the bouncy bus driver, humming. It was all so pleasant. Just the other day, I had overheard a woman on the phone, talking about whether or not she should take a job at Google and describing the buses to the person on the other end. "I would obviously get a house near the shuttle," she said, typing frantically into a spreadsheet. Indeed, housing prices along bus routes have risen dramatically. Having access to this kind of commute is a perk on the level of free food or child care: Working in Silicon Valley is vastly more attractive if you can live in San Francisco. As the bus turned off the highway and approached the tech campus, my heart sunk a little. I didn't want to get off.

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