“Behemoths of Eviction”: Inside the Public Meeting that Made Tech Buses Permanent

With a chorus of “ayes,” the San Francisco Metro Transit Authority’s Board of Directors made the Google Bus — and all of its cousins, great and small — a permanent part of the city landscape. You’d have to be a pretty big rube not to see the outcome a mile off. Or 35 miles, given the distance between the city and the Googleplex.

The chamber was so packed with concerned citizens last night that dozens were sent to the “spillover room” to await their opportunity to speak, with a “thank you for heeding the fire code” on their way out.

At issue was the city’s Commuter Shuttle Program, a measure originally set to expire in January that legitimizes the presence of private corporate buses at Muni stops.

[jump] District 8 supervisor Scott Wiener was first to speak , urging the board to make the shuttle program permanent. He employed a bit of hard-eyed realism (“People will live where they want to live. They want to live here” with or without a company bus, he said) and then offered a duet of San Francisco’s favorite firebrand causes: the environment and labor. The shuttle program gets cars off the road, Wiener argued, and also gives the city a chance to improve working conditions for bus drivers through the Labor Harmony Resolution, which Wiener sponsored.

That bit of legislation (vaguely Maoist vibe of the name notwithstanding) is supposed to be a tool for the city to get tech companies to do right by their bus drivers. Access to the network of approved byways and stops becomes a carrot to dangle in front of them when it comes time to issue permits. But that only works if there’s something to dangle.

Hank Willson, manager of the shuttle program, laid out its pros and cons, arguing that MTA had helped yank thousands of cars off the road while acknowledging there are still some problems. Shuttles have a habit of blocking lanes, and there’s probably not enough enforcement of the rules when busses behave badly. Even so, he insisted, it’s better than the bad old days, when buses seemed to do whatever they wanted.

“We can’t ban them,” Willson said. “The best we can do is regulate. Regulation means having someone to call when there’s a problem. When you have an issue with these buses, you can call me.”

Given how some San Franciscans respond to transit issues, I doubt Willson would actually want to answer the phone.

Then, for two hours, the public had its say. Some people were there as boosters: A trio of teamster leaders praised the shuttle program for “catapulting drivers into the middle class,” while several tech workers credited the program for helping them “live the dream” of staying in San Francisco.

But mostly it was a forum for indignation. “There’s a layer of permanent soot on my house,” said one woman. “These busses are longer than my land is wide,” groused her neighbor. “Complete nonsense,” one man called Willson’s appraisal of things.

On tap were the phrases “ludicrous,” “ a vile message,” “complete capitulation,” and “behemoths of eviction.” Also-ran mayoral candidate Amy Farah Weiss challenged anyone who didn’t think the buses exacerbated the housing problem to a debate.

“Anybody?” she said, turning to the entire chamber. Nobody took the bait.

But there was also recognition that the battle was already lost. “This is a done deal no matter what we say,” said Eric Williams, head of the Muni drivers’ union. “Bought and paid for.”

And he was right.

Maybe not about the “bought and paid for” part, but board member Gwyneth Borden said it best: “This is baseline now.” That comment was in reference to why no Environmental Impact Report had been conducted: Since the buses were in place long before the MTA program started, there was no real change being made. (Some disagree with that assessment, of course.)

But she unintentionally summed up the entire issue at the same time. The mere existence of the program the board was voting on meant there wasn’t any real chance of nixing the vexatious carriages. They’re now status quo, for better or worse. The board members expressed some complaints of their own and promised improvements in the future, but, nonetheless, all said “aye.”

In fact, they already had a more timely outrage to address: the brewing storm over downing Muni wires to make way for the Super Bowl Village.

“We haven’t agreed to anything,” Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin was quick to say. “We just have the beginnings of a plan. And they’d be covering the costs.”

There’s always another hill to fight on.

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