Hey Tech Buses: Just Pay Your Fair Share, Take Two

What the SF League of Pissed Off Voters’ Wants from Tech Commuter Buses

Tech buses in the bike lane

(Photo by Sean Rea.)

Ten months ago, the League weighed in on tech buses with our post “Hey Tech Buses: Just Pay Your Fair Share, Please.” The SFMTA and City ignored what we felt like were reasonable requests. Since then, the pilot program has gone on to litigation. The judgment is slated for mid-December. [Note: The League is not part of the lawsuit.]

On Tuesday, November 17, the SFMTA Board will vote on the proposed permanent program, and we want to weigh in with our position and call attention to a few points we feel are really important and have been omitted by the press reporting on the final pilot findings.

The TL;DR version is this:

  • The pilot has not achieved its goal of eliminating safety and traffic issues.
  • The City is not receiving the data it needs to manage this program.
  • The City is not collecting fees that correlate to the impacts of the commuter buses.
  • The City is expanding the program before the pilot has concluded.
  • The City is not being completely transparent on the study conclusions.

Do not forget Vision Zero

Tech bus blocking Muni

(Photo by Larry-Bob Roberts.)

San Francisco adopted Vision Zero as a policy in 2014, committing to build better and safer streets, educate the public on traffic safety, enforce traffic laws, and adopt policy changes that save lives with the goal to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2024.

The pilot aimed to eliminate safety and traffic issues related to shuttles, but shuttles block traffic and bike lanes 35% of the time that they stop under the pilot program. The most common citations issued to shuttle buses (of 1200 citations that were issued to shuttle buses during one year of the pilot) were for double parking and non-permitted use of a Muni zone. At five of the eight shuttle-only zones, blocked travel and bike lanes as a percentage of shuttle stop events increased from pre-pilot to during-pilot, sometimes substantially. At four of the 20 zones studied by SFMTA, shuttles caused traffic conflicts at 90% or more of the stop events. On Valencia Street, a vital artery of the bicycle network, the zone at 24th Street blocked travel and bike lanes in excess of 100% because shuttles managed to block both the bike and travel lanes at the same time.

SFMTA needs to take a closer look at the number and location of stops and what roads the tech buses should be allowed on. A few ideas from our prior post:

We need to keep those giant double-decker buses off of narrower streets before someone gets killed. The current regulations are insufficient.
We need to see and evaluate the routes the buses are taking. They should be kept away from the most dangerous pedestrian intersections, and the giant tech buses should not be allowed on bike routes. It’s pretty scary to bike alongside them. That’s a tragedy waiting to happen.
The tech buses need to avoid the busiest Muni stops. When evaluating stop locations, top priority needs to be keeping Muni running—not the convenience of the tech buses.

First we need real data from the buses

The City’s entire basis for exempting the pilot from environmental review was that it categorized the pilot as a “data collection” activity. But, the SFMTA still does not have the real time data flowing in from the shuttle providers.

“While all shuttle operators have made at least some effort to provide this data, some have provided the data without interruption or issue, while others have failed provide data regularly and accurately. Some operators who have failed to send data have worked closely with SFMTA staff to resolve data delivery issues, while others have been slow to respond to inquiries from SFMTA staff and do not appear concerned about ensuring the proper delivery of data. Issues with SFMTA’s data vendor have complicated the process even further, such that, more than a year into the pilot program, the real-time vehicle data is still not flowing completely or accurately from all operators. Limited queries of shuttle activity at certain zones and streets are possible, but take more effort and time than originally envisioned.” P. 34, Commuter Shuttle Pilot Program Evaluation Report, October 5, 2015

  • There should be no permanent program until the SFMTA has real time data monitoring.
  • There should be no permits issued to companies who are not 100% compliant with SFMTA data requests.

Tech bus loading in the bike lane

(Photo by Sean Rea.)

Let's talk about the fees

To be fair for everyone, the companies need to pay their fair share. The fee needs to be increased to compensate for delays to Muni, the buses' wear-and-tear on our streets, and for the tech buses’ impact on housing costs. Can you guess how much more damaging the large tech buses are to our streets? DPW says it causes 4,700 times the damage to the pavement as a passenger vehicle! 4,700 times!

A lot of the media reports have misleadingly indicated that state law prohibits the SFMTA from charging more, but that’s not true. There are three ways to get around the Prop 218 limit on cost-recovery fees:

  • If the companies were willing to pay more, they could just negotiate a fair price with the City. Done and done. (Unfortunately, Ed Lee's administration have been horrible negotiators. In addition to not negotiating with the companies to pay more, he's been missing in action on recent negotiations with developers like the Giant's Mission Rock project, the "5M project" for the Chronicle building, and the Flower Mart redevelopment. Thankfully progressives like Jane Kim and Aaron Peskin stepped up and got those developers to improve their projects.)
  • Or the SFMTA could do a nexus study to quantify the impacts on Muni, infrastructure, and housing and charge a higher impact fee.
  • Or we could put a higher tax on the ballot. Ideally we would all negotiate an amount to charge that everyone could support—the City, housing and transit activists, tech workers, and tech companies. How about if they paid enough to also cover the cost of electrifying Caltrain?

We think the tax should have a progressive structure in two ways: the giant double-decker buses should pay more than the short shuttles, and the cost-per-stop should escalate depending on the number of stops a company has.

Woah! Woah! Woah! The pilot isn’t even done yet

The number of daily shuttle stop events has increased by 29% since implementing the pilot. Shuttle stop events at zones observed by SFMTA in June 2015 increased by nearly 80% compared to stops before the pilot. Some zones saw a doubling or tripling of shuttle activity since the pilot was implemented.

“There are three types of lies -- lies, damn lies, and statistics”

Tech bus blocking Muni at night

(Photo by Patrick Monette-Shaw.)

The report’s numbers on shuttle impacts to Muni are skewed. In determining that shuttles blocking Muni decreased by 35%, the report includes numbers from shuttle-only zones (zones where Muni does not stop). For the zones tracked by SFMTA that are not shuttle-only, only two saw a decrease in instances of shuttles blocking Muni, while six saw an increase in conflicts and five saw no change.

What we want:

  • The pilot should be continued until the SFMTA can get the necessary data to create a comprehensive permanent program.
  • Air quality impacts of these large diesel buses be studied.
  • Impacts to Muni and city streets should be studied, and the impacts should be calculated as part of the permit fee.
  • A nexus study should be done to determine the impact on evictions and displacement and the placement of shuttle stops.
  • Commuter buses should be prohibited from narrow and steep residential streets, streets with bicycle lanes and those intersections deemed the most dangerous for pedestrians.

Who is the League of Pissed Off Voters?

We’re a bunch of political geeks in a torrid but troubled love affair with San Francisco. We’re blessed to live in America’s most progressive city, but we’re cursed to live in a city where most of the youth who grow up here can’t afford to live here. Frisco has its own dark history of injustice: redevelopment, environmental racism, the “old boys” network. All of us lucky enough to enjoy the San Francisco magic owe it to our City to fight to keep it diverse, just, and healthy. What are you doing to make a difference?

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Paid for by the San Francisco League of Pissed Off Voters. Financial disclosures available at sfethics.org.


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