Commuter shuttle pilot draws ire, praise

Private shuttle buses caused fewer conflicts with Muni buses and took cars off the street during a pilot regulation program set to end early next year, according to a report released by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency this week.

However, they also blocked traffic and bicycle lanes and drew continued complaints from residents who object to large buses operating on smaller city streets, according to the report released Monday.

Incidents in which the shuttles blocked Muni buses went down by 35 percent on a per-stop basis during the 18-month pilot program, which allows shuttles to use 124 Muni bus stops and designated shuttle loading zones in the city for a $3.67 fee per stop, the report found.

However, the shuttles block traffic and bicycle lanes about 35 percent of the time while stopping, according to the report, which recommended increased enforcement if the program is renewed.

Enforcement officers issued 1,200 citations to shuttle buses between August 2014, when the pilot program began, and May 2015, the report found. Citations were issued to shuttles in the program for parking violations and to those outside the program for using a shuttle zone without authorization.

The report suggested the shuttles, which carry around 8,500 people daily on average, might be helping to keep drivers off Bay Area roads, estimating that they removed as many as 4.3 million vehicle miles each month.

A survey of shuttle riders found that nearly half said they do not own cars, and 45 percent of those without cars said the shuttles were the “main reason.” Nearly half of those surveyed said they would drive alone to work if they could not take the shuttle, while only 5 percent said they would move closer to their jobs.

The Bay Area Council, a group representing regional business interests, cited the survey as evidence that the shuttles reduced traffic and air pollution.

“That’s a lot of cars and a lot of carbon,” said Bay Area Council CEO Jim Wunderman. “Amidst record congestion, the shuttle system is eliminating traffic and complimenting public transit in a huge way, and costing the taxpayer nothing. Shuttles are a no-brainer.” The shuttles, which in many cases transport employees for Bay Area technology firms, have drawn fire from those who view them as an emblem of gentrification in the city, which has seen an influx of highly paid workers from Silicon Valley firms and rising rents in recent years, and decry their impact on city streets and neighborhoods.

A coalition of labor and housing advocates calling itself the Coalition for Fair, Legal and Environmental Transit filed a lawsuit in May last year arguing that the city’s shuttle regulation scheme requires an environmental impact report and that it violates state vehicle codes allowing only common carriers such as city and school buses to use bus stops.

The plaintiffs hope to have the city look at the impact of shuttles on housing prices and displacement, among other issues.

Sue Vaughan, one of the plaintiffs, said the report is based on data that is incomplete and not up to date, and that it reports numbers in misleading ways, for instance by averaging conflicts with Muni buses across all stops including shuttle-only stops, where few such conflicts would be expected. Some locations, she noted, saw an increase in Muni conflicts rather than a decrease, and some saw conflicts with traffic and bicycle lanes with nearly every stop.

Vaughan said her group wants a full environmental impact report that would look at whether the availability of the shuttles increases housing displacement, because only then can the city legally require the companies providing the shuttles to mitigate the impacts through payments to housing or transportation funds.

Vaughan said:

“The city is bending over backwards for these tremendously powerful companies. … These companies have billions of dollars they could be putting into workforce housing and building regional transportation.”

Currently The City can only legally charge enough to cover the costs of administering the regulation program.

Vaughan said of the current program:

“It’s a giveaway. … Our public bus stops are incredibly valuable.”

The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial on Nov. 13.

SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose said the agency is using this week’s report to help develop a proposal for continued regulation of the shuttles.

The proposal will be presented to the SFMTA board before the pilot program expires in January 2016, but Rose said it was too early to say whether it would include any changes from the current program.

Rose said the department was moving forward with planning despite the lawsuit in an effort to avoid returning to a situation where shuttles were entirely unregulated, as was the case before the pilot program began.