Google, other big companies to pay to use San Francisco bus stops

SAN FRANCISCO, Jan 6 (Reuters) - Google Inc and other big technology companies that rely on private commuter buses to ferry workers around will now pay the city of San Francisco fees to use city bus stops, the city announced at a news conference on Monday.

Companies using commuter buses, which some see as a symbol of unwelcome gentrification in San Francisco, will end up paying the city around US$1.5 million (S$1.9 million) over the next 18 months as part of a pilot programme, Mayor Ed Lee said.

The programme will institute a permit system for the private commuter buses, which carry an estimated 45,000 workers daily between their homes in San Francisco and dozens of technology companies based in Silicon Valley, south of the city.

The commuter buses will be limited to 200 specific public bus stops, out of 2,500 in the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency system, the city said. The vehicles will have to operate under guidelines such as yielding to Muni buses, pulling to the front of the bus zone to make more room for other buses, and avoiding steep and narrow streets. "Shuttles are here to stay," Lee said. "They've got to be coordinated and better aligned with our municipal system."

The plan, will go before the SMTA's board for a vote later this month, was created with input from the tech companies that offer the shuttle services to their employees, city officials said. They include Microsoft Corp Apple Inc and others. "We see this pilot programme as a good first step," said Veronica Bell, manager for public policy and government affairs for Google, at the news conference. In early December, Google was the target of the first of a handful of protests against the technology buses. Protests against an Apple bus and another Google bus followed.

The fees will be calculated based on a company's usage of SFMTA bus stops, which SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin said would result in charges of around US$1 per stop per day. That creates fees averaging about US$100,000 per company that uses the buses, or about US$1.5 million total for the city.

The fees will cover the SFMTA's cost of running the pilot programme, as well as some investment to upgrade selected stops. Improvements might include better signs or bigger shelters, Reiskin said.

City rules forbid the city from collecting more than the cost of providing the service, officials said.

The buses have become among the most visible symbols of what some complain is the technology-driven gentrification of San Francisco, with young, well-paid tech workers forcing out less affluent residents. In addition, critics say some city policies, including tax breaks, are too generous to the technology industry.

But San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener said blaming technology workers for city problems was the wrong approach. "We need to stop politicizing peoples' ability to get to work," he said at the news conference. "We need to stop stereotyping and scapegoating and demonizing people who work in the tech sector."

Eviction Free San Francisco, one of the groups that has protested against the buses, said the tech industry must help the city retain its diversity, culture and affordability.

"We are prepared to demand more of City Hall if it appears that Mayor Lee's plan is not realistically aggressive enough to address the concerns of poor, working, and middle-class San Franciscans," said Eviction Free San Francisco organizer Jennifer Cust in a statement.

Commuter-bus advocates have said the buses ease traffic on already clogged highways as workers give up driving to ride the buses, which usually have plush seats and Wi-Fi.

Opponents have said the buses crowd municipal bus stops and remove potential customers from cash-strapped public transportation systems, including regional rail services.

Protests, which have involved demonstrators surrounding buses and stopping them from moving for stretches of around 30 minutes, started only last month. But city officials said they have been working with tech companies on policy recommendations for about a year.