Why have the tech buses invaded San Francisco?

Oh boy. There is no easy answer to this question, but protests in front of buses are certainly not going to solve the problem because it’s a problem that goes beyond the boundaries of the City of San Francisco. Saying that tech companies owe a billion dollars for doing curbside pickup are completely ignoring reality and making themselves look as out of touch as Ed Lee. Street usage fees paid on the same basis as curbside parking would make sense as would some more restrictions on vehicle size for some areas where double-decker buses don’t really fit. Anyway, the buses are not really a problem- they are a symptom of much larger local and state government dysfunction, which is where peoples’ anger should really be directed.

Google, for one, would love to build housing near its campus in Mountain View. They have tried to get it permitted and it has been rejected, while at the same time the city has approved additional office space. In fact, the city of Mountain View expressly forbade housing in its citywide general plan for the area around the Bayshore Campus. This would have put large numbers of Google employees walking distance from work, while also providing a walkable neighborhood near a light rail station. Google has also started investing in affordable housing, including one project in Mountain View, but unfortunately it’s only 51 units. The truth is that suburban communities don’t want to build more housing, and Prop 13 gives existing owners little reason to care about increasing housing prices.

Additionally, many communities set limits for vehicular traffic that employers need to comply with as part of transportation management plans. Aside from being a recruiting tool, company shuttles are the primary way of complying with these regulations. Why not subsidize existing transit? For most people public transit to the peninsula is incredibly time-consuming, and it also lacks the capacity to take that many additional riders. Caltrain will be upgrading in the coming years with high speed rail funds, but that is still a ways off.

Why didn’t all those tech companies just get offices in San Francisco? Aside from the fact that a lot of their employees still live on the peninsula or in the South Bay, there isn’t enough office space in San Francisco to accommodate them. San Francisco currently has the lowest office vacancy rate in the United States and it doesn’t have room for 15,000 Google employees to relocate north.  Office space construction was severely limited in the 1980s over concerns of Manhattanization, and this has only recently changed as development has been permitted south of Market Street downtown.

I’m not sure we’d be that much better off from a housing perspective if Facebook, Google and Apple were all located in downtown San Francisco, though it would remove the need for shuttle buses (Google’s downtown San Francisco office on the Embarcadero is already very popular with Google employees, most of whom bike or take transit to work). There is no easy solution to these problems, but a total lack of coordination between municipalities with different priorities is the crux of the problem. Maybe the protests should move to the suburban communities that don’t want to allow rental housing construction?

By Mark

Mark is an architect in San Francisco.


  1. Thank you for this. I often feel like the only solution is going to be a regional, Bay Area-wide planning authority that has the power to overrule city/county decision-making, especially with respect to zoning, and coordinate public transit agencies across the Bay Area (more effectively than the MTC does), but unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll see that happen anytime soon.

  2. While a few, like myself, are actually interested in seeing limits on what types of buses can go where, these protestors are using the buses as a metaphor for more complicated issues. Most of the signs deal with evictions, raising rental markets, gentrification, etc. The buses are just an easy place to target their anger. It’s easy to see how a fleet if white buses carrying off tech employees can be seen as an easy target for a complex issue.

  3. The shortsightedness of complaints about the tech buses is incredible. Would people prefer 40 cars on the road for each bus?

    With or without the buses the city and the peninsula will keep getting more expensive. There is a finite amount of land and it is most all developed at too small a scale. San Francisco and the Peninsula need to upzone. The demand is there, and the need is there. Affordable and market based housing needs to be built near Google. For mountain View to disallow housing there just kills any sense of place and street life.

  4. The housing situation in SF is maddening because there seem to be so many obvious solutions. I mean, what is with all the park-and-ride lots at BART stations? Why is there no comprehensive commuter rail service to the Central Valley? Why isn’t there more residential and office development in Oakland? I get that the City of SF has a strong preservationist element, but the region – particularly if you go as far as Sac/Modesto/Stockton – just seems to have this baffling lopsidedness.

  5. Unfortunately, these buses are about as popular in the Mission as Blackwater vehicles in Kabul. And for much the same reason–the techies are seen as occupiers, not liberators.

    That might not be the case if tech buses supplemented the Muni system rather than competing with it. Let anybody get on/off for free, publish a route map, and (as you point out) limit routes to streets for which they’re appropriately sized. This is more or less how the UCSF shuttles work: they’re open to almost anybody (nobody checks ids) and are much smaller than the double decker monstrosities.

    I’m somewhat conflicted about the idea having private companies essentially set public transit policy and basically create their own public transit routes. But that’s better than the two-tier status quo, much better than everybody driving, and also better than taxpayers running a transit line that essentially benefits only one company (the 83X Twitter).

    How to get benefits from the techies to pay for better services for everybody? How about a local income tax?

  6. “Saying that tech companies owe a billion dollars for doing curbside pickup are completely ignoring reality and making themselves look as out of touch as Ed Lee.”

    I assume they aren’t literally asking for a billion dollars just in exchange for using the public bus stops. Asking the tech industry to chip in $1B for transit in general is not crazy at all. (Last I heard Apple was just sitting on an absurd $150B in cash). Many of these companies pay little to no federal taxes and probably far below their fair share of local and state taxes, and their commuters place a large burden on the transportation infrastructure.

  7. Sorry, but their workers place far less of a burden on public infrastructure than most private businesses who do not provide buses and expect workers to drive.

  8. The City of Mountain View’s zoning powers derives from the State, they can be over-ridden by the state. And given substantial state support for local transit, its well justified when the local city is depressing farebox revenue recovery in service of private rather than public interests. So the State of California should override local prohibitions on mixed use office/residential development in the immediate vicinity of transit stations, including both the heavy rail and light rail in Mountain View.

  9. It is easier to blame the Google buses than to build new housing anywhere. Mountain View is actually adding housing, just not in North Bayshore where the argument was that people’s pets would eat the endangered species at Shoreline. Nobody’s building enough housing for people, and everybody has their own special reason.

    Also, one challenge for Google in making better use of Caltrain is the traffic jam between downtown and North Bayshore. It takes nearly 30 minutes for a shuttle to get through, although it is under 3 miles and 10 minutes with no traffic. They are working with Mountain View on plans to decongest the route.

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