The Google Bus Phenomenon in Alameda
Corporate shuttles have arrived here. What, if anything, is the city to do?
Private employer shuttles would help alleviate congestion in the Posey and Webster tubes. But Google’s use of public transit stops has nonetheless been controversial in other cities, such as San Francisco, leading to recent protests.
Jeremy Schmitz lives on High Street, a narrow two-lane thoroughfare that is one of Alameda’s few exit points to the rest of the East Bay. During most weekday mornings, the two-lane street is racked with traffic that is often exacerbated by the new symbol of corporate reach and socio-economic unrest-the Google bus.
Schmitz supports the unmarked corporate shuttles for their utility. He also is a consumer of public transportation and rides an AC Transit bus each morning to his job at a San Francisco tech firm. Other Alamedans may not be aware of the Google bus stops or the unintended consequences they pose.
It was only recently that Schmitz and his neighbors figured out the shiny, white buses loading passengers in front of their homes each morning were transporting Google employees to the South Bay. They did notice more people parking on their public streets, Schmitz said, and some neighbors lashed out, placing flyers on the cars of the suspected Google employees that said, "This isn’t your personal parking space."
"I thought that was overly rude and somewhat misdirected," Schmitz said.
However, Schmitz was bothered by the traffic snarls the Google bus consistently caused when it stopped, for minutes at a time, on High Street. Soon, drivers, aiming to free themselves from the blockade the bus formed, dangerously rerouted their cars-into incoming traffic.
Unlike some of his neighbors, Schmitz values companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, and other corporate giants providing high-paying salaries for Alameda residents. But in the spring, Schmitz reached out to Alameda city officials seeking an answer to a simple question: What is Alameda getting from these gleaming cruisers potentially changing the face of Bay Area communities and impacting, as in the case of Schmitz and his High Street neighbors, residents’ daily commutes?
Debbie Potter, the director of Alameda’s community development department, said the benefits of corporate buses are simple. "It gets cars off the road. That’s a good thing." Reducing traffic on the island is already a hot topic as numerous high-profile commercial developments at Alameda Point and elsewhere become more than abstract proposals. But herein is the conflict between those hoping to slow the widening economic gap between the haves and have-nots and advocates for more environmentally friendly lifestyles.
Activists say the influx of corporate buses have considerable drawbacks, including tapping into city services and infrastructure without paying for the use. A lawsuit filed this spring by the Service Employees International Union charged the city of San Francisco with illegally allowing corporate buses, like Google’s, to use MUNI bus stops without assessing the environmental effects of additional stops on the streets. San Francisco ultimately acquiesced to community outrage over the free usage of MUNI stops and started charging Google-one of the world’s most profitable companies-a nominal $1 fee for each bus stop. Additionally, the anti-shuttle contingent frets over a perceived effect on rising home and rental prices and fears associated gentrification may change the face of neighborhoods.
In the meantime in Alameda, the city contacted Google in mid-July to address Alameda’s situation and learned just one Google bus makes twice-daily stops in Alameda. Potter said the city does not have a firm grasp on how many other corporate buses ferry their employees on and off the island each day. Although the city has anecdotal evidence about buses belonging to other well-known Silicon Valley companies, Potter said, it planned to gather more information in coming months.
In addition, Alameda recently started work on formulating protocols for the likely rising number of corporate shuttles. Potter intended to offer recommendations to an Alameda City Council committee by January, at the earliest. What could some of the proposed regulations be? "Don’t stop in the middle of streets," deadpanned Potter.
If the corporate buses are not loading and unloading passengers in the middle of Alameda streets, they could consider using existing bus stops. Alameda is not alone among East Bay city caught flat-footed by the lack of rules and regulations when it comes to corporate buses and those bus stops.
Alameda and other cities want to explore with AC Transit officials whether sharing the stops with compensation from corporate entities is possible, Potter said. AC Transit board member Elsa Ortiz, who represents Alameda and Oakland on the transit agency, said, as of yet, none of the tech giants that use corporate buses have made inquiries with AC Transit about sharing stops. However, she acknowledges it is a growing policy issue for Bay Area transportation agencies. There is also the potential for corporate buses to be viewed as infringing on AC Transit’s turf. "We want to be the provider for transit in all of Alameda and Contra Costa counties, whether in our cities, to San Francisco, or links to BART," said Ortiz, who is running for re-election in November. In early August, AC Transit asked one bus company in San Francisco, Loop Transportation Inc., not to use AC Transit bus stops in East Bay cities.
Potter later contacted Schmitz to describe the city’s current stance and expressed general support for alternative modes of transportation. Potter, though, understands the concern. "It’s not a lot," said Potter of the small fleet of corporate buses currently in Alameda. "But if it’s on my street, it’s enough."