Democratizing the Google Bus

Many in San Francisco love to hate the Google buses that bring tech workers between Google’s campus in Mountain View and San Francisco’s neighborhoods. The buses are seen a sign of elitism and gentrification.

But Google is taking steps to reduce its role in the transit business – Google has joined Mountain View’s North Bayshore Transportation Management Association as a founding partner. This is a nonprofit with the mission of reducing the drivealone mode share to North Bayshore to 45%. The TMA will run shuttles to Caltrain, carpool programs, transit pass programs, and other benefits designed to reduce driving to the North Bayshore area of Mountain View. Businesses that want to expand their campuses in North Bayshore are required to participate, pay in, and commit to reduce driving.

The North Bayshore TMA is part of a trend where cities are starting to fill gaps in the transit system, starting in downtown and transit-rich growth areas. The City of San Mateo has set up a TMA for its rail corridor area (Hayward Park to Hillsdale) and downtown (which is just getting started). The Peninsula TMAs are the descendants of the Emeryville TMA, which now takes 1.4 million passengers to and from BART per year. According to SPUR, 80% of jobs in the Bay Area are within 3 miles of BART or Caltrain. So the TMAs are helping to make that connection.

With the help of its Marguerite shuttle system, Stanford connects nearly 25% of its employees to Caltrain. TMAs running shuttles provide this benefit – and other transportation benefits such as carpool programs and carshare spots for mid-day trips – to a wider variety of users than employees of the area’s largest businesses.

Another benefit of the city-based TMAs is that they can do what big employers have been doing – and perhaps transit agencies have been doing less well – to survey and analyze the transportation patterns of people in an area – and create programs to incent people not to drive.

The Google bus, and City TMAs, are filling gaps in the market left vacant by the public transit system. Another entrant filling this gap in the market is a startup company, RidePal, that has a web interface that allows organizations to request a shuttle route and list the number of riders who’d use it. When RidePal accrues enough riders they run the route. RidePal makes shuttles available to smaller employers that are not large enough to run their own shuttles, and the shuttles are open to the public. RidePal could potentially serve city-based TMAs as well. A city-required survey could reveal clusters of riders who could fill a RidePal shuttle, and contract with RidePal to provide the service.

So why does our public transit system fail so badly at connecting to the backbone transit services, and delivering routes needed by workers and by people who’d prefer not to drive. One reason is that our public agencies have the self-image that trains are for wealthy people and buses are for the poor (except, oddly enough, the Google and Facebook buses which serve the well-off). So the transit agencies they miss out on the opportunities to use bus technology to *connect* to backbone rail, to serve needed commute routes, and to serve the emerging market of Millennials who would rather not be driving. That gap is being filled by the private services (Google), by private market competitors and cities.

Not long ago, an article in a Stanford publication proposed solving Caltrain’s operating budget deficit by having Caltrain run as a nonprofit, like, say Stanford or a symphony orchestra. It is not at all clear to me that turning Caltrain’s management into a nonprofit with a nonpublic board would help it serve its constituents. But there is emerging role being played by nonprofits with private investment in our area’s transit system. That is the last-mile connection, and the range of transportation benefits serving downtowns and change areas.

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6 Responses to Democratizing the Google Bus

  1. RMN says:

    Left out is the balkanized bus environment. There is no single bus system that covers San Francisco / San Mateo / Santa Clara. Except for VTA connecting to Fremont BART, the Dumbarton Express, and a few Sam Trans buses that serve Palo Alto, no buses run from one county to another down here. For example, there are no connections from Redwood City to Mountain View, and no public bus service on 280 from Cupertino to San Francisco.

    • Adina Levin says:

      Yes. Very little is coordinated. One hypothesis that I have is that City-based TDM programs can help with the connectivity issues, because – like corporate TDM programs – they will draw a “heat map” of origins and destinations and see clusters of needed trips for groups of people. Stanford analyzed the data and saw that they had many employees coming in from the East Bay collaborated with SamTrans and AC Transit to create the Dumbarton Express. Palo Alto could analyze the data – see how many people come to work from East Palo Alto – demand and help fund better service from EPA in San Mateo County to Palo Alto in Santa Clara County.

      There is a strong financial incentive to do this – Stanford’s analysis shows that they saved $100,000,000 in parking structures they did not need to build. Palo Alto is on the hook for tens of millions in parking structures.

      With the financial incentive and data about user trips, they can demand better connections and help fund them.

  2. Andy Chow says:

    If the outcome is to have these private services to somehow become a public transit routes, it would be a difficult proposition. First, private services can be established much faster than a public transit service. With transit agencies, they need to spend several months to seek public input on things like Title VI and get all the city approvals ahead of establishing the service. Private service can get going right away and only deal with the problems after the service is established.

    There’s a tendency in the tech sector where companies do not want their employees to intermingle with employees from other companies. So they would rather have the services be provided in-house.

    Also, if services provided by public agencies require a subsidy, would that be a wise use of that subsidy if the service can be provided by the private sector without subsidy? I think there’s a middle ground where some of the service should be subsidized and some shouldn’t.

    • Adina Levin says:

      The pressure is coming from jurisdictions that want to address traffic and parking problems. Stanford stepped up their TDM program once Santa Clara County put them under a trip cap. Facebook has a trip cap also.

      The big employers are doing a good job on their own reducing their employees vehicle trips, but that’s not enough. So cities are starting to step in to fill the gap with funding structures and programs to pool resources.

      The alternative to funding transit service and access isn’t not spending any money. It’s spending money on parking garages. The issue isn’t subsidy or no subsidy – it’s where the subsidy comes from, and what it is used for.

  3. It's Me says:

    Its very simple, make the sacrifice, move to San Jose, after all its giving you a job, not San Francisco, if you want to live in San Francisco, find work up there.

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