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Tech Execs Still Aren't Talking About the Environmental Impacts of Google Buses

Another day, another morning protest and six hour hearing in San Francisco over the nerd convoy going to and from Silicon Valley.

by Max Cherney
Apr 2 2014, 1:35pm
Image: Shutterstock.

Another day, another morning protest and six hour hearing in San Francisco over the nerd convoy going to and from Silicon Valley. This time the hearing was forced by a group of frustrated citizens that has a beef with potential environmental issues caused by the San Francisco MTA’s decision to start charging companies a buck every time a shuttle stops at a public bus stop. Or so they said.

There may well be environmental impacts to the shuttles—no one really knows for sure because it hasn’t been studied by the city—but as with a January hearing on the matter, an enormous amount of time was devoted to arguing over various aspects of what the shuttles stand for: gentrification, eviction, displacement, and the widening income gap. All important issues, to be sure, but divergent from the frustrated citizen’s argument that the city was required to perform a California state mandated environmental impact report prior to the kicking off of the pilot (there are situations where projects are exempted, this is one).

Ultimately, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors denied the appeal and voted 8-2 to carry on with the buck-a-stop pilot project, because in the end—even for those who had issues with the program—most of the board didn’t believe it required an extensive environmental study.

This hearing was notable for the continuing and conspicuous absence of executives from tech companies at the proceedings. “These halls were crawling with Twitter executives when they wanted something,” Supervisor Malia Cohen said at the hearing, referring to the tax breaks the company receives in exchange for headquartering close by one of the West Coast’s most notorious open air drug markets.

Maybe the absence of executives has to do with the industry’s well documented PR problem—being afraid to say something offensive. Or maybe it’s because some of them are busy in court. I guess it could also be because the execs are too busy shooting the shit with Sharon Stone. It’s hard to know because few of the companies operating the shuttles are willing to discuss it.

With all the drama inside San Francisco’s council chambers—and the eruption of media coverage following each protest or vote—it’s easy to forget that majority of communities within Silicon Valley have no problem with tech shuttles. In fact, just the opposite, as I discovered last year. At the time, I talked with numerous city and county officials, who said that neither they nor the vast majority of their constituents believed the buses to be a net positive for the region. The shuttles are even “baked into the cake” as part of the Bay Area wide transportation strategy for the next 25 years, a regional planning official told me.

But, shuttle opponents aren’t out of options just yet, and may well launch a lawsuit against the city of San Francisco over the alleged unlawful exemption of this buck-a-stop pilot from an environmental review. Hard to know if it would have merit, but it could prevent the pilot from going forward until the case is heard. Such tactics have also worked in the past with other transportation improvements. The social, economic and political changes, however, are another matter entirely.