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Google drives home dividing line in San Francisco

The dispute over tech company commuter buses has become a symbol of the dividing line in San Francisco. The arrival of tech-savvy workers has triggered skyrocketing rents, forcing working class residents to leave.

Tech companies like Google, Apple and Facebook offer their San Francisco-based employees free transportation on private commuter buses to jobs in Silicon Valley, some 45 minutes south of the city. The employees catch rides on the luxurious, Wifi-equipped coaches, which make thousands of stops each day at local city bus stops around town.

Many consider the bus stops a public asset that shouldn't be used by private companies without compensation. They say the buses clog already crowded city streets and sometimes hem city buses in. The issue led to protests earlier this month, with members of local groups surrounding the shuttle buses, and in one case in Oakland, breaking a bus window.

"The buses are a poignant symbol of an industry that has wreaked havoc on our city," Sara Short, Executive Director of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, told DW. "They've trampled over a huge segment of the city trying to survive in an over-inflated rental market."

Eviction Free San Francisco, a local tenants' right group, says rents have doubled in many cases in recent years and evictions have risen as the most recent tech boom has hit the city.

people in front of a bus

The protests have picked up over the last two months

In response to public pressure, the city government recently reached an agreement with Apple, Google, Facebook and other companies to charge them a fee for the use of public bus stops.

Under the 18-month pilot program, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency will issue permits at 200 of the city's 2,500 bus stops and charge the companies a daily fee based on the number of stops that each shuttle provider makes. The SFMTA estimates the average cost of the shuttle permits at about $100,000 per company. The Agency says the program could bring in more than $1.5 million for the city's transportation system.

Positive step

In a statement, Google called the program a "positive first step" in creating a safe reliable transportation option for its employees and the city.

"San Francisco needs a reliable, safe and affordable world-class transportation system," said Mayor Ed Lee in a statement. "This agreement will help the city realize benefits that come with commuter shuttle."

Lee said those benefits include taking thousands of cars off the roads and preventing traffic snarls, while companies pay a fee and don't delay public buses.

Members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, (the city's equivalent to a city council), agree that the agreement is a good step forward. Board President David Chiu says by working with companies' providing shuttle service "we are working to improve our entire transportation network, grow the economy and create a more livable and vibrant city for everyone."

The Bay Area Council, a regional business and economic development association, estimates that the commuter buses eliminate 45 million vehicle miles traveled and 761,000 metric tons of carbon every year from the area's roads.

However critics aren't entirely sold on the idea.

"It's an admission that the tech companies should take some responsibility," said Sara Short of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. "But it's too little too late, we've already lost so much revenue over the years by not charging them fees. The $100,000 per year the fees bring in are an insignificant amount. It's not enough for specific services like transportation infrastructure." Short says all the fees will do is recoup the cost of enforcing the agreement.

Symbol of struggle

people holding poster

For many protesters the issue is symbolic of a rich-poor divide

For others, the symbolism of the shuttle bus issue goes much deeper than any inconvenience or traffic tie-ups the buses may have caused. They say it's actually a symbol of the struggle over the very character of a city that's always been welcoming to people from all walks of life.

"People who came here years ago for specific reasons and want to remain are being pushed out," said Becca Gourevitch with the San Francisco Tenants Union. "It shouldn't be only for wealthy tech workers."

Gourevitch says it's harder to survive for immigrants, the gay community and the artists, writers and musicians who helped make the city an attractive destination.

"Everything is changing," she said. "A lot of the new restaurants are catering to highly paid residents. It's getting harder to find affordable places to shop and eat."

Meanwhile, the Municipal Transportation Agency Board will take up the proposed agreement on 21 January. The board will ask for input from shuttle providers on which stops should be included in the program and will ask city residents for feedback as well. Final approval for the program will come at a hearing in the spring.

For their part, residents and tenants' rights groups have been organizing tenant conventions in neighborhoods around town. The goal, they say, is to put their heads together and come up with ideas for a pro-tenant, anti-eviction measure to put on the November ballot. A city-wide tenant convention is planned for February 8.

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