Neighbors seek rules for tech buses

Neighbors seek rules for tech buses

Michele Ellson


Every day, a large, white bus stops in front of Donald Hull’s High Street home, backing up traffic sometimes for several blocks of the narrow, busy corridor as the workers riding it disembark.

Sometimes, Hull and his neighbors said, frustrated drivers and AC Transit buses drive the wrong way down High Street to get around the private tech company buses, which they said stop in the middle of the street to pick up and drop off passengers, blocking passage. The problems worsen when school starts, bringing more pedestrians and drivers to High Street, residents said; Otis Elementary School and Krusi Park both line the buses' route.

Hull and his neighbors said they’re not anti-tech and that they don’t have a problem with tech companies busing their workers to and from their Silicon Valley campuses, which can be hard to reach using existing public transit. They just want the companies to address the traffic and parking problems East End residents said the buses can create.

“We’re all neighbors. I don’t want it to be us versus them,” Hull said. “It’s just, corporately they need to take responsibility for their actions. We just want it to be safe.”

Hull said he’s reached out to Google – which confirmed to city officials that it runs shuttles on High Street – several times about the buses driving on High Street, which has a posted, three-ton weight limit, and about concerns neighbors have expressed about workers taking up on-street parking. He has not received a response.

Spokespeople for Google and Apple – which is said to run buses along Broadway with a stop at the park and ride lot at the corner of Island and Doolittle drives on Bay Farm Island – did not respond to calls and e-mails from a reporter.

Alameda doesn’t have any rules regulating the flow of company buses and shuttles on the Island, and city officials only became aware of residents’ issues with them in June, when one resident reached out to City Hall for help.

Community Development Director Debbie Potter said the city has corresponded with Google, whose representative confirmed to the city that the company runs two morning and two evening buses on High Street. Potter said the city is also reaching out to two other tech companies Google identified as operating buses in town to work through residents’ concerns (though a spokesperson for one of the companies, Facebook, said it doesn't run bus service in Alameda).

Potter – who said the city supports the concept of company buses and shuttles and noted that the city will be requiring similar types of transport in new development planned for Alameda Point and along Alameda’s Northern Waterfront, in a bid to reduce the traffic the development will create – said city officials hope to measure and propose solutions to any impacts companies' existing buses create by the beginning of 2015.

“Our goal is to develop operating standards and guidelines for private shuttles (and) buses that allow them to operate in a safe and orderly manner so that they are an asset to the community and one piece of the transportation solution in Alameda,” she said.

AC Transit is also hoping to bring companies using its bus stops in line. Spokesman Clarence Johnson said no company has received permission to use the bus agency’s stops in Alameda; state law only permits the public buses to use the stops. A reporter monitoring bus activity over the past two weeks observed buses using AC Transit stops near the Bay Farm Island park and ride lot and on High Street.

“The tech buses do not have permission to use AC Transit bus stops, and if they are using the stops they are doing so illegally,” Johnson said.

He said the agency is sending cease-and-desist letters to tech companies believed to be using the stops; anyone caught using the stops without permission can receive a fine of $300 or more, Johnson said. But with 5,600 stops in AC Transit’s East Bay service area, Johnson said, “it is a challenge to monitor all of them at any given time.”

An unmarked, white bus pulled into an AC Transit stop on High Street near Otis Drive at 7:50 a.m. one morning last week; cars began stacking up behind the bus, which was stopped at a 45-degree angle and blocking an entire lane of traffic, as it picked up a half dozen or so workers.

A similar bus picked up workers at the same time Monday, this time stopping in the middle of the street, about 50 yards short of the stop; a reporter identified it as a Google bus using the WiFi signal it transmits. Several of the workers waiting for the bus Monday had bicycles, and a reporter did not observe any of the workers waiting for the bus park on High Street.

High Street has a posted, three-ton weight limit, though AC Transit – whose buses likely exceed that limit – has stops on the street.

Buses marked “Sunnyvale only” picked up workers waiting at an AC Transit stop in front of the Bay Farm park and ride lot on the same two days; each time, a reporter observed buses pulling directly into the AC Transit stop, in one instance blocking an AC Transit bus. A similar bus was seen traveling on Broadway, which is a truck route.

A Wired writer identified those buses’ WiFi signal – labeled “CommuteWiFi” – as belonging to Apple, and several people have said the company bus picks up employees at the park and ride lot.

San Francisco recently initiated an 18-month pilot program permitting companies with permits to use some city bus stops for $1 per stop. Opponents sued to stop the program in May, saying the city should have studied the potential impacts of the buses before moving forward.

The private buses, with their tinted windows, plush seats and WiFi, have become a symbol of displacement fears among San Franciscans whose housing costs are rising sharply and of rising economic inequality for transit users whose rides are considerably less comfortable, as well as a target of protests in San Francisco and Oakland. Protesters blocked buses heading over the High Street Bridge this past April Fool’s Day.

Some members of the Alameda Peeps Facebook page who responded to a reporter’s queries about the buses offered their own displacement and gentrification concerns in the face of rising rents here.

“Having the private buses creates a class inequality that leaves a bad taste in my mouth,” Corrie Carozza wrote.

But bus backers pointed out that the buses take dozens of cars off the roads every day, and that there’s no public transit service that would shuttle workers directly from Alameda to Silicon Valley. The transit trip planner offered by showed that workers seeking to use public transit to get to and from Google and Apple’s South Bay headquarters would face commutes of up to three hours across multiple buses and trains.

“It is a nice way to keep cars off the road,” wrote Andy Boretto, who said he rides one of the buses.

High Street residents said they’re all for less traffic. They just want the buses to operate safely.

“I am all for these buses however ... they need to follow the rules of the road,” High Street resident Jane Schmitz wrote on Alameda Peeps. “We are (not) complaining just to complain, it's unsafe for people living in this street.”

Hull noted that the public can speak out about changes to AC Transit’s stops during what is typically a months-long public process – a contrast to the approach of companies that don’t appear to have reached out to the city, AC Transit or residents about the service they provide.

Jeremy Schmitz, who said he raised the concerns with the city but that he supports the buses, said he suggested the city seek compensation from companies operating bus service here. Melissa Eckard said she thinks companies should rent lots near their stops for workers to park in – or that they should invest in better public transit for everyone, and not just their own workers.

Sergé Wilson wrote that he thinks Google can time its stops between those of AC Transit’s buses, reducing any inconvenience to public bus passengers.

“The AC Transit schedules are not secret. Seems to me the Google bus could use their stops safely in-between the timetable,” Wilson wrote. “Blocking the bus stop when AC Transit needs to use it and/or stopping in the middle of High St. are both no good.”

The Google bus picks up passengers August 6 on High Street. Video by Michele Ellson.


Submitted by C. (not verified) on Tue, Aug 12, 2014

It baffles me why they are allowed to stop on Island Drive (at the bus stop or anywhere) blocking traffic. We all know that Bay Farm residents deal with gridlock every morning on Island Drive when school is in session. How about these tech companies use their clout to get affordable working-class housing built in Silicon Valley instead of importing their workers here and displacing existing residents who have seen rents climb astronomically in the last couple years? I don't know which is worse - the influx of tech workers or foreign investors snatching up homes sight unseen, paying over asking price, and then renting them out at hugely marked up prices.

Submitted by George J (not verified) on Tue, Aug 12, 2014

Good job Michelle. I hope the City will take remedial action.

I find it weird that some people on twitter compare this to Iraq/ISIS and all the other stuff happening out there in the world to ask if this is our biggest problem. Of course, it is .. especially for a blog that is dedicated to all things Alameda.

Keep up the good job. Or as they say "Illegitimi non carborundum" :)

Submitted by luczai (not verified) on Wed, Aug 13, 2014

It's outrageous that private buses are operating in this manner on a regular schedule and costing ever increasing amounts of taxpayer money to regulate. They should stop at specially designated park and ride lots, period. Getting a free trip to Silicon Valley should be enough of a perk for employees. They should not use public transit stops for free and they should not use them at all if it impedes the flow of traffic or causes a hazard.

Submitted by Andy Chow (not verified) on Thu, Aug 14, 2014

AC Transit doesn't provide service in Alameda anywhere as frequent as Muni in San Francisco, so saying that it can fine other buses using its stop is a display of arrogance (and why companies are choosing to run their own buses rather than working with transit agencies to develop routes). If I were one of those companies I would have its riders to speak at an AC Transit board meeting since they pay taxes to support AC Transit (with no service usable to them) and can vote in and out AC board members.

VTA doesn't provide service like Muni either, but they're cool with other buses stopping as long as it doesn't interrupt its operations (like just picking up and not waiting there), and that's the attitude that all transit agencies have regarding other buses using the stops. In reality, the transit agencies really don't own bus stops per se. It is just that the cities have allocated street space for buses to use.

The "cost" to the transit agencies to allow private buses to stop at their stops are far lower than the cost to public school districts to accommodate charter schools. They need to be thankful that the private companies are paying the rest of the cost rather than trying to get direct public subsidy like charter schools.

Submitted by Bay Farm Parent (not verified) on Thu, Aug 14, 2014

Oh the scandal! I see the tech bus at the Bay Farm park-and-ride every week day morning. Yes, it does pull into the marked AC Transit bus stop, but I've never seen it interfere with an AC Transit bus using the same stop. Second, I thought the idea behind park-and-rides was, well, uh, one parks for the purposes of sharing a ride.

Furthermore, to Mr. Chow's point, if AC Transit, BART, Blue and Gold and the other Bay Area transit agencies that operate in the Bay Area would coordinate their services instead of treating each other with veiled contempt, then commuters would have no use for these tech buses. It wouldn't take three hours, multiple systems, a jet ski ride, and a swim (OK, so I'm exaggerating) to get to Mountain View or Sunnyvale, or where the heck ever in Silicon Valley.

I speak from experience - I've worked on several contracts in The Valley and one's only real choice from Alameda is patchwork transit or to drive. My personal worst was 5 hours home one night from Great America Parkway on employee shuttle, VTA bus, BART and car from BART parking lot on a stormy night. If an employer offered me a bus option, I'd be the first one to the park-and-ride every morning!

On the flip side of the coin, I don't think the buses should be stopping on High Street and impeding traffic. The sponsoring companies do also need to consider the parking impacts to the neighborhoods. Instead of being incensed that the buses are coming into Alameda, maybe the city should consider building more park-and-rides in the city (near Park and Webster Streets, for example, or out on the old base) so that parking and pull outs are available and does not negatively impact our streets or neighborhoods.

Submitted by Sam (not verified) on Fri, Aug 15, 2014

I really dont understand the complaint. We have school buses stop in the middle of the street and turn on their lights and stop traffic in both directions, why to transport people, which we pay for in our tax bill.
This does not cost the tax payer a penny. They perform the same type of service as a school bus. If they impead traffic for a few minutes, its no different than a school bus.
All I hear is jealousy that some employers are providing transportation and the ones complains have to provide thier own.
Complain that there is not an adequate mass transit system in place is which these buses would not be required.

Submitted by SV (not verified) on Mon, Aug 18, 2014

"or that they should invest in better public transit for everyone, and not just their own workers."

This is the thing that bothers me. Why don't these companies invest in public transit, or at least open up their shuttles for folks who are also going the same way? (Wow, a way to make money and save the environment! I'd stop making the 2-3hr drive a day.)