Investigation: SF gave the Google buses a “handshake” pass for years. Now will the violators finally get tickets?

    In October, 2011, for example, a resident named Doug Robbins sent Paine this email:

    I was southbound on Van Ness this morning, in between Chestnut and Lombard at 8:10am.  (I was eastbound on Chestnut and turned right onto Van Ness) I noticed a fair amount of traffic in front of me, in fact the traffic was very heavy, and it took 3 full cycles of the stoplight at Van Ness & Lombard for me to get across Lombard. I was thinking, hmm, maybe an accident or the Broadway tunnel is really backed up this morning.  Not the case.

    As I finally got closer to the intersection of Van Ness and Union, I realized what the hold up was.  Between the 2 commuter busses loading at the Northwest corner of Union and Van Ness, and the 2 muni transit busses using the muni bus stop, the busses had jammed up one of the lanes on Van Ness, while waiting at the curb to board passengers. I’m very serious about this- it was a real back up on Van Ness almost to Chestnut street, and it was caused by busses blocking a lane of Van Ness in order to load private passengers on commuter busses. (If I had to guess, I’d bet that there is a scheduled stop at that intersection at 8am for a few different commuter busses)

    I am still curious: if only Muni busses are allowed to use muni bus stops, why aren’t the commuter busses being issued tickets? I know that if I park or stop my vehicle in a muni bus stop, I am liable for a ticket, so why aren’t commuter busses getting tickets?  I was not able to identify the specific commuter busses or take pictures, hard to do in a moving vehicle and I did not want to stop and block traffic myself.

    Paine passed the message along to Officer Bryan Lujon, the cop responsible for overseeing traffic citations of this type. But the problems continued, more complaints about Van Ness flowed in – and eventually, Paine suggested, “Let’s do some outreach and warnings.”

    Both the MTA and SFPD have the authority to issue parking tickets, although once the bus is in motion, only the SFPD can stop it. In most cases, the tickets are issued through a photo of the license plate and sent directly to the company.

    According to Paul Rose, the always-helpful public information officer at the MTA, there were 4,262 tickets issued for bus zone violations in fiscal year 2012-2013. There’s no way to know how many were issued to shuttle buses. But it’s clear the shuttle buses, which violate the Muni zone laws dozens, maybe hundreds of times every day, don’t get that many tickets – and when they do, they complain.

    For example, Michael Watson, vice president for sales and marketing at Bauer, which contracts with many of the tech companies, wrote to Paine Jan. 22, 2014 to ask that bus-zone tickets get dismissed:

    On a related matter, I just received a stack of recent SFMTA Citations.  Most have been paid and most appear to be $271 tickets for using Muni stops.  As I assume you know, we have had a “handshake” agreement with SFMTA for many years that allowed us to use the stops under a “Muni First” condition, and I know we have been aggressive at responding to any issues or complaints that have surfaced along the way. How should I go about getting these citations waived and a refund for what we have paid?

    How many citations? Watson says not so many at all:

    After sorting out the non-Bus Stop citations, I found one (1) from March 2013, one (1) from October 2013, and then nine (9) from November 2013 through January 2014.

    That’s 11 citations for hundreds of violations, which, by some accounts, could add up to $1 billion over the past few years.

    Google goes beyond what Bauer is doing. The Silicon Valley giant hired Barbary Coast Consulting, a prominent lobbying firm, to try to get the city to stop issuing tickets:

    An email from Paine to Lea Militello, director of security and enforcement for the MTA’s Sustainable Streets, notes:

    Google keeps getting tickets at Columbus and Union for loading/unloading in a Muni zone. They have asked me (via a PR firm they have working for them) if I can communicate to PD/PCOs that they are participating in our work to develop solutions for shuttles. I think they want to be exempt from tickets during the policy development process.

    Ross Guehring, a lobbyist with Barbary Coast, sent an email to Paine April 12, 2012 asking that tickets be dismissed:

    Attached are some past tickets at the Columbus & Union location. The ticket enforcement area manager is Jesus Sigala. We would appreciate it if you could place a call to him and let him know that we’re trying to find an overarching solution on these matters. In general, I think it would go a long way if these tickets could somehow be reined in during this policy development process.

    Rose says none of the tickets were dismissed.

    Still, repeatedly, the emails show the city trying to make nice to the tech companies – to issue warnings instead of tickets. There’s no way that would ever happen with the rest of us plebians – or with most commercial operators who violate the law and block Muni stops.

    So now, today, as far as I can tell, the tech buses have no formal agreement, there is no pilot project in effect, and every time one of them parks in a Muni stop, it’s violating the law and should get a $271 ticket.

    I asked Rose to confirm if that was the policy – if, for example, a Google bus pulled into a Muni stop tomorrow morning and a Parking Control Officer was on these scene. Would the officer, by city policy, be required to write a ticket? “That would be the case today,” Rose said.

    Same goes for the SFPD: If there’s a policy against writing tickets for the Google buses, it’s not in writing anywhere. A public records request to SFPD yielded a clear response: There is no written policy, and officers have no formal instructions, to allow anyone to park illegally in a Muni stop.

    Officer Lujan can be reached at 415-725-1393. His email is bryan.lujan@sfgov.org. If you see a Google bus in the Muni zone, feel free to give him a call.

    In the meantime, the tech buses can easily rent space in, say, church parking lots or other commercial areas, and the riders can take Muni to get there. It’s not so bad, riding the bus like a commoner; I do it all the time.

    • Bruce Wolfe

      Watch this video from Mark Fiore
      In Haight-Ashbury this is very prevalent. What’s more, MUNI was required to plant about a foot or more concrete pad at every bus stop because the weight of the buses were affecting and sinking the pavement. Now, the advent of corporate busing will increase not only the frequency of use but with vehicles whose weight was not rated plus the frequency of use for this concrete pad. In addition, new 35-foot white zones reserved for “passenger drop-off” for tour and other than MUNI buses were stealthily placed in certain areas along Haight Street. None of these areas are reinforced with concrete pads to protect the pavement either. Also, with all the congestion these buses are causing, they then use alternate routes through purely residential streets not rated for such additional weight causing new regular thoroughfares, and putting pedestrians and families with strollers and dogs at risk. The increase in sinkholes is caused by this.

      I remember there was a call at one time to place an additional tax on SUVs when they were on the increase for the additional weight causing more wear and tear on our streets. The basic concerns for every resident in every major city of its government is to get the “trains to run on time”, garbage picked up and fix potholes. This has been the call going all the way back to, well, forever. It is the reason for bonds to be put out to fix the streets. Now, the allowance of these non-city businesses (many just have city addresses) to operate unbridled and unregulated is causing this whole mess to start again. Round and round, and round and round. You can see the spiral of budget deficit a mile away with no reparations in site. Again, we give it all away leaving the poor and middle-class to foot the bill. Somehow this sounds a little like NIMBY-ism among these corp bus users.

      The miniscule $1 per stop charge is not profit to the city as many supporters of corp buses claim. This are reparations for our already spent tax-dollars for wear-and-tear and physical damage to our streets for which those workers’ salaries are being spent elsewhere and not fully supporting our economy. Plus, the loss of $$ in slowing down of MUNI services when our buses can’t get into the bus stops and have to pokey behind them on the same roadways. I can’t believe that this hasn’t caused a major CEQA Level Of Service EIR to be triggered but instead folks had to bring a lawsuit forward. And, if some grocery store wants to move into a neighborhood with a parking lot that does trigger a CEQA LOS EIR?! Yeesh! Such double-standards of policy.

      Sidenote: Actually, Genentech was one of the very first to provide corporate leased busing for their employees way before Google et al.

      First of all, these are all out buses. They are not shuttles. The smaller vehicles for Paratransit and campus-to-campus university transit are shuttles, say, less than 20-person capacity (sans Academy of Art which uses old full-size yellow school buses). Also, nearly all commuters south would be taking Caltrain anyway or be carpooling so the argument there would be more cars on the road is truly bogus.

      And, now we hear from a recent survey that if these corporate buses didn’t run, they would move to San Clara County anyway. Plus, the other recent Chamber of Commerce report shows that to own a home in the city requires a minimum of $155k annual salary. Even below market rate (BMR) is too expensive for many starting at $350k for a studio.

      What is so very interesting about this is in my parents’ generation, my father and the rest of the working class community took the bus to the Metro-North train to Grand Central station every business day for more than 40 years. Did they complain? Not one bit. Has anything really changed in this regard? No, not one bit. In fact, I did, too, when I went to audio engineering school in NYC and worked stage crew in the clubs at night. The only thing that is different now is the impatience of people. Get over it! Until Star Trek transporters are invented, drink less caffeine and energy drinks, slow down a bit and enjoy the scenery, take a nap, listen to some tunes…We were all glad this public transportation was there at all. No one wanted to commute by car into Manhattan.

      Plus, most of these tech workers I know would rather ride their bikes than be caught in a car except under the occassional City Car Share. But, when there are more new vehicles on the road in addition to other internal combustion engines that exist in a region (Caltrain runs on real diesel, too, like the corp buses), and that they would be caused to idle at any point on a public roadway that constitutes a change in Level Of Service under CEQA. It’s a fact that is not being addressed.

      In fact, San Francisco has a mandate towards reducing climate change that converted or purchased new hybrid and bio-diesel buses. If anything, the city should like it did with banning plastic bags, ban all diesel buses in the city. All other public transportation that operate or transfer in the city has already done so.

      Also, yesterday’s Chamber of Commerce report shows that to own in the city requires a minimum of $155k annual salary. Even below market rate (BMR) is too expensive for many starting at $350k for a studio.

    • Rick Galbreath

      UPS has an agreement with the City: Tickets for double parking are sent directly to their HQ and are paid without question. They do so to keep the drivers from getting delayed while a ticket is written. In return for the no questions payment, the city allows for face-value payment net 30 (or maybe 60) instead of the 10 days to pay or contest.

      For UPS it is just a cost of doing business and it enters their usual A/P system.

      “GoogleBus” parking for $1 as a program is setting a bad precedent. Parcel and freight companies are going to want a $1 deal too and it is going to be hard to rationalize why GoogleBus gets to block Muni traffic for $1 and others don’t get to block traffic traffic for the same $1.

    • Pingback: Politics on Tuesday: A budget deficit and a housing need | 48 hills48 hills()