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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

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UncategorizedInvestigation: SF gave the Google buses a “handshake” pass...

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.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Marke B.
Marke Bieschke is the publisher and arts and culture editor of 48 Hills. He co-owns the Stud bar in SoMa. Reach him at marke (at) 48hills.org, follow @supermarke on Twitter.
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