By Tim Redmond
APRIL 2, 2014 — The San Francisco supervisors defied pretty much the entire progressive community last night and gave a green light to a program that allows tech shuttles to use Muni stops for $1.
The topic of the hearing was technical: Does the pilot program meet the threshold in the California Environmental Quality Act to mandate an environmental impact report?
The real issue led to hours of testimony: Is it okay for shuttles that serve mostly upper-income people to use public bus stops, delaying the Muni buses that serve a lower-income clientele – and shouldn’t the city look first at the impacts on residents and what could be done to mitigate the damage?
City planners argued that the pilot program doesn’t need an EIR. A coalition that included labor, tenant groups, the Harvey Milk Club and environmentalists challenged that decision and asked the board to overturn it.
In the end, only Supervisors David Campos and John Avalos agreed with the progressives. With Sup. Eric Mar absent, eight other board members voted to approve the Google Bus Project.
On its face, the city’s position was hard to justify: There are more than 300 private shuttles, some of them 60 feet long, and all evidence suggests that they are slowing down Muni, clogging traffic, and adding to the displacement of residents in areas that they serve.
Under CEQA, a government action that “could have a significant impact on the environment” needs an EIR. An EIR doesn’t meant the project can’t move forward; it just mandates that the decision-makers understand the full impacts of what the project involves and consider ways to mitigate, or lessen, the impacts that can’t be avoided.
In this case, that would mean, for example, looking at whether the tech companies that pay for these buses need to put money into an affordable housing fund, or pay for better Muni service, or be limited to loading and unloading in certain geographic areas.
The Pirate Shuttles
Among the legal issues here: Can the city say that the “existing conditions” under CEQA already include private shuttles stopping in Muni zones, and look at impacts beyond that? Or should the city assume that the existing shuttles are breaking the law and look at the baseline that existed without them?
Richard Drury, attorney for the appellants, talked about “pirate” shuttle buses and noted that what the buses are doing now is illegal. The shuttle buses, he noted, are displacing people – and under CEQA, displacement is a significant impact.
The city is preparing a full EIR for the Muni Transit Effectiveness Project, he said. In other words, when the city makes changes to the public transit system, it requires environmental study. But when Google wants to run pirate shuttle buses, there’s no EIR at all.
The city’s own budget and legislative analyst issued a report concluding that the buses are having significant impacts on the city — 60,000 pound buses cause over a dollar of damage for every mile they travel. A loaded SUV causes less than one penny.
They also interfere with Muni service, blocking traffic and causing impacts on disabled people who have to get on the buses in the middle of traffic.
These buses, Drury noted, are “the opposite of affirmative action.” Cities used to bus low-income people to better schools. Now San Francisco is allowing private companies to bus upper-income white adults into low-income neighborhoods of color where they displace existing residents.
Sup. David Chiu asked a question that seemed to put him on the side of the tech companies: If the shuttle program is shut down, he said, a lot more tech workers will drive.
Drury pointed out that the issue isn’t stopping the program; it’s just about creating a full study that would look at the impacts.
“Before the government does an 18-month pilot, we should figure out what the impacts mitigation and alternatives are,” he said.
In fact, the Anti-eviction Mapping Project has studied the issue and concluded that 69 percent of no-fault evictions happened within four blocks of a private shuttle stop. Rents have skyrocketed around those stops. The Municipal Transporation Agency, which runs Muni and is handling the pilot project, has done zero analysis of the eviction issue.
Wiener loses the debate
Then Sup. Scott Wiener took over, interrogating Drury, trying to push the argument to absurd conclusions – and failing.
Here’s the essence of the exchange.
Wiener: You talked about busing high-income people into the neighborhoods. What do you mean by that? You’re making the assumption that the tech workers aren’t real San Franciscans, that there is some sort of invading force, that they are not one of us.
Drury: Displacement is an impact under CEQA. The people who are being displaced are overwhelmingly people of color, lower and moderate income. They will require replacement housing or wind up on the street. When the government takes action that will result in mass displacement, CEQA requires analysis.
Wiener: Most of these shuttles are exclusively within the city, Twitter, the GAP, UCSF. Why doesn’t the appeal brief talk about that?
Drury: Most of the intra-city shuttles use white zones. They’re lighter, smaller, less impacts on pedestrian safety. Most of the impacts aren’t the intra-city program, it’s the intercity shuttles.
Wiener: Let’s talk about whether these really are impacting displacement. Of 35,000 daily boardings of private shuttles in the city, only about 6,500 are inter-city shuttles. That’s about 3,250 riders. About 30 percent of those people say they would move closer to work if they didn’t have the shuttles. That’s about 1,000 people in the best-case scenario. There’s been a population increase of 75,000 people in the city. Would losing 1,000 tech workers really have an impact on reducing displacement?
Drury: Yes. Impacts are cumulative. This is one impact, one of many. It’s a significant one, a highly localized one. Within four blocks of a shuttle stop, property values have appreciated faster.
Wiener: But any improvement in transit causes gentrification. If we’re going to add Muni buses or Muni lines to make it easier for people to get around, do we have to do an EIR?
Drury: Yes. In fact, the city’s doing that exact thing right now, studying the impacts of Muni line changes.
Wiener: What if we made it easier to drive on Highway 101? Would that require an EIR?
Drury: Every road widening project since 1970s has had an EIR.
Wiener: In the context of all the auto traffic in the city, do you know what percentage of the pollution and cancer risk caused by these shuttles?
Drury: Our analysis says that the incremental impact exceeds the CEQA threshold. And it’s a poor argument to say that the problem is already bad, so let’s go ahead and make it worse.
After Wiener was finished, Campos noted: “Mr. Drury, I think I just learned not to get into an argument with you.”
Drury raised another interesting point: The city, by legalizing the tech shuttles, is attempting to pre-empt state law. California Vehicle Code Sect. 22500 states that no private vehicle can block a public bus stop.
“I don’t think the city can authorize an illegal activity anyway,” he said.
Campos asked if the city is allowing any private citizen to use the stops? Drury: No, that’s a $271 ticket.
Tech workers and immigrants
Sup. Jane Kim made a nice point, one that needs to be repeated: “I hate the analogy that tech workers are new immigrants that are discriminated against,” she said. “When Chinese workers arrived they were not allowed to own property or go to public schools. It’s not a fair analogy.”
Tom Temprano, co-president of the Milk Club (and a columnist for 48hills) noted during public comment that “When it comes to building desperate affordable housing, the city says it takes time, we need to do an EIR.When it comes to adding bike lanes, or improving Muni, the city says it takes time, we need an EIR.
But this project we’re told that there isn’t an EIR and time suddenly isn’t an issue.”
Dean Preston, a tenant advocate who lives in Alamo Square, said the issue is that “there ought to be one set of laws that apply to everyone. He invited the supervisors to have coffee with him at Hayes and Steiner to watch the tech shuttles interfere with Muni and traffic. “You can come watch and see who’s winning.”
After Sarah Jones, director of environmental planning at the City Planning Department, presented the city’s position on the issue, Campos was stunned: “The city’s argument is circular,” he said. “How can you say that an illegal condition is then the baseline?” (The League of Pissed Off Voters has a good piece on this here.)
He asked if there are places where no shuttles are stopping now that could be part of the pilot. Jones said she didn’t know.
“That’s kind of comical,” Campos said. “How do you know that there’s no environmental impact if you don’t know how many stops there will be?”
But never mind the facts. Never mind that the entire progressive community was united in this appeal. Never mind that what the shuttles are doing is illegal. When the roll call came, at around 10:30 pm, the deal was done. Supervisors London Breed, David Chiu, Malia Cohen, Mark Farrell, Jane Kim, Katy Tang, Scott Wiener, and Norman Yee all voted to reject the appeal and let the Google buses run rampant over the city.
Not a good day for San Francisco. Not a good day at all.
(Full disclosure note: While I try to raise enough money for 48hills to actually pay myself a living wage, I’m doing outside freelance work. As a freelancer, I am helping edit the member newsletter of SEIU Local 1021, which is one of the appellants in the Google Bus case. (I am also teaching at City College and San Francisco’s State’s Osher Institute of Lifelong Learning and recently did a class at USF.)
Oh, and among the people testifying against the Google Bus project was my son, Michael, who rides Muni to high school and complains that the tech shuttles slow down the 24 line and make him late to class. I didn’t ask him to testify or tell him what to say; he got mad enough on his own to come down to City Hall and wait three hours for his two minutes. He’s even more mad that we lost.)