Inside a Secretive $250 Million Private Transit System Just for Techies
1,000 white-collar tech shuttles are stalling Bay Area public transit
This article is part of Into the Valley, a feature series from OneZero about Silicon Valley, the people who live there, and the technology they create.
In 2004, in the Glen Park neighborhood of San Francisco, an unmarked employee shuttle bus rolled up to the curb in front of a group of employees. The crowd was likely dressed in the uniform of tech workers: blue jeans and sneakers, with backpacks slung across their shoulders and headphone cables dangling from their ears. Onboard, the small group of tech workers would have settled down for their 80-minute journey to Google’s Mountain View headquarters, plugging cables into outlets and connecting their laptops to the in-bus Wi-Fi. The bus averaged 155 Googlers a day that year.
Thus began the era of the Silicon Valley tech shuttle bus. At the time, the BlackBerry was the hot handset, YouTube would soon be launched from a Menlo Park garage, and Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” topped the Billboard 100. Google was the first of many tech giants to launch tech shuttles. The following year, Yahoo and Electronic Arts introduced their own shuttle bus services from San Francisco to the peninsula — “the Pepsi to Google’s Coke,” jeered a reporter. Ebay introduced shuttle buses in 2007, Juniper Networks in 2008, and so on.
The buses improved employee quality of life, the companies said, and that of local residents; they eased congestion and were better for the environment. By 2008, 1,600 Googlers boarded 150 buses around the Bay Area daily, with drop-off points stretching from the foggy oceanside town of Santa Cruz to the city of Concord, located toward California’s hot and dusty Central Valley. “We are basically running a small municipal transit agency,” Google’s security and safety director told the New York Times in 2007.
In retrospect, this was peanuts. By 2014, more than 750 buses carted some 37,000 employees into the valley and back each day. Those buses covered approximately 25 million miles of tarmac a year, at an approximate operating cost of $249,000 per bus per year to employers.
Today, there are an estimated 1,020 private commuter shuttle buses in the Bay Area, according to unpublished data from the San Francisco Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC). Add that up and you have a private transportation system worth more than $250 million — the seventh-largest transit system in the Bay Area, ahead of the ferry network, the County Connection buses, and the Marin Transit Network. Even back in 2014, almost as many people traveled by private shuttles as they did on Caltrain, the commuter train that runs from San Francisco to San Jose.
A source of protest and poetry, these shuttles constitute a vast commuter network that has affected the basic infrastructure of the region. They have reshaped the modern geography of the valley, and their stopgap existence has disincentivized transportation officials from updating their own networks, say public transit activists in the area.
“We are basically running a small municipal transit agency.”
“We have a major lack of accountability for regional mobility in our region,” says Ian Griffiths, policy director of Seamless Bay Area, a public transit nonprofit. Organizations like Seamless want to see the region’s fragmented transit agencies integrated, with a new transit body to oversee standardized fares, handle tickets, and implement a regional bus network with dedicated highway express lanes in Silicon Valley and beyond.
But the private shuttle network tailored for tech workers is sapping energy from efforts at a regional transportation revolution.
“Facebook and Google don’t want to be in the transportation business. But it’s an onus that they’re bearing,” says Arielle Fleisher, transportation policy director at SPUR, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association. Fleisher is standing in the lobby of SPUR’s headquarters, a 14,500-square-foot four-story building in downtown San Francisco. Designed to be ultra-sustainable, the building’s carpets, cabinetry, and countertops are made from industrial scrap, sunflower husks, and recycled newspapers, respectively.
In February 2019, SPUR’s atrium featured an exhibit titled, “How We Move: From Camels to Cable Cars.” Photographs of reindeer sleighs and horse-drawn carriages were classed as “domesticated transport”; Employer shuttles and vans were classed under “flexible buses.”
Before it was a tech hub, Santa Clara Valley was a rich farming community. As the valley’s commercial engine shifted from agriculture to defense to manufacturing and, finally, to tech, the area developed into a series of interlinked, sprawling suburbs tied together by freeways. Land-use clauses capped the height and densities of new developments. “A lot of Silicon Valley is really built for the car,” Fleisher says.
The region dragged its feet when it came to regional public transit. Chicago opened its subway in 1892; New York City followed in 1904. But the Bay Area launched its subway service, BART, only in 1972. Instead, communities in the area spent much of the 20th century tearing out existing light rail to make room for cars.
“These private shuttles, [which] basically received no public money at all, carried significantly more people than public agencies that have budgets of millions of dollars a year.”
The tech industry, and the millions of new workers it brought with it, flooded a system that was unprepared to handle a population that grew from 5.1 million in 1980 to 7.8 million in 2018, a 52% increase in just four decades. Meanwhile, the greater area lacks even basic public transportation networks.
All public transport in the Bay Area falls under the purview of the MTC, a state-funded agency that focuses on transportation planning and financing. The organization’s remit spans nine counties, from the vineyards of Napa to the suburbs of San Jose, encompassing some 7.8 million people. Twenty-seven transportation agencies operate in this area — bus companies, ferries, and rail and light rail operators, all running without a strong unifying force. (Though the MTC provides research and guidance and distributes federal and state funds, it does not dictate spending.) The result is a snarled system of transfers, transit cards, and impossibly long commutes.
I live in the northern end of San Francisco. For me, using public transport to get to Apple’s Cupertino campus for a 10 a.m. meeting is quasi-impossible. My quickest commute would start at 7:06 a.m. and consist of four buses, one train, and a 12-minute walk. That would add up to a one-way journey of two hours and 29 minutes, priced around $16.25.
Based on unpublished data, we can estimate that some 52,000 tech workers shuttle to and from the tech campuses in and around Silicon Valley each day. For them, public transit just isn’t feasible.
Regional employer shuttles in the Bay Area date back to the 1980s, when companies such as Intel, IBM, and Hewlett Packard shuttled people from nearby rail stations to campus. In the 1990s, these same companies started modest intercounty vanpools. They were efficient and environmentally friendly and boosted employee retention. But they were nothing like the end-to-end shuttles that emerged in the mid-2000s.
By 2011, more than 55 buses rolled the streets of San Francisco, collecting some 2,000 employees each day. In 2012, that figure ballooned to 473 buses across the Bay Area, carrying 6.6 million workers a year. Data from 2019 collected by the MTC estimates there are now 1,020 buses in operation.
Many of the tech shuttles run on biodiesel, reports Katie Fehrenbacher at GreenBiz, and are black, blue, white, and gray, with no visible logos on the outside. They stand nearly 14 feet high and are equipped with plush reclining seats, air conditioning, power ports, onboard Wi-Fi, tinted windows, and toilets. Some serve snacks; Google and Facebook in particular are known for stocking soft drinks and Kind bars.
When the shuttles first emerged, the knock-on effect of shuttle stops was startling. Prices for apartments within proximity of a shuttle stop skyrocketed. A 2011 report by the SFMTA valued local spending from 2009 near the San Francisco stops at more than $1.8 million a year. (That’s closer to $3 million now with inflation.)
“Parts of San Francisco are functioning as bedroom communities for suburban corporate campuses,” noted Jason Henderson in his 2015 book, Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco. Shuttles were advertised as a workplace perk. “It’s easier to recruit nonlocal candidates when companies have shuttles,” says Silicon Valley recruiter Kinh DeMaree. “Shuttles matter more to employees earlier in their career, when they care a lot about their social life.”
In 2013, Alexandra Goldman, a community-based city planner in San Francisco, published a paper outlining the shuttles’ effect on rent. Using data from PadMapper, she concluded that the shuttles were inextricably linked to a housing shortage.
Goldman’s paper coincided with a growing public unease with the buses. Rolling through city streets, their riders cloaked behind tinted windows and bathed in filtered air, the riders seemed cartoonishly aloof. Employees were characterized as alien overlords by residents and activists railing against rising inequality.
Activists blocked streets to stop buses and tried to rush onboard. Windows were smashed, tires slashed, and the nonplussed and confused employees accosted and harassed at shuttle stops. “Get the fuck out of Oakland,” read flyers. “Warning: Two-Tier System,” read one banner.
The responses were reactionary, and even violent, but protestors had some valid points: In San Francisco, the shuttles stopped at municipal bus stops without permission from the city. They often blocked traffic and slowed city buses. Cities and counties began to grapple with the fundamental trade-offs of tech shuttles. San Francisco launched a voluntary pilot program to gather fees, but the results were underwhelming to say the least, with fees capped by state law.
William Bacon, a transport analyst for the MTC, says the rise of the full scale of the shuttles’ impact eluded planners for years.
“[They] had flown under the radar for a lot of people,” Bacon says, sitting in his San Francisco office. “You saw it out there, but you didn’t really know.”
In 2014, Bacon was charged with getting a full accounting of the shuttles. Despite constituting the seventh-largest transit network in the Bay Area, shuttle usage was not factored into transportation planning, and companies were extremely secretive with ridership data.
After much negotiation, Bacon was able to source high-level 2012–2014 data from many of the tech companies on a strictly anonymized basis. He was astounded. In 2014, 9.6 million people rode up and down the peninsula aboard 765 shuttles, which averaged 34,000 people a day.
“In reality, shuttles are likely an even larger part of the transportation system,” he says. “These private shuttles, [which] basically received no public money at all, carried significantly more people than public agencies that have budgets of millions of dollars a year.”
Sitting at his desk, Bacon boots up a demand modeling program, a complex piece of software that planners use to analyze the flow of commuters.
“If you took the buses away, people would be forced to use another mode,” he says. In all likelihood, that would mean more cars and an immediate increase in congestion. For him, the buses provide a net good, even as they’re indicative of the region’s failings.
“Employers feel that they need to provide this private service,” Bacon says. “Because the decades of transportation infrastructure that have been built in the Bay Area are not adequate.”
Juan Hernández says tech shuttles are “a great perk — just not for him.” Hernandez works a 40-plus-hour week as a contracted janitor at Facebook. As such, he doesn’t have access to the company’s shuttles.
Most days, he sets his alarm for 3 a.m. and is on the road by 4:00 for a 40-minute drive from San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood to Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters. His shift used to start later — which was better for his family, Hernández says — but because of traffic, his commute took twice, sometimes three times as long.
At least 8% of Hernández’s income is spent on transit costs. Like 96% of full-time Silicon Valley janitors surveyed by Goldman in 2015, he would ride the shuttles if allowed, but they’re accessible only to full-time employees. (Google, Apple, and Facebook did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
Hernandez says he’s not angry at the tech companies — they pay a good wage, he says. But he resents that the region hasn’t developed a public transit route for workers like him. He pays taxes, he says, shouldn’t his needs matter?
For decades, transportation agencies in the Bay Area have failed to adapt to a growing population. Extensions to BART and Caltrain are regularly discussed and delayed, and even when initiated, regularly fall prone to problems. In 2018, six weeks after opening, San Francisco’s $2.2 billion Transbay Terminal public transit hub was forced to close due to cracked beams. Reports of flooding, overheating, and safety issues with the Muni and BART rise each year.
The public transit investments that do happen are inequitably allocated. A 2012 report found that the Santa Clara Valley bus system received one half of the funding allotted to Caltrain, despite similar ridership. “Most of the users of bus systems earn less than $40,000, but buses receive far less subsidy than rail systems, which carry more high-income earners,” noted researchers Vu-Bang Nguyen and Evelyn Stivers.
San Francisco’s bus system deals with regular cuts — in 2010, 313,000 service hours were nixed from its schedule, causing riders to wait 10% longer for public transit. In 2008, almost $10 billion in bond proceeds was approved for a statewide high-speed rail network, to launch in 2020; today, the project is $44 billion over budget and scheduled for 2033.
Then there’s the area’s housing crisis, tightly interlinked with transportation systems. “For me, the problem is that land use and transportation aren’t reinforcing each other,” Fleisher says.
San Francisco added an average of 1,500 units per year since January 2000, despite adding 100,000 people to the city’s population. In an ideal world, people would live close to transit hubs, and that would solve the area’s transportation problems. But most proposals to develop the land near these areas have met with huge community opposition.
Cities welcome job creation but resist building housing for those workers. In the meantime, the area’s tech industry has pledged to improve the housing shortage through billion-dollar developments and spent millions on private transportation to make up for a failed public transit infrastructure.
“We’re in the awkward teenage years of transit. It’s going to be uncomfortable.”
That approach may have backfired. The existence of the tech shuttles from 2004 onward has created a nonpermanent solution that enabled public authorities to outsource some of their responsibilities to provide accessible public transit.
In 2014, Google donated $6.8 million to fund free bus rides for low-income youths, a cost normally absorbed by San Francisco. Tech companies aiding city programs is a great philanthropic gesture, but it’s not a long-term institutional solution.
“The Google buses popped up because we have this hodgepodge of transit services,” Fleisher says. “Public agencies are operating in a world of constraints, and they don’t have the flexibility to be agile on their planning and processes.”
In 2018, San Francisco’s transportation task force identified a $22 billion funding gap for city transit projects from 2019 to 2045. “The city really needs to invest in transit,” says Danielle Day, a mobility programs manager for Oakland. But thanks to the shuttles, they lack the “economic incentive” to do so.
Activists across the Bay Area are organizing for a holistic approach to transit. In 2017, Ian Griffiths founded Seamless Bay Area, a nonprofit with plans to unify the region’s transit. He’s calling for centralization of the region’s transit networks, a system in which riders people can use one pass for every network in the region.
Other public transportation activists are calling for extensions to the BART, linking Millbrae to San Jose and connecting communities in between. They want the city to invest in express bus networks, ideally double-deckers, routed from multiple pickup points in San Francisco. Those buses would carry residents up and down the peninsula for a reasonable fee. One or more lanes of the main highways could shift to bus-only, boosting interest in this mode of transport. Highways would be widened with more off-ramps and access points for travelers. Tech companies could still run shuttles, but they’d be last-mile solutions for people dropped off in Mountain View and Menlo Park.
Elsewhere in the Bay Area, change is coming, albeit slowly. The MTC has committed $9.5 million to promote vanpooling, as well as subsidizing carpool startups like WazeCarpool and Scoop. Then there’s the ReX proposal from social justice group TransForm Bay Area, which wants to build a city-funded version of the Google buses that connect people to work hubs via express lanes. The MTC is considering the proposal now.
“We’re in the awkward teenage years of transit,” Dai says. “It’s going to be uncomfortable.” She sees the most potential in bus networks. “The beauty of bus infrastructure is that it’s really flexible,” she says. People could see changes in their commute immediately, not 10 years down the line.
The key thing transport activists are working toward is a unified, transparent system that offers regional bus networks and reduces emissions.
To make these improvements, tech companies will have to be more forthcoming about existing shuttle routes. Some of their concerns around data sharing is tied to safety and protecting workers who previously felt assaulted and attacked. But the companies’ secrecy around shuttles and stops is extreme: In 2012, Dai had to find shuttle stops by trawling Craigslist for apartment listings that highlighted their proximity to the shuttles. For a recent Protocol article, reporters had to comb the area in the wee hours of the morning to find stops.
And companies aren’t withholding ridership data from just protestors and reporters. In 2018, the tech companies failed to provide the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) with requested data about shuttle routes and ridership numbers. As a result, the VTA had to sift through hidden-camera footage to ascertain shuttle use on its highways. “The best we can do is spy on them in video cameras,” Adam Burger, the VTA’s transport planner, told his board.
It’s estimated that Santa Clara will add an estimated 550,000 new residents and 445,000 new jobs by 2040, a 38% growth in population and a 62% increase in employment.
The tech shuttles have proven to be a good short-term solution, but with an estimated 2.1 million new residents coming to the Bay Area by 2040, the region has to confront the crisis head-on.
There’s a sense that maybe officials are finally coming around to that reality. In February 2020, San Francisco Assemblyman David Chiu proposed a bill to unify all Bay Area transit.