Imagine if your employer assumed responsibility for your daily commute way beyond posting car-pool sign-up sheets in the lunch room. For instance, imagine your employer providing a clean modern bus with comfortable seats, equipped with reading lights and WiFi, and with coffee service on a route that includes a stop at the nearest corner to your residence just at the time you need to leave to arrive on time.
And imagine that this service was year-round and flexible in terms of your drop off time or any other particular needs you might have. Sounds too perfect to be true? Alas…not for some fortunate Californians, namely, (as if they aren’t having enough fun already!) Google, Yahoo, Apple, Facebook, eBay, and Electronic Arts employees in San Francisco, who have the option of taking company supplied shuttle buses that travel up and down the San Francisco Peninsula every workday.
As one report describes it: “It’s a substantial employee benefit: You can live in culturally-rich San Francisco, surrounded by young, well-off techies like yourself; you get to work in the heart of Silicon Valley where the biggest and best-paying companies are located; and instead of spending hours a day driving, you pass the time in air-conditioned comfort.”
And, not surprisingly, it’s also a win-win for these employers. Their employees essentially start work when they get on the bus. Commute time is productive time during both the morning and afternoon trips.
The number of people taking these shuttles is estimated to be huge: over 14,000 people per day which amounts to 35 percent of the passenger count on the Caltrain train service, which also runs between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. The private shuttle services are so popular that media reports have included interviews with real estate agents noting the uptick in real estate values along the ‘routes’ taken by these services —routes, however, that are flexible and responsive to where employees prefer to reside.
Of course this story involves not only benefits but also a downside. On the one hand there is the collective benefit from the reduction in traffic congestion and pollution from 14,000 less vehicles driving up and down the 101 and 280 ‘freeways’. On the other hand, any private services that reduce the number of ‘patrons’ for public services can burden the general taxpaying public with higher service fees and subsidy costs. What is not clear from any of the media reports, though, is whether shuttle users would otherwise be public transit users.
One legitimate complaint, most commentators agree, is with the shuttles use of public bus stops. Public transit users and drivers complain of congestion around local bus stops that were never intended to service multiple bus services, and of buses on streets where ‘no bus has gone before.’
The most contentious issue is that these services are ‘flying under the radar’ of any existing licensing or regulatory requirements. Defenders say this criticism is searching for a problem. Critics argue the use of the public bus stops is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the regulatory challenges this new phenomenon presents.