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Another Silicon Valley perk -- free shuttle service

posted this photo of a Google bus on Twitter: "@google bus stuck at 23rd and Chattanooga. "

By now you’ve heard about the perks that come with working in Silicon Valley. Free lunch, 20 percent time -- that’s the work time you can use to pursue independent projects.

Well, another perk? A private bus that picks you up in your neighborhood in San Francisco and shuttles you down to your corporate campus about an hour south in the suburbs of Silicon Valley.

During rush hour in San Francisco, you see them everywhere, said Eric Rodenbeck, the creative director of Stamen Design in the Mission District of San Francisco.

“They’re just so big," Rodenbeck says. "These buses are two stories high and they’re barrelling down residential streets, and no one knows where they’re going except the people who are on them.”

Rodenbeck is talking about the private shuttle buses that run up and down the Peninsula. They look like fancy tour buses. Google’s buses are white. Facebook’s are a sleek blue. But beyond that, they’re sort of a mystery to most San Franciscans.

“You know it’s almost like this masonic ritual,” Rodenbeck says.  "If you've got the key, this whole other city layer unlocks itself to you. And that’s the kind of urban puzzle we like to solve."

So, Stamen decided to map the private shuttle buses connecting San Francisco to Silicon Valley.

Click to enlarge

But getting the data wasn’t easy. The tech companies don’t comment on the buses. They don’t tell you where they stop or how many people ride on them. But in the era of big data, the information was easy enough to find.  

“Even though the companies might not have wanted their locations public, we started looking around and we realized on Foursquare -- if you typed in “shuttle” and “google” or “shuttle” and “apple” all these locations came up because their employees were checking in at those bus stops,” Rodenbeck says.

Stamen also hired bike messengers to follow the buses. And then they had people just sit at a cafe on the corner of 18th and Dolores and count the people getting on and off the buses.

I checked out the Google bus stop a little after 7 a.m. one rainy morning and the “G-bus,” as the display on its windshield reads, was already picking of Googlers. For the next few hours, the buses would arrive in 15-20 minute intervals and a steady stream of 20-30 somethings, holding coffee cups and wearing sneakers and backpacks, would get on board.

It might have been the early morning hour or the rain but few people were willing to talk. When I approached a group of 20-somethings and asked them about the bus, they said they couldn’t talk because Google was in "a quiet period." A quiet period is when a company can’t say anything that might affect its stock price, and that was the nicest response I got until I met 35-year-old Tanya Birch, who works on the Google Earth outreach team. I asked her what it’s like on the bus.

“It’s pretty sweet,” Birch said. “They let us choose the type of seats and decor inside. And it’s got dim lighting with the Google colors.”

There’s also free Wi-Fi on the shuttles, and Birch said it's basically another hour of work.

The tech world is driven by young, educated largely urban workers. But companies like Facebook, Google and Apple are located in the suburbs of Silicon Valley, which is about an hour south of the San Francisco.

“I think a lot of young people who work at the tech companies they want the city life they want something that’s fun and entertaining, and you don’t get that in the suburbs,” Birch said.

So,  to compete for that talent pool, big tech companies have to provide transportation. Rodenbeck says he expected to find the shuttles in the city’s hip, young neighborhoods.

“What we were surprised to learn is that the network is much more extensive than that,” says Rodenbeck.

When the map was finished, Stamen counted busses from Apple, eBay, Electronic Arts, Facebook, Google and Yahoo, and they found the buses ran through almost every neighborhood in San Francisco. Stamen estimates that about 14,000 people ride the private shuttle buses every day.

Rodenbeck says he thinks the locations are secret because the companies are “sensitive to this idea that they are funding a change in the infrastructure in San Francisco without it being regulated.”

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is in the midst of studying what’s essentially emerging as a private mass-transportation system, says Jerry Robbins, a transportation planner for the agency.  

“The increase in employer buses has sparked some reaction from residents,” Robbins says.

He says that since tech companies contract out the work to private bus companies, which are regulated by the state, the city has little say in what they do.

But Robbins says the agency has fielded complaints that the the private shuttle buses, which often stop at public bus stops, are causing delays and traffic.

Another impact is rising real estate prices, says Amanda Jones, a realtor in San Francisco for nearly a decade. Today, about half her clients work in the tech industry.  

“Unquestionably the shuttle stops are transforming real estate values,” Jones says. “When I interview new clients, we get out the real estate map and they want to show me where their corporate shuttles are. I recently sold a house. He does trading for Google and gets in early in the morning. Literally, if it wasn’t five blocks from a shuttle stop, we didn’t look at it.”

Jones says even fixers-uppers and homes with shaky foundations are selling for a premium if they’re located near a private shuttle bus stop.

“They have so little time to have with family and their friends they want to go home and be able to walk to the restaurant and not be stuck in their car for two hours,” says Jones.

Jones says she gets it because until someone comes up with an app that can beam you to work, the private shuttle bus is as close as you get.

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.
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We know that transportation is a vital need for all of us. It helps in the country's economic development and its a fact that We all know. We can be easily sure about this. Most of the people working in Government, Public and Private sectors travel through public transportation each and everyday. Whether by bus or train, but they use these two important modes of public transportation. Private shuttle bus service providers are doing really great job by providing luxury transportation for the people. Shuttle bus services are in huge demand these days. These are very much affordable than the transportation through personal vehicles. So, shuttle bus transit can be a great option for the mass transit. http://www.pegasustransit.com/shuttle-bus-transportation/

Robbins says : “The increase in employer buses has sparked some reaction from residents,” I don't agree with this, just check http://odralogistics.pl

Well obviously none of you commenting on this actually LIVES here and has to deal with the extraordinary noise these behemoths make coming past your home sometimes 4 minutes apart, rattling your windows and careening down your otherwise safe and quiet street.

In part it's noise, and in part it's philosophical. I live here; these corporations don't. They live 50 miles away. I used to work at one. I wised up and work here in San Francisco now. I think the shuttles are a good idea but they need to be regulated - their routes need to be approved and they need to be taxed. The City needs to determine the impact these things have on the OTHER transit that exists here, and the damage they cause when they scrape the street at the bottom of the hill (if they don't pay for the repair, then I as taxpayer have to).

As a resident I signed up to live on my street knowing there is an electric bus that goes past; it provides me with a service I value so I can tolerate its minimal noise. I can't tolerate the extraordinary noise of a diesel bus that is 40% larger than a city bus that never gave me an opportunity to comment.

The corporations like Apple (that tried wrapping its huge buses in iPod ads for a couple days, tormenting us with ads along with the noise - that extended abuse didn't last long thank goodness) are trying to do their workers right, and that's fine, but while doing it can't abuse everyone else. Give them an inch, they'll take a mile. I'm not putting up with that.

SFMTA has been "studying" this for several years; it's time they get off their duffs and make some very simple decisions.

It seems like the guy who mapped the whole private transit system has too much free time to complain about other people's lives. He came off as a jerk.

Wait, why do people care? I don't understand what the issue is. Why are all these people complaining? They have nothing better to do?

Sign me up! I want to know are free bus rides taxed as income? Are they violating the wage laws since they basically provide a mobil work space for an additional two hours a day?

So why is this is a bad thing?

"The private shuttle buses, which often stop at public bus stops, are causing delays and traffic."

And if the estimated 14,000 employees were driving their own cars or taking the Caltrain, how exactly would this traffic problem improve? As for real estate prices, they are crazy in San Francisco all by themselves, and down in Silicon Valley too where the tech companies are based, so wherever the 14,000 tech-workers live, there are going to be high real estate prices. The buses mean that the economic impact is shared out around the Bay Area, not just focused within Silicon Valley, where housing and transport are already under pressure.

Ultimately these tech companies are concentrated in a tiny geographical area so it's impossible for everyone to live close to their offices. These buses don't just run from San Francisco either but run all around Silicon Valley too, from wherever tech workers live, and no-one complains about them because it eases congestion and demand for other forms of transport in the local area.

I can't see why these buses are a bad thing. Would NPR rather that these companies pushed their workers to use already over-subscribed public transport, causing congestion and stress for all the other commuters? There is only so much room in the current infrastructure. When I first moved here and discovered the 'company shuttle' phenomenon, I thought it was a great idea, even though I come from Europe where public transport usage is more common, because it encourages people to get out of their cars without putting pressure on overstretched transport services.

Why is it that public transportation is such a panacea yet when the same is provided by the private sector people react in this manner?

I'll take this any day over the congestion and parking nightmares that accompanied the late 90's tech boom.

Very surprised that there was no analysis of the carbon impact of this private sector approach to mass transit. How many riders per each bus? Is that enough? Who is complaining and do they generally support mass transit? The overall message of the report was that this was somehow a bad thing - a "perk" of wealthy techies . If my company provided transit to my job, I would be there in a heartbeat. Deserves a followup.

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