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Private Commuter Buses: Rogue Operation or New Model?

ITS researchers suggest the Bay Area's shadow fleet of private employee buses present new opportunities for transit agencies

FALL 2010 — The perks that come with a job at Google are legendary: free meals prepared by gourmet chefs, onsite doctors, child care, fitness classes, and the list goes on. But the one benefit that makes many employees happiest is the cushy private commuter bus — equipped with wif-fi — that picks them up close to home and whisks them down to Silicon Valley. Take away their luxury coach and 14 percent of employees would quit, according to a recent employee poll. (Above: San Francisco commuters board a Google-bound bus.)

And Googlers are not alone. Each day about 50 luxury eco-buses make multiple trips transporting thousands of employees to the suburban campuses of Yahoo!, Genentech, Cisco, eBay, Facebook, and other technology companies from neighborhoods throughout San Francisco, the East Bay, and the South Bay. So many ride, in fact, that some 327,000 solo- vehicle round trips per year have been eliminated from Bay Area roadways.

plush bus interiorPlush leather seats, marble tables, and free wifi make for a comfortable and productive ride.

And, by riding these buses, which are mostly powered by natural gas, bio-diesel, or hybrid technology, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority estimates these commuters are reducing CO2 emissions by approximately 8,000 to 9,500 tons per year and non-CO2 emissions such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter by anywhere from one to 17 tons per year.

The benefits extend to neighborhoods and the employers as well. Private commuter buses are credited with boosting business in some neighborhoods by commuters who pick up a coffee or drop off dry-cleaning on their way to the bus stop, or stop for groceries or take-out on their way home. In a sense, the buses have created mini TODs (transit-oriented developments) in areas of San Francisco.

As for employers, they’ve discovered that the buses’ flexible and direct service is a valuable recruiting tool, one that allows them to recruit and retain workers from a wider area. Moreover, the buses increase employees’ productivity while decreasing parking demand, help employers meet city Transportation Demand Management (TDM) requirements, and reduce a company’s environmental impact.

Good or Evil?

But not everybody sings their praises. Noe Valley residents have complained about the large buses rumbling through their neighborhoods and idling on their residential streets. Mission residents grumbled that the buses were raising property values and rents as high-tech employees attracted to urban living moved into neighborhoods they might not have considered previously until the commuter buses made it easy to get to their suburban workplaces. There were scattered reports of conflicts with Muni vehicles when loading passengers or idling, or blocking car or bicycle traffic while stopped. The city wasn’t sure what to do about the rogue bus operation.

 Krute Singa of CCIT

To find out what is working and what is not, Krute Singa and Jean-David Margulici, researchers at California Center for Innovative Transportation (CCIT), studied the effects of the luxury commuter shuttles on employees, employers, and residents, and on public transportation. Earlier this year they published their 45-page report, Privately-Provided Commuter Bus Services: Role in the San Francisco Bay Area Regional Transportation Network. Among their conclusions, they suggest that public transit agencies consider forming a different relationship with this latest transportation model.

“What we realized initially was that just among Google, Yahoo, and Genentech commuters there were about 5,200 passengers a day riding these private buses,” explains Singa, a researcher who received her Master’s degree in city and regional planning from UC Berkeley. “So over a year, that’s about a million people. And that’s quite substantial — that’s the size of a small transit operator or suburban transit provider in the Bay Area.”

Old Model, New Twist

Vanpools have moved workers from various residential areas to large employer campuses for well over a decade. But changes came in 2004 when Google realized it was more efficient to fill one 35-member bus than a number of smaller vans. Google turned to Bauer’s Intelligent Transportation to supply the coaches, and Google’s transportation experts plotted routes based on where its employees lived. Before long, other companies in the suburbs were hiring coaches and doing the same thing.

Equipped with wi-fi and comfy leather seats, the luxury coaches quickly became a hit with commuters. And why not? The ride is cheaper — often free — and usually faster than driving alone or taking public transit. Plus, wi-fi enables employees to work coming and going, and in some cases reduce the amount of time they sit at their desks. Letting someone else do the driving also provides personal time to pay bills, socialize with fellow workers, daydream, or doze.

"In essence, the role of the transit agency can expand from simply that of transit provider to that of travel agent, brokering customer needs with a variety of service."

The idea is not exactly a new one: Privately-provided commuter bus programs have operated in the Bay Area in one form or another for more than half a century, and Singa and Margulici (who recently left CCIT to found a transportation consultancy) describe several. But over time, many have come and gone, battered by competition from public transit providers, regulatory constraints, and financial hurdles.

Mutual Benefits

Singa says that could happen again, and suggests transit agencies might find it beneficial to embrace this rogue fleet of buses and incorporate their service into the fabric of Bay Area transportation alternatives. 

“Transit agencies can’t provide every type of service out there, especially with the current budget crisis,” explained Singa in an interview with BTL. “At the same time, these commuter bus services are successful, and transit agencies should be open to what they offer, and maybe promote or incorporate some of these same services or use them as a model. These employers are using the best technology for the buses, and they’re really listening to what their employees need,” she added.

Bauer buses in the garageBauer's private buses ferry San Francisco commuters to South Bay tech companies.  

Singa pointed out that Google, Yahoo!, Genentech and others already provide comprehensive TDM options: they typically offer their employees a smorgasbord of transit options that include carpool incentives, van pools, preferential parking for carpoolers, on-campus vehicles to help employees get around without bringing their own cars, and guaranteed ride home programs in the event of an emergency. In addition, they utilize newer technologies to coordinate their services: real-time scheduling information, for example, is texted to employees’ phones to update bus arrival times.

Employers have access to employee information such as residential location, so they can quickly build routes as required. “It’s very efficient. If you have a concentration of 50 employees, say, in the Mission in San Francisco, then you can run a bus out to an intersection there — or a couple of buses.” Not something public transit can do.

And the net result is impressive: private commuter buses have had a greater impact in reducing drive-alone commuting than any other TDM programs offered.

The Microsoft Example

In contrast to Bay Area employers who sent their buses out to residential streets with little coordination with the city, creating animosity among some city residents, Seattle’s Microsoft took a different approach.

Several years ago, Microsoft’s transportation staff sat down with transit provider King County Metro, twice honored as the best-run large public transportation system in North America, and hammered out a system whereby Microsoft’s shuttle service, called Microsoft Connector, could augment service for employees when it was not available through public transit. Microsoft provides employees with a free universal transit pass and encourages them to use transit. But if service is slow or inconvenient, a Microsoft Connector route is provided.

King County Metro, which operates a diverse fleet of coaches, electric trolleys, streetcars, paratransit vans, and vanpool programs, acts as a mobility manager—a big step beyond operating traditional fixed route transit systems.

Cooperative Service

The Microsoft Connector does not compete with Metro; rather, it seeks to fill gaps and provide a more cohesive network. Microsoft’s Connector may use a bay at Metro’s bus transit center, but cannot use on-street transit stops. Instead, the company worked with local churches and businesses to establish stops in white curb zones and parking lots. The Connector averages a daily ridership of 3,400 over 55 routes, or just under one percent of Metro’s daily boardings.

'Young people don’t want to live in the suburbs, they want to live in cities, near clubs and music. When they grow older, they need to live in a place where they can raise kids and one that’s affordable. That may not be Mountain View.'

Singa believes Bay Area transit agencies can work with private shuttle operators to form mutually beneficial partnerships. In essence, the role of the transit agency can expand from simply that of transit provider to that of travel agent, brokering customer needs with a variety of service providers and providing one-stop customer information on all available travel services.

But the first step is having the private commuter buses formally recognized.

“What I mean by that is having a contact person sit down with these private companies to really understand what their business model is and to provide some guidelines on the use of city streets,” said Singa.

“When these buses started operating, the city had to scramble to understand how to incorporate them into the city’s fabric. The city didn’t stop them from operating, but city officials also have to listen to their residents,” she explained. Both sides had reason to be frustrated, she added.

She also suggests that employer-based providers should receive funding. In Massachusetts, for example, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) admitted it could not provide service out to certain areas, but wanted people to have service. So they paid a company to provide those services. MBTA found it more cost-effective to give some funding to the private operators than to let them go out of business and have to provide it themselves.

Public Sector Support

In their report, the researchers also point to numerous ways that regional, state, and even the federal government can encourage and help, rather than hinder, the success of the private commuter buses through existing programs, by revising laws, and by making funding available.

A few examples:

  • By formally integrating private commuter buses into the planning process as a transportation alternative, regional transportation agencies can better coordinate the orderly development of a multi-modal urban transportation system. Transit agencies might also contract with a private provider for fixed-route or long-distance commute bus service.
  • States promote ridesharing, transit, and other alternative modes as well as supportive land use policies. Privately provided commuter bus services are one method to reduce drive-alone trips that take up limited highway space. In California, SB 437 prohibits air districts, congestion management agencies, and other public agencies from requiring an employer to implement an employee trip reduction program in the state. One way to support Assembly Bill 32, the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, is to suspend SB 437 and allow regional agencies to create trip reduction programs. 
  • Through its Livability Initiative and the Federal Sustainable Communities Partnership, the federal government has called for the provision of more transportation choices aimed at developing safe, reliable, and economical transportation choices that decrease household transportation costs and reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil, improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote public health. Yet federal regulations and funding allocations discourage diversity in the transportation market. One method to encourage private-sector participating in providing transit services is by revising Section 13(c) of the 1964 Urban Mass Transportation Act, a labor protection clause that guarantees transit employees will not be adversely affected by any program involving federal transit grants.

First Steps

At the very least, the researchers say there is need for better communication between the city and public transit agencies like Muni, as well as guidelines to help these companies understand where their buses can and can’t go and where they can stop. Progress has been made on some of these issues since the researchers completed their report.

Beyond that, public agencies might think about funding: The researchers point out that while individual companies will not release information about how much they spend to keep the buses rolling, it’s expensive. For now, that cost is apparently worth it because the buses are a valuable, competitive recruiting and retention tool for these employers--one reason these companies do not divulge information about their bus programs.

But if history is any lesson, any number of economic scenarios could mean that these successful programs might suddenly go away. By coordinating with these private companies and perhaps even providing funding, there would be greater chances for survival and bring additional companies into the market. In many cases, private commuter bus services are not eligible for public funds unless they partner with a public agency.

In a planner’s perfect world, workers would live close to where they work, thereby reducing traffic congestion and environmental fallout.

But Singa is realistic. “A lot of people say these Google and Yahoo! buses are allowing people to live very far away from their work, people who should be living closer so we could decrease emissions. And they have a valid point. But that’s just not how things work out.”

Young people, she said, don’t want to live in the suburbs, they want to live in cities, near clubs and music. When they grow older, their requirements change: they need to live in a place where they can raise kids and one that’s affordable. In either case, she says, that may not be Mountain View — the suburban home of Google.

For now, the buses make various lifestyle choices available to some employees while offering a convenient and relatively emission-free commute.

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