SF Board of Supes Votes Down 'Google Bus' Appeal, Windmill Escapes Tilting Unharmed

By Dan Raile , written on April 2, 2014

From The News Desk

The sluggish pace of implementation of teleportation and seasteading technologies means that there's no end in sight for social division in San Francisco.

San Francisco’s heirloom brand of civic engagement was on full display last night within City Hall, as the Board of Supervisors' chambers were unable to contain the full crowd that turned out for an appeal hearing to halt the implementation to the “Google Bus” Pilot Program announced in January.

And while many aspects of the proceedings seemed to thwart sound logic, they also thwarted some stereotypes pertaining to what some have termed an imminent class war in San Francisco. The signal-to-noise ratio was not as abominable as one might have predicted, given recent pertinent events in the city, but still the proceedings threatened to mushroom into a referendum on gentrification and the City’s perceived preferential treatment of giant technology corporations.

Readers may be familiar with the background of the pilot program, in which companies using MUNI stops to load and unload workers will be forced to pay what amounts to a $1 facility usage tax for each stop, with the placement of the stops to be further regulated by the City. The pilot program was originally announced by the MTA and Mayor Ed Lee in January, and rushed through the Planning and Transportation departments in an apparent attempt to quell the furor erupting over the ubiquitous shuttles. Since yesterday’s appeal was denied (by an 8-2 vote), the program is slated to begin in July and continue for 18 months, at which point the data collected will be reviewed for consideration of a permanent policy.

At issue in the chamber yesterday was the fact that the mayor, the Planning Commission, and the Municipal Transportation Agency collectively exempted the program from customary review under an Environmental Impact Report.

EIR’s are a crucial part of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and in addition to being a sensible way to mitigate the negative environmental effects of proposed projects, are generally the albatross about the neck of anyone trying to get a project approved in San Francisco. In short, they are to city planning what the filibuster is to lawmaking.

The majority of those in attendance clearly supported the appeal. The six-hour hearing was punctuated here and there by the gavel of Board President David Chiu, and his stern-but-fair reminders not to clap, cheer, hiss, or boo when someone else was speaking.

The case for the appeal was presented by CEQA specialist Richard Drury. The crux of his argument was that the shuttle programs introduce significant environmental risks, including diesel exhaust “plumes,” disruptions of traffic and public transport, and threats to pedestrian and cyclist safety.

Drury contended that the Planning Commission and MTA had violated the letter and spirit of CEQA by using the current, unregulated shuttle milieu as its “baseline” for evaluating environmental impacts of the Pilot Program, since the current situation is in violation of California vehicle code – no private vehicle may block a MUNI stop. Drury lamented that a “handshake agreement” between the Mayor and tech executives had precluded enforcement of this law in the case of corporate shuttles.

Drury repeatedly played to the crowd, referring to the buses as “pirate shuttles” throughout his arguments. And he made use of controversial bits of CEQA passed in Fall 2013 which allows socioeconomic displacement to be considered an environmental impact. Hence, gentrification, evictions, and affordable housing were all fair game in yesterday's proceedings.

Of the eight Supervisor’s who voted down the appeal, only Scott Weiner, who seems to cherish his role as a whipping-boy for radicals, locked horns with Drury over the more contentious socioeconomic issues.

“I think this has to do more with a political current that says tech workers are not real San Franciscans, that the shuttles are what brought them here. Many tech workers are actually long-time residents, and 60 percent say they would stay if the shuttles went away,” Weiner said. “The displacement issue is not a CEQA issue.”

(Some locals, however, may have been alarmed and forced to question Weiner's real San Franciscan status when, later in the evening, he referred to the Bayshore Freeway as 'THE 101.")

Though, perhaps ironically, Weiner and Drury proceeded to go back and forth for another half hour or so, each vying to frame the gentrification issue to align with their opposing narratives. There were multiple references to a DIY mapping project that attempts to show the correlation between shuttle stops and evictions across the City. Drury himself invoked the map as evidence of displacement, though the map itself is hampered by the lack of appropriate data – a limitation that the pilot program would ostensibly set to rights.

Over the course of this line of commentary, former-Supervisor Chris Daly, reprising his role of gadfly and seeming at home in the pews, shouted out aptly and with visible amusement, “What’s happening with CEQA?”

Throughout the hearing, Drury made frequent attempts to clarify that he had nothing against tech workers, personally.  At times these statements seemed to frustrate those in the crowd who would make the bus issue one of clear-cut class cleavages. For instance, at one point he said, “I want to reiterate that I have no personal animus against technology workers. They do wonderful things. I know many of them. And they drink very good scotch." Nobody in the hall clapped, cheered or hissed at this, and Drury quickly moved on.

When the floor was opened to public comment in favor of the appeal, the majority of the 50-odd people who ringed around the chamber perimeter to take the podium declined to take the class warfare bait Drury and Weiner’s exchange had provided. Instead, most used their two minutes to express displeasure with the lack of due process and diligence on behalf of the City. Many argued that the $1 per stop figure was arbitrarily set too low and shared personal accounts of the traffic nightmares caused by what one tweedy librarian termed “the behemoths.”

One of the most blatant examples of transit issues raised by the shuttle operations is that competition for the bus stops is causing MUNI busses to pick up passengers elsewhere, one public commenter said, making it difficult or impossible for wheelchair riders to board them. Other citizens cited the difficulty of making bus connections in shuttle-heavy zones and of biking dangers when MUNI and corporate shuttles vie for share of the road.

One troubling and recurring conflation of apples and oranges had commenters voicing variations on the theme that goes, “Why does it only cost Google $1 to stop at a MUNI stop, when the rest of us have to pay $2 for a ride?”

The evening occasionally veered into the irrational, including allusions to ethnic cleansing and manifest destiny, and insults and shame that were heaped on Weiner for his alleged complicity. The last occasioned Chiu’s gavel – “please speak to the members of the board collectively.” But these were exceptions to the general trend.

Of course, there was also a sprinkling of organic San Francisco wackiness, all the more apropos as the hearing was held on St. Stupid’s Day. Highlights included a white-whiskered resident plugging his blog and sharing a whimsical, fictional tale of being swept onto a Google bus by mistake. Another middle-aged man in an enormous, felted top hat and wearing sequins and boas, cradled a stuffed panda and a Shrek doll, whom he introduced to the members of the Board before making a cogent if slightly off-topic statement about justice.

When in came time for the bureaucrats to speak in defense of exempting the Pilot Program from an EIR, they were harried and visibly uncomfortable, as befits their station in the face of the hostile masses. They made their points quickly and meekly. Supervisor Malia Cohen, who voted against the appeal, pointed out the lack of tech workers in the gallery. Your fellow traveller had to leave before the public comment in support of the pilot took place. Cheers to the SF Chronicle for sticking it out deep into the night.

It remains unclear to this San Francisco resident if the appeal was really in the best interest of those who would stem the incursions of shuttles and the commuters they shlep. Had the appeal been granted, the current, unregulated state of affairs would persist at least until an EIR had been completed. As things stand, the companies in question pay nothing for their admittedly illegal use of MUNI stops and red zones, and their is no way to ascertain how many such shuttles are in operation and the location of their many stops. These are the problems that the Pilot Project attempts to rectify, if weakly. David Chiu, who voted against the appeal, characterized the current shuttle operations as “the wild, wild west in our city streets.”

What is clear is that CEQA was being invoked against a program that in many ways is an environmentally-friendly solution for the hordes of daily automotive commutes up and down the Peninsula.

It’s also clear that even in 2014 San Francisco, grassroots activists and old-school labor organizations still have the upper hand in getting people out to take part in the political process. Ron Conway’s took to Twitter and the Web in the days before the hearing to encourage supporters of the Pilot to attend the hearing and RSVP online. While there were a few dozen tech workers in the crowd, they were vastly outnumbered.

The issue promises not to go away quietly, and in all likelihood will continue to be subjected to click-friendly, false-dichotomies routinely offered up by many in the media. As I sat down to write this piece today, an entire fleet of Peninsula-bound busses was being blockaded at the MacArthur BART Station in downtown Oakland.

“We are strong and this is only the beginning,” Chris Daly said last night, during his two minutes speaking at the podium in favor of the appeal.

Stay tuned.

[Image via cjmartin, flickr]