Monday, November 23, 2009

SF study finds employee shuttles good for the city

San Francisco County Transportation Authority has released a study last week which identified key benefits with employee shuttles from San Francisco to work sites in Silicon Valley.

For the past few years, companies like Google and Yahoo have provided dedicated shuttles for their employees. The shuttles, like other fringe benefits (including free lunches), help recruit workers and keep them more productive as they can work during their commutes.

Besides the benefits for the employers and employees, SFCTA's study confirms that employee shuttles provide benefits to the rest of the city as well:

  • - 20 million VMT reduced as employees forego driving
  • - Reduction in CO2 emissions by approximately 8,000 to 9,500 tons per year
  • - reduction in non-CO2 emissions ranging from 1 to17 tons per year
  • - $1.8 million per year in local spending as employees patronize local businesses in the city and by the bus stops.
  • - 62% of the shuttle riders surveyed said the shuttle influenced their decision to live in the city. Landlords and realtors agree that proximity to shuttles make their location more attractive.
  • - 28% of those surveyed do not own a car. Many of them join car-sharing services so they can drive once in a while to go to Costco or Ikea. Fewer people owning cars help free up parking spots for everyone else in the neighborhood.
The largest benefit of all, which is not mentioned in the report, is that the shuttles do not require public funding. Given the current financial crisis faced by transit agencies, commuter routes are generally considered first to be eliminated so agencies can preserve core services used more by the transit dependent. As reported earlier, SamTrans is already planning to eliminate nearly all commuter express bus service to San Francisco, and VTA is also planning to cut some express bus service. Both agencies however are keeping their overnight service on El Camino.

The shuttles fill the gap current exist on the transit network. Although Caltrain itself competes well with driving, a trip from the Marina in SF to Moffett Park in Sunnyvale would require a trip on Muni and VTA light rail. The connections on VTA and especially Muni add significantly to the travel time and would erase the speed advantage with Caltrain. Many of the shuttles are coming from the Mission, the Castro, the Marina, and Van Ness Avenue, none of which Caltrain directly serves.

However, the shuttles also attracted complaints from others in the community, which prompted the SFCTA to conduct this study. Most of the complaints are about large buses driving on narrow streets, shuttle buses occupying Muni bus stops to pick up passengers, safety issues with large vehicles, and noise/emissions generated with buses idling.

Current laws do not leave much for the city to regulate the shuttles except for issuing citations when large buses are driving on weight-restricted streets or stopping at Muni bus stops (which SF says no one else can use unless one have express permission from Muni). SFCTA instead proposes a volunteer program where shuttle bus operators would pay Muni to hire a full time planner. That planner would coordinate shuttle activities to address community concerns and be the main contact by the public.

While more coordination is essential, it would be a mistake for the San Francisco to try to squeeze money from the employers. The shuttles have proven themselves to be beneficial to the employers and employees, and cannot be easily substituted by transit agencies. Sharing bus stops with Muni is a small price to pay for not having to provide more service on the public's dime, or encourage more automobile use in a community that's short on parking. What San Francisco should do is to pursue grant funding to support the coordinator position. In San Mateo County, Congestion Relief Alliance manages shuttles to Caltrain and BART stations with funding from employers, transit agencies, and grants. The DASH in Downtown San Jose is also funded the same way and totally operated by VTA.


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