Angry Protesters Block, Smash Google Bus

In another display of ire directed toward vehicles that haul Google employees to and from work, a smattering of protesters blocked the GBus from moving Friday morning. Said protesters have even allegedly resorted to damaging the buses.

Today’s initial protest began at 24th and Valencia at around 9 a.m. where residents angry at the tech industry blocked the bus and carried signs reading “Get off the bus and join us!” and “Eviction Free San Francisco.” As many of you know, the Bay Area is undergoing a brutal eviction crisis, with San Francisco feeling the brunt of it. Mission District Supervisor David Campos introduced anti-eviction legislation earlier this year, which would provide “incentives against the Ellis Act” to landlords. These google buses — which, in all fairness, do combat the impact the workforce has on local sustainability, as well as the release of CO2 and other emissions — have become a symbol of the gentrification and economic disparity many denizens feel has taken over their city.

As Mission Local reports, the other dustup was “at MacArthur BART station and in West Oakland at 7th and Adeline.” Craig Frost, who was inside the Oakland bus that was physically damaged, tweets, “My Gbus got hit by protesters in Oakland and they broke a window.” While Google software engineer Joel Weinberger (rather adroitly) points out, “I assume all the #googlebus protesters tweeting ‘get out of the Bay, techies’ see the irony of doing so on Twitter?”

When Is a Google Bus Not Just a Google Bus?

Part of what makes the debate about Google buses — as all tech shuttles are collectively known here, no matter whose they are — so fierce is that there seems to be a fundamental disagreement about what’s at stake. Tech employees see the Wi-Fi-equipped shuttles as nothing more than a boring corporate perk — “a thing on wheels that gets us to work,” as one Googler put it at the hearing. As my year-ago ride on a Facebook shuttle confirmed, these aren’t party buses in the least; most tech workers sleep or answer e-mails on a silent hourlong commute to the peninsula. And it’s hard to argue with Google buses on the merits. They reduce emissions, cut down drastically on the number of individual cars being driven in San Francisco, and make the city a more livable place for people who would otherwise be stuck in San Jose. They do produce some first-order consequences that aren’t great (clogged bus stops, frequent delays for public-transport riders) but nothing that couldn’t be ironed out with better data and planning.

Of course, the Google bus wars have never really been about the Google buses.

For concerned locals, the shuttles symbolize their collective fears about the rise of the tech sector — that rents are spiking, that long-time residents are being pushed out by coddled 22-year-olds with Stanford BAs and venture funding, that a great American city with a rich countercultural history is turning into a staid bedroom community for Silicon Valley. It’s hard for people to put these feelings into words, and even harder to get them heard in front of cameras and policymakers. And so, when the MTA board announced a hearing on the bus issue with time set aside for public comments, it was a good bet that the tech resisters would turn it into a catchall venting session.

“This is class warfare! This is not an accident! This is privatization of public spaces!” said one opponent of the bus proposal.

“These buses represent filthy rich corporations that could pay more,” said another.

“We need to squeeze them for everything they’re worth,” said a third.

The G-Words:

The underlying force is this: the megacompanies of Silicon Valley — Facebook, Apple, Google, et al. — and their economic ecosystem seem to have grown into an enormous employment engine; analagous to the biggest urban concentrations of factories in the Industrial Age. However, these companies’ campuses are located in the leafy suburban municipalities of the Peninsula, a hour to two hours south of San Francisco.

These municipalities are tightly legislated low-rise, low-density burghs, with residential real estate values that have ascended into the stratosphere as Silicon Valley became more important over the decades. Now, people who’ve paid a million or two million for their 3-bedroom 1960′s tract home are not likely to embrace zoning changes that would allow more housing to be built, as that would greatly dilute the value of their property, as well as changing the kind of suburb they’ve paid so much money to live in.
As a result, these municipalities reap the benefits of having enormous employment centers, and those benefits are then divided among a small number of residents. But the companies themselves have no place to house their workers. Thus, they created the Google Buses, luxury coaches replete with wi-fi and other amenities, deployed to expand the radius in which a Silicon Valley tech worker can practically live.

It’s Not Too Late to Make San Francisco Affordable Again. Here’s How

Protect existing rent-controlled housing units

San Francisco has roughly 172,000 units of rent-controlled housing. Rent control is the city’s core tenant protection, allowing many people to stay here. The first thing the city needs to do is to make sure we don’t lose those units.

As housing prices go up, there is ever more incentive for owners of rental units to find a way to get out of the landlord business and sell. One of the most often abused mechanisms is California’s Ellis Act, a state law that says that landlords have the unconditional right to evict tenants to “go out of business.”

Tenant groups in San Francisco have developed a set of proposals to make it more difficult for landlords to use the Ellis Act as a tool to evict people. One of the proposed reforms that seems to make sense is to discourage the practice of buying rent-controlled units for the purpose of converting to Tenancy-in-common units (TICs) or condos by requiring landlords to have been in the landlord business for some set period of time before using the Ellis Act to “leave the business.”

There is a social compact in San Francisco that needs to be upheld: rent-controlled units should stay under rent control, while ownership opportunities should come from new construction.

Japan Shows the Way to Affordable Megacities

Japanese cities have for centuries taken a much more laissez-faire approach to development than their counterparts in the West. Building regulation in London started in earnest after the Great Fire of 1666, with the city moving away from flammable wood buildings to sturdier stone and brick, and giving authorities the power to widen streets to act as firebreaks. Manhattan was gridded in 1811 and wood-frame construction was banned in 1815. Paris cut wide avenues through its dense, medieval city center under the direction of Baron Haussmann in the mid-19th century. {…}

As a result of lax development rules, Tokyo — whose greater metropolitan area has surpassed 35 million inhabitants, putting to shame piddling two-bit towns like Mexico City, Delhi and Jakarta — is still growing at a rapid clip, despite the fact that Japan as a whole hit its population peak in 2008. (Rural areas and second-tier cities, and even some neighborhoods in first-tier ones, are emptying out as young people flee to large cities for better economic opportunities.)

The number of apartments and houses in the metropolitan-prefecture of Tokyo — whose population is a bit more than 13 million, compared to New York City’s 8.3 million — rose, on average, by 1.95 percent a year between 1998 and 2008, or more than twice as fast as its three world city competitors. (London’s housing stock grew by 0.82 percent annually around the same period, while the number of homes in New York’s five boroughs, as well as Paris and its inner suburbs, inched up just half a percentage point.)

What is Japan’s reward for allowing its largest cities’ housing supplies to keep up with demand? As your economics 101 professor could probably guess, relatively cheap housing.


Category: Downtown

About the Author

Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

2 Responses to Down With The Google Busman!

  1. Peter says:

    Ridiculous. If an employer wants to offer private commuter buses for its workers it has every right to do so. It doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything and does not have any adverse effect on public transit.

    • Trumwill says:

      Well, there is the small problem of their using public bus stops. But the protesters themselves admit that it’s not about that.

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