Tag Archives: SF

H8ers Gon H8: BART Strike Edition

Well, here we are, about a month after my post Shuttle Envy, and with BART transit workers on strike, the shuttles, along with apps like Uber and Lyft, are back in the news. Kevin Roose published a piece postulating that the rise of the shuttles and ride-share apps is contributing to the poor quality of public transportation services, and eliminating the incentives for policy makers to improve service. Matthew Yglesias and Reihan Salam, with an assist from Stephen Smith of Market Urbanism, do most of the dirty work in showing that the shuttles and apps are largely irrelevant to the quality of Bay Area public transit. Salam’s third point is essentially what I was saying in Shuttle Envy.

However, I’d go two steps further. First, it is a dubious proposition that because a wider cross-section of people in NYC use transit, a transit strike would be more effective in getting politicians to improve service. Rich people in New York have other options too – that’s one of the advantages of being rich. And as Salam says, poor people in New York have other options, like the dollar cabs and Chinatown vans. Note that these services are also mercilessly attacked by both the taxi cartel on one side and public transit services on the other, for stealing ridership, but since they serve low-income people instead of Silicon Valley Millenials, they’re not ripe targets for progressive equity and social justice attacks.

But even beyond that, the whole issue at hand here – the BART strike – has literally nothing to do with the quality of public transit services. The unions are asking for higher pay, smaller health care cost increases, better pension benefits, and some tangential safety items. They are not asking for proof-of-payment fare collection, or modern signaling and driverless trains, or better maintenance practices, or any of the many things that would have a positive impact for riders. If management gives in to all of the union’s demands, the quality of BART will be exactly the same as it was June 30.

And that brings us to one of the real problems with public transit in the US, the heart of the Shuttle Envy post: the first step to fixing a problem is to admit that you have a problem and that not exercising control is part of the problem. Public transit services in the US are not poor because Mark Zuckerberg runs private shuttles, they’re not poor because Lyft stuck a bunch of pink mustaches on the fronts of cars, and they’re not poor because BART management is holding out against the unions. They’re poor because we allow them to be and don’t demand any accountability.

Shuttle Envy

The Guardian casts its eyes on the Bay Area and sees Silicon Valley’s fleet of hundreds of private buses plying the streets of San Francisco. The paper turns up a few stereotypical SF residents who bash a shuttle-shaped piñata and complain about the shuttle service being “separate but not equal” or “segmentation”. I’m not sure how you could really be peeved about the Silicon Valley shuttles – why should it be Google’s job to improve transit services for the general public in San Francisco?

The shuttles are clearly performing a useful service. An equivalent public transit trip, say from the Inner Sunset to Apple’s campus, would involve SF Muni, Caltrain, and VTA bus, and take you almost 2.5 hours, assuming no delays. People that live in SF and work in Silicon Valley can afford to pay for cars and parking. If the 2.5-hour public transit trip is the only alternative, they’re all going to hop in their cars and cruise down the 280. The shuttles are mass (if not public) transit, fulfilling a need not met by existing public transit services.

As I noted on Twitter, the shuttle hate is symbolic: SF kvetchers don’t have a problem with the shuttles, they have a problem with the people on the shuttles. If we were talking about other private transit services that meet market demand not being served by public transit, like the gypsy cabs and dollar cabs of NYC, no one would be complaining. There are real issues from the tech boom, like housing affordability and SF becoming a Millennial playground, but they are not the fault of the shuttles.

When you consider anger towards the shuttles in light of poor quality service on SF Muni, what we have is Nietzsche’s psychology of human resentment: we have crappy transit service. Therefore, it is only fair that software engineers have crappy transit service as well. It is a lot easier, in terms of both physical and mental effort, to cast yourself as a victim. But as SF Weekly has reported, SF spends more money per capita than just about any city in the country, SF Muni’s rolling stock is in terrible condition, and its budget is routinely raided to shore up other departments. SF is a liberal city that supposedly cares a lot about transit. It is not a poor city. If SF Muni buses and trains are crowded and unreliable, the blame lies with SF voters for doing nothing about it, not with Silicon Valley tech companies providing service to their employees.

The industry responds, accurately, that the shuttles are beneficial, and that for their part, employees are paying high taxes without getting great services in return. To which I say, you’re all welcome to come to Los Angeles. Our weather is even better, and thanks to our polycentric nature, employees who want city life will have more than one option located 45 miles away from your HQ. Also, we don’t have a problem with rich people’s transportation habits or conspicuous consumption; it’s actually kind of one of our things, as long as it’s not Biebs terrorizing people in his Ferrari. Don’t take my word for it; dial up Elon Musk and ask him – it’s working out for him other than traffic on the 405 making him want to spend his personal money on freeway improvements. Just sayin’.