What the 'Google Bus' has taught us?

Posted on August 29, 2013 by Brian Antolin

Earlier this summer residents of several neighborhoods in San Francisco took to the streets, protesting the network of “Google Buses,” or private commuter shuttles contracted by tech companies, operating from the Bay area to Silicon Valley. The name “Google Bus” became the moniker for similar services offered by other companies because of the scale and scope of Google’s operation. The issue these residents had went beyond the concept of transportation for reverse commuters or the use of buses. Rather, their argument involved the size, scope and effect of these buses on their neighborhoods.    

The service began in the early 2000s, as Google and other tech companies sought different ways to cater to their workforce. The service not only allowed employees an easier commute, it also enabled greater productivity en route to and from work with Wi-Fi and power outlets.

In 2007, according to a New York Times article by Miguel Helft, the Google shuttle network stretched from Concord in the north to Santa Cruz in the south and served approximately 1,200 people. A blog post from Transportation Nation earlier this summer mentions that these private networks (for most major tech companies, not just Google) transport approximately 14,000 people from San Francisco alone. They also note that these private bus networks have at least one stop in virtually every neighborhood in the city.   

Demand for services
Why was there such a drastic increase in demand for these services? As competition for talent to these companies intensified, these private transport networks evolved as well. The reason for this was two-fold: it served as a tool to recruit millennials who wanted to live in the city and connected the remote locations of these companies to the vibrant tech and start-up community fostered in the city. In turn, the value they presented to their workforce and future employees was that they could work for the  companies and stay connected to the urban lifestyle they desired.  

While providing the mobility for these young professionals to work in Silicon Valley and live in the city, the socioeconomic landscape of neighborhoods in San Francisco began to change. Longtime residents were priced out of rent-controlled homes, while more and more Silicon Valley employees moved in. With the emerging shift in population came more buses to shuttle them to work. Soon, these neighborhoods had two to three buses on each block lined up to serve the reverse commuters.  While loading commuters, these buses often blocked city transit vehicles operated by Muni, another contention of both residents and city officials.  In essence, the coaches became a symbol of the divide between the haves (Silicon Valley employees) and have not’s (longtime residents).

Catalyst for economic growth

While the “Google Bus” phenomenon cannot be replicated directly in size, scope and effect everywhere, the methods for their success can. First, the “Google Buses” have reinforced the fact that transportation is a catalyst for economic growth. By mobilizing people to work, the areas where they commute to and live stand to benefit. Second, methods of transport must also be agile enough to adapt to how and why people travel. Fueled by companies seeking to meet the changing needs of their employees, these private networks thrive on flexibility in operation and managing its scale.

Finally, this movement solidifies the fact that the future of transportation and technology as industries are intertwined. Each industry focuses on mobility either directly (transportation) or indirectly (technology), thereby creating synergies around movement. How we develop solutions that leverage both the power of technology and transportation, while meeting the changing demands of customers ultimately provides the key to our future.

Brian Antolin is a transportation and travel industry consultant who recently launched CoTo Travel, a transportation service for prospective college students. He is also the author of Traveling on a Layover, a blog on travel and transport issues.  You can read more at: http://travelingonalayover.blogspot.com/ 

Twitter Link: https://twitter.com/BrianFAntolin

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