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A Magazine of Ideas

San Francisco's Growing Class Conflict

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Instead of protesting better private transportation for others, San Franciscans should demand improved public services.

Recent opposition to two new private transportation services in San Francisco illustrates the city’s growing class conflict. But rather than discouraging these alternatives, the city should bridge the gap by improving its public transportation.

Both Uber, a San Francisco-based start-up that offers paid ridesharing services, and the so-called “tech buses” — a fleet of double-deckers that Silicon Valley companies now use to transport their San Francisco employees — have faced roadblocks.

Uber, along with similar companies like Lyft and Sidecar, has been targeted by regulations that for years made its services illegal in San Francisco. Companies were recently required by the city to pay for their tech buses, a response to several anti-bus protests downtown and in the Mission District.

Some criticism of these private services has been valid, such as concerns about road safety and infrastructure use. But much of it seems simply to be because these services are superior to the city's public transportation. Uber lets customers locate rides through a phone app, making it faster, but more expensive, than regular taxis. The tech buses, which are offered by companies such as Google, are sleek and WiFi-connected, but available only to employees. Thus, both services are thought to symbolize exclusivity in an increasingly class-divided city.

But if officials are concerned about disparity, they should set about improving public transportation, rather than discouraging better private services. They could do so by reshaping San Francisco's public transportation to reflect the efficiency of these private companies.

Public agencies seem bent on stopping private operators from offering better services.

The city's transit has long been controlled by monopolistic public agencies. The cab industry is run by the Municipal Transportation Agency and crippled by government protectionism. The current cap that the agency puts on available licenses is around 1,800, and the waiting list is long. New licenses cost drivers $250,000. These policies have decreased supply and availability, driven up costs, and discouraged competition. 

Another burdensome agency is Bay Area Rapid Transit, the rail network linking the city to the East Bay. BART's unionized workers drew international attention last year for striking twice in four months, over alleged low pay and strict work rules. Never mind that they were already among the nation's highest-paid transit workforce, with average salaries plus benefits exceeding $130,000. Some of the new measures that workers opposed were simple technology upgrades that would have caused layoffs. Following the strikes, management agreed to 15 percent pay raises over four years. The unions’ dominance contributes to BART’s deficits, typically in the nine figures, and to significant under-maintenance.

Muni, the city's local bus, rail, and cable car service, is similarly inefficient. A study last May found that its on-time ratings hovered around 50 percent due to rail cars that regularly broke down. These delays cost an estimated $50 million in productivity — yet Muni has California's second-highest paid transit workers.

The government-run rail that follows a similar route as the tech buses is Caltrain. Today, its customers endure a plodding, 90-minute ride from San Francisco to San Jose. This same trip takes under an hour by automobile, helping explain why some companies now bus in their employees.

Transportation agencies should improve services by experimenting with private contractors, decreasing regulations and salaries, allowing new technologies, and elevating performance standards.

The problem, of course, is that the majority of San Franciscans don’t have tech buses as an option. To improve their mobility, transportation agencies should improve services by experimenting with private contractors, decreasing regulations and salaries, allowing new technologies, and elevating performance standards.

Instead, public agencies seem bent on stopping private operators from offering better services. MTA has been central in the fight against both Uber and the tech buses. In 2010, following taxi union demands, MTA issued a cease and desist order for Uber that was overturned only after a lengthy legal battle. Earlier this year, the agency, which also controls Muni, was the force behind  fees of $1 each time tech buses use a city transit stop. The fees are supposed to cover the costs of the private companies’ use of public infrastructure, and over an 18-month period are projected to bring in an estimated $1.5 million in revenue, with six-figure contributions from larger companies. This money will be used strictly for program enforcement and for improvements to the appropriate bus stops. But what makes these fees less justifiable is that they were driven not by practical, but social, considerations. This December, several anti-bus rallies were held in the Mission District by a group that called themselves the San Francisco Displacement and Neighborhood Impact Agency. The group blocked buses and held up signs with statements like “Warning: Two-Tier System.” One man made headlines by dressing up, and, after claiming he worked for Google, berating the protestors with appalling class rhetoric. But it turned out he was really just an imposter, having worked previously as an Occupy organizer. Another protest in Oakland led — as ones there often do — to bus vandalism.

"The people outside your Google bus,” read a flyer at the Oakland protest, “serve you coffee, watch your kids, have sex with you for money, make you food, and are being driven out of their neighborhoods, while you guys live fat as hogs.”

On January 21, this sentiment carried into the jam-packed hearings at city hall. MTA’s new fines for the tech buses proved unsatisfactory for people like Steve Zeltzer, a labor activist and city board of supervisors candidate.

“This is class warfare,” he said. “Let's charge them a billion dollars. They can afford it.”

Indeed, protestors remain so fixed against these private services that they overlook how union greed and incompetence undermines the city's public transportation. They also ignore these services' benefits. Since 2009, Uber has gone from a business advertising alternative cabs to one linking riders with anyone who drives an insured car. This has turned it into a carpooling behemoth, and an iconic part of the “sharing economy.” The tech buses provide mass transit for 35,000 workers daily who might otherwise commute alone. Rather than symbolizing corporate malfeasance, then, both services help reduce pollution and relieve congestion.

Instead of opposing these alternatives, San Francisco should encourage future growth of private transportation services, and focus meanwhile on what they can teach the city's dysfunctional public monopolies. 

Scott Beyer is traveling the country writing a book on reviving cities. His website is

FURTHER READING: Beyer also writes "Motor City's Next Moves."


Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group