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How private tech industry buses became a symbol of the economic divide in San Francisco

March 18, 2014 at 6:29 PM EDT
Every weekday morning, dozens of sleek buses roll through the heart of San Francisco, picking up a cargo of workers commuting south to companies like Google, Facebook and Apple. But critics say the buses are clogging city bus stops and are symbolic of the disparity in wealth between the new tech workers and the long-time working class residents. Special correspondent Spencer Michels reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The national battle over inequality, the rich vs. the rest of the population, has taken a curious turn in the San Francisco Bay Area, where buses carrying high-tech workers have become a symbol of the divide.

NewsHour special correspondent Spencer Michels has our story.

SPENCER MICHELS: Every weekday morning, between 7:30 and 10:00, dozens of big, sleek buses roll down Valencia Street in the heart of San Francisco’s traditionally Latino Mission District and other city thoroughfares.

Using bus stops created for city buses, the private coaches pick up a cargo of workers who for the most part have moved into the city and work 30 or 40 miles south of it at places like Google, Facebook, Apple, eBay and Yahoo! The free buses, generally referred to as Google Buses, are one of the perks for high-tech workers in high demand in Silicon Valley.

When they began rolling six or seven years ago, they were generally praised as an alternative to crowded highways and carbon emissions from cars. But that’s not the issue, says writer Rebecca Solnit, one of the first to charge that the buses were more than a way to get to work.

REBECCA SOLNIT, Writer: They’re unmarked, and with tinted windows, so you don’t know who’s inside. They’re like a cross between a limousine and an armored personnel carrier, cruising around the central city.

SPENCER MICHELS: Critics say the buses are clogging city bus stops. And while the tech companies have recently agreed to pay the city a dollar per bus per stop for their use, the critics say it isn’t enough to make up for the congestion they cause. So feelings are raw.

The buses have sparked a nasty debate that has found its way onto YouTube, with the satirical “Google Bus Song.”

(SINGING)

SPENCER MICHELS: Solnit and others say the buses are symbols of the disparity in wealth between the new tech workers and the longtime working-class residents of neighborhoods like the Mission. And, she adds, the influx of techies is gentrifying the city.

REBECCA SOLNIT: Joe Google moves into the apartment from which Jose auto mechanic has been evicted, Jose auto mechanic is now going to move to Vallejo, and have a hellacious commute to the auto body shop in San Francisco. And no luxury bus with tinted windows and Wi-Fi on board is going to pull up at his new home in Vallejo to bring him to the office.

So, what you’re really doing is displacing the more vulnerable people.

SPENCER MICHELS: The buses have inspired a series of protests that, in turn, have sparked a lively debate on the merits of the high-tech boom taking place in the Bay Area, and its effects on residents.

One woman wearing high-tech Google Glass was attacked in a bar after refusing to take them off. Her glass recorded the incident. She said one of her assailants told her, “You guys are killing the city.”

At City Hall, Supervisor Scott Wiener is amazed at the hostility that some San Franciscans have shown to what he sees as an influx of new jobs for the area, workers with money to spend, and new development.

Scott Wiener, San Francisco Board of Supervisors: Most cities would be thrilled to have an industry come in that has good-paying jobs, with good benefits, and workers who are actually paid well.

SPENCER MICHELS: Some San Franciscans say that gentrification is a symptom of a healthy economy, not a war on those without enough money.

Adrian Covert is a policy specialist for the Bay Area Council, a business alliance.

ADRIAN COVERT, Bay Area Council: The Bay Area is adding jobs because it’s a good place to do business, and, at the same time, Silicon Valley has failed to provide enough housing for all its work force. And so you see the work forces spilling over into the surrounding Bay Area.

SPENCER MICHELS: One problem, says Supervisor Wiener, is that cities have made it too tough to develop new housing.

SCOTT WIENER: Average rents are over $3,000 a month. I think it’s very important that we focus on addressing our structural housing problems, which we as a city have created over a period of decades by making it too hard to build housing, and not scapegoat the shuttles for our housing problems.

SPENCER MICHELS: But housing activists say the tech companies are culpable for changing the nature of the city, resulting in the eviction of longtime residents to make way for the young and well-paid.

Erin McElroy organizes for the San Francisco Tenants Union, which put together this rally to halt evictions, which she claims have increased 175 percent in the last year.

ERIN MCELROY, San Francisco Tenants Union: The real issue is gentrification and the systemic displacement of longtime residents in San Francisco, and what’s happening is that people are being displaced by a particular political economy that’s benefiting from the money that tech is bringing into the city.

SPENCER MICHELS: McElroy says that landlords have found a way around city-enacted rent control, using a state law that makes it too easy for landlords to evict low-paying tenants from their apartments.

That, she says, is what is happening to roommates Tom Rapp and Patricia Kerman, who are being forced out of their rent-controlled three-bedroom apartment in an old Mission District building, where their rent is less than $1,000 a month.

PATRICIA KERMAN, San Francisco: What’s really happening is that long-term residents are being thrown out on the street like garbage. And it’s not just me. People who have lived here two, three, four generations, because they didn’t have the money to buy property, they’re victims.

ERIN MCELROY: The city is no longer a place that if you’re poor working-class, even middle class, that you can afford to live in.

SPENCER MICHELS: For some companies in Silicon Valley, the furor over the buses, and their symbolism of the divide between rich and poor, have become an embarrassment of sorts, as they pull up to stops near the high-tech campuses and discharge their computer-carrying cargo of San Francisco residents.

Google declined to comment on the bus controversy and what it may represent, and said that it has discouraged its employees from talking to the media. The company did issue several statements, including one that said it certainly didn’t want to inconvenience San Francisco Bay Area residents.

SPENCER MICHELS: Nearly all employees we asked remained mute, except for one operations worker.

IVAN VAJVOVIC, Google: Not everyone riding the bus is you know, rich. I can guarantee you that. Buses are not the problem, right? I think the jobs are the problem. If people have jobs, if people have opportunity to make their income, you know, they wouldn’t be focused on the buses.

SPENCER MICHELS: As if in answer to all the criticism, in late February, Google announced it was donating $6.8 million over two years to provide free rides for low -income youth on San Francisco city buses. The business council’s Covert praised that move and the Google Buses as well.

ADRIAN COVERT: I think they’re being pretty good community players. I think that Google and other companies have identified a big gap in the Bay Area’s public transportation service, and are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to address that gap by providing these buses.

SPENCER MICHELS: Meanwhile, state lawmakers from San Francisco have introduced bills to reduce evictions. And, as the buses roll on, the city supervisors are debating how to deal with those buses and the issues they raise.