How the Google Bus Became the Symbol of Inequality in America
Millions of Internet users make daily visits to catch up with friends and family on Facebook, get the latest headlines from Yahoo! and use Wikipedia to find out if that meme posted by their high school friend is true. They share videos via YouTube, all while starting their Internet day on Google. These companies are five of the most visited websites in the world.
All of them are headquartered in Silicon Valley.
Located just south of San Francisco, the area of the South Bay portion of the San Francisco Bay in California was nicknamed for its being the hub a large number of silicon chip manufacturers and innovators. In the decades since, it has become the symbol of the high tech industry, home to more than 1,700 tech-based firms employing more than 40,000 people. The area has annual revenue of $2.0 trillion dollars. If it was a country, it would be the tenth largest economy in the world.
The campuses of the tech giants stretch across an area that was once the home of the largest orchard growing region of the world. In nearby San Jose, Cesar Chavez started the United Farmworkers movement on behalf of the men and women who worked the farms. Today the area is filled with suburban homes, large mansions and some of the smartest geeks in the world working 60-70 hours or more a week.
They get paid a lot more than farm workers, though.
In 2012, the average annual salary for tech workers in the area was $101,218. This is far below the pay of executives of the companies and the venture capitalists that fund the startups. Even with an average annual bonus of more than $12,000 dollars, many of the men and women that work at these companies don’t have homes in the area. Often young and childless, they choose to live in San Francisco, nearly 40 miles away.
They even have a special bus.
Seen as a recruitment tool, all of the major firms provide a private shuttle from San Francisco to their headquarters. Due to the horrendous traffic in the area, the commute can take up to more than three hours at times. The buses are described as oversized limousines by the locals, equipped with darkened windows, plush seats and WiFi. The shuttles are free, limited to employees of the firms and cover many of the same routes and stops as the public transportation system. It is estimated that Google’s shuttle alone makes 150 trips daily.
This has made city residents unhappy.
The Google Buses (a term used to encompass all of the shuttles provided by the different companies) share many of the same stops as the public. Having the Google Bus, however, spares the employees from having to suffer the frustrations of an underfunded mass transit system rife with delays, overcrowding and service breakdowns. The private service takes several minutes to pick up employees, blocking and slowing down the municipal buses and the hundreds of passengers needing to get to their jobs that pay far less than theirs.
Which is also illegal.
For more than ten years, the private shuttles have been using municipal stops. However, San Francisco’s Curb Priority Law prohibits non-municipal vehicles from picking up or dropping off private passengers. The policy is enforced by the MTA and is punishable with a $271 dollar fine for each offense. It is estimated that the Google Bus owes anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion dollars in fines for the more than 200 known stops.
That is, if they were ever ticketed.
The MTA has ignored the daily violations and has in turn stepped up enforcement of San Franciscans who violate the law, as well as the users of public buses. They make regular “proof-of-payment” stings, waiting at the bus stops and stopping riders as they get off to make sure they paid their fare. If not they are faced with a $100 dollar fine. These stops have led to violent confrontations, immigrant riders turned over to Immigrant and Customs Enforcement and the police shooting death of a 19-year-old rider. This has resulted in nearly $1 million dollars in revenue, far lower than what could be obtained if they would ticket the private shuttles.
Meanwhile, Google Bus riders are spared this frustration as they travel to and from their newly gentrified neighborhoods.
San Francisco has long been seen as the home of the creative, filled with both unknown and renowned artists, writers and musicians. As the city has been become the new favorite of the high-tech class, rents and home prices have skyrocketed. The Google Bus stops are conveniently located where the employees live, which becomes a selling point for hard to find apartments. Rent control protects long-term residents, but the lure of higher rents led to many questionable evictions, which rose 25 percent in 2012.
Residents have had enough.
Tired of the buses using the city’s infrastructure for free as well as the rising home costs, protesters organized several bus blockades in San Francisco and Oakland in December. The targeted buses of Apple, Google and Twitter have come to represent gentrification and city policies that favor the tech industry. Google issued a statement saying they didn’t wish to inconvenience area residents and promised to work “with San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to agree on a policy on shuttles in the city.”
In January, an agreement was reached.
The MTA approved an 18-month pilot program that would charge fees for private shuttles that use municipal stops. Now the Google, Apple, Facebook and the remaining 27 companies will now pay a daily per stop fee. The $1 per stop could cost up to more than $100,000 annually for the companies.
In the meantime, daily commuters on the public buses will still be paying their $2 per trip.
In light of the recent report showing that 85 people own the same amount of wealth as the bottom 3 billion people of the world combined, the Google Bus has become the ultimate symbol of inequality for San Francisco and America. When it picks up passengers at the stop near Cesar Chavez Street and drops off the largely white and Asian men at the same location where Cesar Chavez fought for many immigrant workers forced to work in deplorable conditions, the Google Bus becomes a daily reminder of the haves and have-nots.
Is it any surprise that Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin come in at numbers 20 and 21 respectively on that list of 85 wealthiest people?
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