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By Corrie M. Anders
One of the most popular perks that Internet giant Google Inc. provides its San Francisco employees is free shuttle-bus service during rush-hour commutes. But who knew this fringe benefit would feel like a bunch of irritating pop-ups to a group of Noe Valley residents?
When the search engine firm launched the local shuttle program in early 2006, it seemed innocuous enough: Pick up employees in the city and ferry them 40 miles to the company's Mountain View campus, then return them in the evening. The buses would take cars off the street (good for the environment), lower the stress level of workers (no more freeway hassles), and give employees another hour or so of work time.
But then Google's numbers multiplied, and so did the bus pickups. And some neighbors in Noe Valley--especially those living on Jersey Street--started noticing that the private transit service put a dent in their quality of life. They claim the buses are noisy, dangerous to local pedestrians and drivers, and too big for Noe's narrower streets.
"They're enormous," said Jersey Street resident Jacqui Sawers. "They come down Jersey Street and then they sit there idling on Castro. The gathering of the troops starts at 5:30 in the morning and runs until 10 o'clock at night."
Google spokesperson Sunny Gettinger acknowledged that her company offers a weekday shuttle service in Noe Valley. The buses currently pick up and discharge passengers at Muni stops at the intersection of 24th and Castro streets. (There is also a pickup at 16th and Valencia streets.)
"It's one of our more popular routes," said Gettinger. "We have lots of employees who choose to live in Noe Valley. I live there myself."
However, citing security concerns, she declined to say how many Noe Valley residents use the service. Nor would she provide specific details about the shuttle operations. She did note that Google provides free shuttle service to Mountain View from as far away as Concord in the East Bay and Santa Cruz to the south.
The company operates the shuttle to Noe Valley under a contract with Bauer's Worldwide Intelligent Transportation, a San Francisco corporate limousine service. The Google name is not displayed on the buses, which are equipped with leather seats and wireless Internet access.
Disrupting Quiet Enjoyment
Gettinger said Google, which has cultivated a public ethos of do-no-evil, is trying hard to respond to the residents' concerns. But the situation had the mark of a David vs. Goliath battle when complaints first began to surface this spring.
Sawers, a legal assistant and resident of Noe Valley in the 1990s, was the one with the slingshot. In March, she and her husband had returned to Jersey Street after a seven-year stint in London and Boston. "We loved Noe Valley, and we always wanted to come back," said Sawers.
The couple deliberately sought out Jersey Street, she said, to avoid the clanging streetcars and huffing Muni buses on Church and 24th streets. But within a week or two of moving in, "all of a sudden there were just tons of buses," said Sawers. "I said, 'Oh my God, what is this?'"
On April 3, she fired off a feisty letter to Martin Lev, Google's director of security and safety.
"My concern is that the drivers are using Jersey Street as a faster cut-through and the noise from the frequent trips the buses make up and down the street is disrupting our quiet enjoyment of our home and neighborhood," she wrote. "I...am requesting that you immediately cease from using Jersey Street and re-direct your route to the commercial 24th Street."
Sawers said she received no response. She followed up with an April 24 letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, with copies to District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty and to Friends of Noe Valley, the neighborhood's largest residents' group.
Sawers then invited neighbors to her home for a June 7 meeting. Approximately 25 nearby residents filled up her living room, including at least one Google employee and Richard May, president of Friends of Noe Valley.
Vehicle Speed a Concern
The evening gathering lasted an hour and a half, as residents detailed a list of grievances. Several said they were worried about the buses causing a serious accident and that the large vehicles posed a safety problem for customers using the Walgreen's parking lot at Jersey and Castro streets.
"It's only a matter of time before someone gets creamed," said Carol Broderick, who's lived on Jersey Street since 1993. Her husband, John Broderick, said he had seen bus drivers zooming down Jersey Street at 35 miles per hour.
"We are both very concerned and sometimes frightened with the speed which these buses have been going down Jersey Street," he said. "I've said a number of times that they're going to kill someone."
Tony Bettini, a high-tech engineer who also resides on the street, said the buses had been annoying him for the past six months.
"They're pretty dangerous, and they made enough noise that if I were in my living room sleeping...they'd wake me up," Bettini said.
Speaking in defense of the service was Chad Barker, a strategic partner manager at Google who moved to Jersey Street three years ago. He said the shuttle benefitted the environment as well as the employees, and urged residents to collaborate with Google to find solutions that worked for both communities.
"If I didn't have access to the bus, I'd drive every day," said Barker. "It's nice to travel to work with a group of co-workers rather than all of us being in individual cars driving down the highway a few lanes away from each other."
Could Weight Limits Work?
Sawers, who told the group that she had calmed down after her first angry reaction, said she too was looking for a compromise with Google. "I'm not in favor of eliminating this program," said Sawers. "We want to make it clear we're against its current execution."
Many in the crowd offered short-term solutions, such as asking Google to use smaller buses or vans and to rotate routes and cut back on the number of trips. They noted that by 9:30 a.m. the buses appeared to be only half full. Sawers said a Google executive had told her that there were seven morning trips and eight after-work trips. (Supervisor Dufty's office later noted there were "fewer than 30" runs daily.)
The group also came up with two potential long-term solutions: to ask the city to regulate the number and routes of private transit buses, or to ask that the city impose weight restrictions on large vehicles on Jersey Street. Sawers said Bauer's smaller buses weighed 10 tons and could carry between 33 and 40 passengers, while the larger buses weighed 24 tons and had a capacity of up to 55 passengers. The city already has weight restrictions that limit commercial vehicles over three tons on many Noe Valley streets, including Cesar Chavez, 29th, 28th, 27th, and 26th streets.
May told the meeting that his organization could not support weight restrictions specifically for Jersey Street, because such a piecemeal approach would simply push the shuttle service onto other streets.
The group also urged Google to lean on Bauer's drivers to follow safe driving practices. Gary Bauer, president of the transportation company, did not return several telephone calls seeking comment about the driver allegations.
Route Changes Afoot
By mid-June, Google was feeling the heat from Noe Valley's annoyed residents and starting to vary shuttle routes throughout the neighborhood. The company wouldn't reveal any new routes, but residents said the buses looked as if they were using 25th Street.
"We're taking this very seriously," said Gettinger. "We're evaluating the routes and trying to find a solution that works for everybody." The firm also is "continuing to look at" using smaller buses for the shuttle service.
Representatives from Google, Supervisor Dufty's office, Friends of Noe Valley, and a Jersey Street delegation have agreed to meet sometime this summer to try to thrash out a compromise that will satisfy everyone.
"What we want to come out of this," said Sawers, "is a forum where the safety and quality-of-life impacts of this program are recognized and discussed and appropriate modifications are made."