San Fran’s shuttle-bus wars
An Irishwoman’s Diary: Tech v tradition
Tech trek: Google Inc employees board a bus that will take them to the company’s campus, in Mountain View, from San Francisco, California. Photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
‘Dudes. Chill.” The speaker looks like a mild youth of the breed known as “software-American.” But he is actually a disguised security guard, addressing shouty middle-aged white people. They are hoisting a banner proclaiming “F**k Off Google” (only without the asterisks).
Behind them, kids with backpacks duck inside a huge white bus. There is a stagey whiff about this – are protesters or techies for real? Spooky blackened windows lend an air of alien abduction.
Our shuttle bus wars broke out just before Christmas, triggering protest theatre and protest art installations – and now comes Haemorrhage, a protest interpretive dance about income disparity. I’ve seen protest mime troupes, poets, art, and operas. Spare me protest ballets!
But we’re in the city of Sam Spade, where everyone’s tolerant, everyone’s welcome and everyone’s a minority. We’re caught up in the liberals-versus-libertarians tango, and once again the “cool gray city of love” is a victim of its own success. It’s an “only in San Franfunny” thing.
The free bus is one of hundreds plying city streets (white for Google, black for Facebook, blue for eBay) introduced by the tech companies to whisk techies an hour south to work at Mountain View’s Googleplex (where they get free massages and gourmet lunches). All the buses have wi-fi, a breakfast bar, and reclining leather seats.
Nobody blames the kids for wanting to live the city life in San Francisco any more than Tony Bennett is blamed for singing. What rankled initially was the way buses used public stops for free. You’d think techies could add shekels to the city’s unreliable fleet.
So Mayor Ed Lee is now charging Google buses a dollar per stop per day. The bus deal with IT companies is a dollar per stop at 200 bus zones, or $100,000 per company per year, making the city circa $1.5 million.
Peanuts, some carped. And yes, Google buses are obnoxious, but so is traffic. Google intended the buses as a good deed, to cut down on exhaust fumes. They’ve apologised and bus stand-offs have cooled.
The newest employee perk – on a trial run – is a hydrofoil. Techies are ferried to work on the catamaran Triumphant – not to be confused with Google’s mystery barges (future “hi-tech retail spaces” for launching Google glasses, driverless cars, and suchlike.)
Techies can afford high rents and have driven them up. If they’ve heard the “do no evil” mantra, they are unmoved. They’re mostly under 30, but pay starts at average $127,145 (Apple $124,630 and Facebook $121,507). With free food and entertainment, no interest in politics or (God knows) philanthropy, they’re lavishing doh-re-mi on cool cribs and inadvertently overcooking the cost of living.
Adios Bohemian lifestyles, “dago red” and three-buck tacos. Hello, nosebleed rents (over $3,000 per month), $20 entrées, $12 cocktails. As humorist Garrison Keillor puts it, with apologies to Bennett: “I left my dough in San Francisco/ I spent it all and then some more/I used up all my credit cards/In restaurants and bars, then/I went shopping everywhere/(oh, Union Square, I was there . . .)”.
What started all this was Mayor Ed Lee’s gift to Twitter and Zynga of a $1.6 billion tax waiver to colonise rundown mid-Market Street, near 44 agencies for the homeless. He wants to upgrade these blocks into a new “theatre district” and renovate old art deco buildings – and why not? A stampede of start-ups
Then tech entrepreneur Greg Gopman ranted on Facebook: “. . .There’s nothing more grotesque than walking down Market Street. Why the heart of our city has to be overrun by crazy homeless drug dealers and trash I have no clue.”
Long-term San Franciscans bristled. The homeless are often unemployable, addicted, mentally-ill, African-American, poor white, or Latino veterans. Giving alms is seen as reparation – this is their ’hood, where they panhandle for food, clothes, and socialising.
Above all, this is a rent-control city. Things seem wrong when your friends get evicted. How can you be evicted after 30 years in your crib at four hundred dollars a month? Well, your landlord sells for millions, and you’re “Ellised” or evicted under the Ellis Act. Then rents skyrocket and techies move in, usually paying 10 times more.
Even Armistead Maupin, bestselling Tales of the City author, has migrated to gay-friendly, cheaper Santa Fe. “San Francisco was getting too pricey,” he told his old newspaper, the Chronicle . “Writers have been enormously devalued.”
Poverty among writers is hardly new. But evicted bus drivers, nurses and retirees aren’t finding affordable homes either and are moving to El Cerrito, or even Portland.
Me, I’ve been loving the increasingly bustling nightlife and things are somewhat smoother since techies started paying up. Yesterday I saw a white techie hipster joking with a black panhandler. Stockholm Syndrome? Or just the Sam Spade effect?