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Environmentalists Sue Over S.F. Tech Shuttles, Demand Impact Assessment

"This is not anti tech companies or anti tech workers; we're just saying they should play by the same rules as everybody else."


Activists, union leaders and environmentalists filed a lawsuit today against the Bay Area’s 20 tech shuttle operators, including Google and Genentech. Undeterred by losing an appeal with the Board of Supervisors to halt the shuttle program, the coalition is planning to take the companies to court, demanding that the city complete an environmental assessment of the growing commuter system’s impact.

“Our lawsuit basically says this program — which has 35,000 boardings a day, 350 buses and over 200 stops throughout the city — should have some kind of normal environmental review,” lawyer Richard Drury said, minutes after sending a courier off with the 45-page suit.

The environmental assessment, called a CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act impact assessment) is fairly standard for new or changing transportation systems, Drury said. Currently, San Francisco’s Muni bus system is completing a “transit effectiveness project,” which may include some re-routing, and it is completing a CEQA for it. The controversial tech shuttle system, which ferries workers from San Francisco to tech campuses on the Peninsula, was exempt from the CEQA process because it was classified as an “information gathering activity.”

“This is not anti tech companies or anti tech workers; we’re just saying they should play by the same rules as everybody else,” Drury said.

Re/code: How did these shuttle companies get out of doing the CEQA?

I don’t know! The city is saying it’s exempt because it’s an “information gathering activity.” Information gathering! It’s called a Class 6 CEQA Exemption. All the other Class 6s are for, like, taking water samples. I’ve never seen anything of this magnitude go on a CEQA exemption. This is beyond the pale.

What would you hope to see changed with a CEQA?

Almost all these buses run on diesel, and CEQA would probably say let’s put them on natural gas or hybrid electric. Here, in Alameda where my office is, they’ve got fuel-cell buses. And we know that rents rise near the stops, so how can the shuttle companies help offset that impact.

Rising rent? That’s an environmental impact?

People don’t usually think of rising rent in terms of environmental impact. It’s a little more unusual than air quality or traffic. But it’s actually written into CEQA. It asks, “Does the product displace substantial numbers of people?”

But you lost with the Board of Supervisors.

Yeah, we lost the appeal with the Board of Supes. Our only avenue now is to go to court. It’s not for money. It’s kind of simple. I think the plaintiffs will want it to go fast. The city just didn’t do anything.

But really, why’d they get an exception?

These are big and powerful companies in the city. They carry an outsize influence. I don’t know who they know.

The lawsuit is here, for anyone who’s into that kind of thing.

And the press release here:


SAN FRANCISCO, CA –The Bay Area Council today responded to a lawsuit seeking to block an employee shuttle pilot program that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved by an overwhelming 8-2 margin, that eliminates up to 327,000 single-passenger car trips annually, that avoids 8,600 metric tons of carbon emissions annually and that helps thousands of workers from a wide range of industries get to and from their jobs. Over the past almost two years, the Council convened companies that use shuttles to meet with city transportation leaders to craft the pilot program, which is due to launch this summer and run for 18 months.

“This lawsuit continues a misguided and misdirected campaign to blame employee shuttles and the tech industry for the serious housing crisis that is afflicting San Francisco and other parts of the region,” said Jim Wunderman, President and CEO of the Bay Area Council. “Rather than trying to halt a transportation program with huge environmental benefits that successfully gets cars off the road, the groups behind this lawsuit would be better served focusing on the real problem of how we create more housing and develop sufficient public transit alternatives to serve everyone. We have failed as a region over the past 30 years to build sufficient housing and make sufficient investments in public transit, and we’re feeling the effects of that as the economy goes through a rapid growth spurt. Attacking employee shuttles misses the target completely.”

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