Google Ferry Dodges Street Protests

To avoid besieged buses in San Francisco and Oakland, Google begins transporting employees by boat.
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While Google sorts out the permit issues related to the barge-borne showroom it hopes to dock at a San Francisco pier, the company has launched a ferry service to carry workers between San Francisco and Redwood City, Calif., a connection point with a company bus route to its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Google has recently come under fire for providing private buses to shuttle workers between San Francisco and Mountain View. Despite the ecological and traffic congestion benefits of keeping workers out of their cars -- eliminating at least 45 million vehicle miles traveled and 761,000 metric tons of carbon annually -- Google buses have drawn the ire of some San Francisco residents for using public bus stops without compensating the city and for providing free parking that would cost private residents a $274 fine.

Some of those who object to Google buses see Google as a proxy for rising Bay Area housing prices, which have been driven up by tech-industry salaries and stock options. Yet such anti-gentrification sentiment has helped sustain high housing prices by limiting the sort of real estate development that could help San Francisco's housing supply meet demand.

Twice last month there were small demonstrations at bus stops where Google's coaches were picking up passengers, one in San Francisco and one in Oakland, Calif. During the protest near the West Oakland BART Station, some protesters became violent, breaking a Google bus window and slashing its tires.

[Google isn't giving up on motorized vehicles. Read Google Android Heads For Cars.]

A photo of a protest letter, posted to Twitter by Google employee Craig Frost, who also posted a picture of the broken bus window, argues Google employees deserve such treatment. "You're not innocent victims," the letter asserts. "Without you, the housing prices would not be rising and we would not be facing eviction and foreclosure."

Google appears to be quite eager to appease such sentiment by traveling over the waves instead of streets to accomplish that goal. In a statement alluding to the ongoing controversy over Google's worker transit arrangements, a company spokeswoman said in an email, "We certainly don't want to cause any inconvenience to SF residents and we're trying alternative ways to get Googlers to work."

Anger at the successful isn't directed only at Google. An Apple bus was also surrounded by protesters last month. Genentech has been busing workers to South San Francisco for at least seven years, but recently the number of employee shuttles has skyrocketed. The volume of corporate buses traveling city streets has become a quality of life issue.

On Monday, in response to such objections, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), joined with Genentech, Google, Apple, Facebook, Bauer's Intelligent Transportation, and the Bay Area Council to announce a plan to charge companies for using public bus stops.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, permits for participating companies are expected to be around $100,000 and usage fees will be $1 per day per stop. Some 200 of the bus stops out of 2,500 will be used, the SFMTA said, to handle over 35,000 boardings per day.

Peter Dailey, deputy director, maritime, for the Port of San Francisco, said in a phone interview that the Port of San Francisco was approached by Multinational Logistic Services, based in Maine, for permission to run a private ferry service for a client that turned out to be Google. The 30-day pilot program began on Monday. It requires a nominal fee of $25 per call of the vessel, he said. If the pilot program is successful, he said, the Port of San Francisco "will sit down and negotiate a deal with higher fees," he said.

Dailey said he hoped the program will continue, because the Bay is an underutilized asset. Some three million passengers pass through the port each year, he said, but there's excess capacity. "From our standpoint, [Google's ferry] is great," he said. "There's no interference with public transit."

While Dailey had no knowledge of whether Google was exploring a water route to mollify protesters, he noted, "It's a pretty creative way to get their employees down to Mountain View."


Thomas Claburn is editor-at-large for InformationWeek. He has been writing about business and technology since 1996 for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and his mobile game Blocfall Free is available for iOS, Android, and Kindle Fire.

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