Google Ferry Dodges Street Protests - InformationWeek

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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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User Rank: Strategist
1/9/2014 | 5:57:17 PM
Re: Work from home?
Despite Google's image of a forward thinking, progressive company, they utterly forbid working from home on a full-time (or even regular) basis. As far as I know, only a select few groups of elite people  in the organization have that privilege.

They'd rather have their employees schlep out to the office in Mountain View, apparently.
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
1/9/2014 | 3:34:33 PM
Re: Is this helpful?
>...all of these things are far more worthy of activist ire.

Nicely put, Michael. Given the equivalency of money and speech established by the Supreme Court, the problem is that the less-than-wealthy simply don't speak in large enough donations to be heard by Congressional representatives.
Michael Endler
IW Pick
Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
1/9/2014 | 3:15:20 PM
Is this helpful?
These protests seem misdirected-- and this is coming from someone who considers our right to protest to be one of our most sacred liberties, and who has participated in more than a few demonstrations.

Some members of the tech community certainly give the impression of being aloof or naive to social challenges facing the Bay Area, and the country at large. I've encountered several people at big Silicon Valley companies who stepped into six-figure jobs right out of college and who seem oblivious to the fact that most people don't lead such charmed lives. Some of these people evidence the sort of self-styled "master of the universe" attitude that rejects the fact that success often has as much to do with luck or timing as objective merit. But I also know A LOT of techies who are hard-working, socially conscious people. It's also worth noting that many major SF-based tech companies (e.g. Salesforce) are laudably generous with their wealth. Are the tech companies enjoying tax exemptions open to some criticism? Sure. Are some of the SF techies overly entitled, or inadequately compassionate to those less fortunate? Yes. Is SF mayor Ed Lee doing a sub-par job protecting the city's dwindling middle class? Arguably. But the way some activists are generalizing the entire tech world is myopic and counter-productive.

Here's an example: If Google, Facebook and others stopped running buses, perhaps that would push some of the SF techies into the South Bay. But it would also push an influx of riders onto the public transportation infrastructure-- and as someone who already stuffs himself like a sardine in a can onto the massively unreliable N-Judah MUNI line, I don't see how that outcome is helpful. It would also put more drivers on the already-busy 101 and 280-- again, not helpful.

People should be angry. Thirty year of wage stagnation and the growing income divide are topics worthy of rage and action. I mean, the average salary in San Francisco right now is in the low $60K range, which sounds like a lot, but a) the median salary is lower than that; and b) the average studio apartment costs about $3000 per month. So if you make the average salary, have no expenses, and can survive without eating, you can afford (after taxes) the most modestly-sized accommodations. That's insane. And if you make less than the average, you'd better enjoy roommates. But the Google buses are at most a symptom of the problem, not a cause. The tax code, corporate personhood and the impact of money on free speech, escalating health care costs and the role of insurers and pharmaceutical companies in the escalation, self-serving executives who boost their own pay and arbitrarily define their own value, pundits who callously and moronically argue that most jobs should suck because otherwise people wouldn't be incentivized to better themselves, policy-makers who render judgment on struggles they've never faced themselves, inept and corrupt Congressional leaders who perpetuate all this garbage, so-called think tanks that advocate demonstrably bad data, media personalities who perpetuate a culture in which opinion and faith count for more than empirical facts-- compared to the Google buses, all of these things are far more worthy of activist ire.
Kristin Burnham
Kristin Burnham,
User Rank: Author
1/9/2014 | 10:10:15 AM
Work from home?
I wonder how many of those employees must be in the office every day -- and what their work-from-home policy is.
User Rank: Ninja
1/9/2014 | 8:23:15 AM
Is this the best plan
While this is typical of Google, finding an unconventional way around problems. This seems like it would make it easier to disrupt their employees.  Blocking access to the dock for the ferry or interfering with the ferry once it is out on the water seems like it would be just as easy as blocking a bus stop.  Maybe this will keep people happy for a short time but eventually people working on those docks will complain about the amount of traffic that they are seeing now.
User Rank: Strategist
1/8/2014 | 8:54:22 PM
Potential ad on Craigslist: Wanted, submarine, used
Let's hope the protesters have no U-Boat experience in their ranks or torpedoes in their arsenal.
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