Image from Twitter @craigsfrost
Positively or negatively, mass transit is often viewed as a social leveler. Rich and poor alike ride the subway in New York, London and Berlin. Atlantans of all economic and social backgrounds make use of MARTA’s facilities, as they do in many other American cities where public transit is the most efficient way of navigating the inner cities. Of course, these are public systems, funded by fares and taxpayer money.
They fulfill the transportation needs of a wide segment of the population, and they generally give the same level of service regardless of income or status. In areas that aren’t as densely urbanized as the aforementioned examples and where car ownership for city dwellers is a more practical proposition, mass transit usage tends to skew towards a less affluent demographic. As a political football, mass transit can thus be kicked in many directions depending on ideological necessity. However, the underlying assumption for either end of the political spectrum remains the same: mass transit is an equalizer. But what happens when this typical political equation is turned on its head? Could riding the bus be considered a show of affluence instead of equality or penury? Protestors in the San Francisco bay area seem to think so.
On December 20th, demonstrators blocked the paths of two private buses (operated by tech firms Google and Apple) in a protest action. In Oakland and in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco, protestors held up the buses when they stopped to collect employees. This was the second such action in two weeks. Previous protests were peaceful, but in Oakland things got ugly. The Google bus had a window broken and tires slashed; protestors dispersed after police were called, with no arrests or citations issued. Before they left, protestors harangued bus riders and handed out copies of this supremely classy flyer. Many of the largest tech firms with headquarters in the area run private bus lines that ferry workers from the city to the suburbs. This sort of anti-Levittown arrangement has led to simmering tensions between employees of the tech giants and other city residents.
So what’s driving these protests? In a word, gentrification. The expansion of tech firms on the city’s outskirts and general economic recovery since the Great Recession has driven up rents enormously within the city. The median rental rate for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is now almost $2800 a month, a 27% increase since 2011. Protestors blame new arrivals to the city for skyrocketing rents, a new wave of evictions, and overall social unrest. They claim that Google, Apple, and other tech companies are turning older neighborhoods into bedroom communities for their employees. This is done, they say, with little regard for the impact on long-term residents, many of whom live in rent-controlled apartments. The bus services are the most obvious manifestation of this trend, and have thus become a target for protestors.
Tech companies offer shuttle service between the city and their suburban campuses as an employment perk. These unregulated private buses often use public stops to pick up and drop off employees, without paying anything to city. This has generated complaints about congestion and obstruction of public buses. Some metro San Francisco buses have been forced to stop short or to let passengers off in the middle of the street, undoubtedly an irritating circumstance. The city is currently in negotiations with Google and other tech companies to institute a fee system for use of public stops, and to prevent congestion. But it’s clear that frustration with the situation has already transcended bureaucratic dialogue.
One can sympathize with the concerns of protestors about the upheaval in established neighborhoods and the misuse of public facilities. Forking over the better part of three grand a month for a one-bedroom apartment seems insane anywhere outside of Manhattan or Tokyo. But attacking the workers responsible for a city’s economic renaissance is surely a self-defeating strategy. New construction may help alleviate housing pressures, as thousands of city apartments are scheduled to become available within the next several years. Until then, the city’s longtime residents and the architects of the new tech boom will have to learn to live with each other. In this case, riding the bus divides citizens rather than uniting them.