This timelapse from a San Francisco street may change how you see the Google bus


Paul Supawanich

All sides of the Google Bus Wars in San Francisco have come to look like caricatures. On the one side, we have entitled tech workers: high-paid employees of companies like Apple and Google who commute to work every day in tinted coach-bus luxury. On the other, we have their picketing neighbors: long-time San Francisco residents who spy gentrification on every corner and suspect Silicon Valley behind it.

The reality is not quite so melodramatic. San Francisco does have a real problem: Hundreds of private commuter shuttles move through the city every day, collecting people who work in Silicon Valley but can't bear the thought of living there (with some ingenious sleuthing, Wired's Kevin Poulsen just counted 36 Apple buses passing by his house on an average day). These shuttles clog city streets. Sometimes they block public bus stops. In a city wary of the rising might of tech giants, these things have come to constitute a massive (and exclusive) parallel transit network that competes for space with publicly funded transportation.

But strip away all the demagoguery attached to the issue, and it simply looks like this:

Paul Supawanich, a transportation planner with the consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard, shot that timelapse video last Thursday morning near his San Francisco home with a GoPro camera. The video, which spans the morning rush from about 6:15 a.m. to 9:15 a.m., shows what Supawanich believes to be commuter buses bound for Google on the same street corner where Muni buses also stop. This neighborhood hasn't been home to any of the city's anti-shuttle protests, but it's clearly located in an area full of tech workers.

"I come out and see these buses every morning," Supawanich says. "But I really didn't have a sense of how the morning unfolds."

He made the video more or less out of curiosity. In it, we can see tech workers lining up on the wall out of the way of the Muni stop. An occasional Muni rider turns up, while the tech queue lengthens behind him. There's no sign denoting this place as a Google bus stop, but the tech workers clearly know when and where to turn up, and periodically a large white coach bus stops to pick them up.

The video has a Rorschach quality to it. It's easy to look at this scene and conclude that – see! – tech workers are overrunning San Francisco streets (this one corner never seems to exhaust its supply of them). It's also true – as occurs at about the 1:20 mark – that the Google bus appears to occasionally get in the way of the Muni bus, confirming the complaints of many San Franciscans.

On the other hand, these Googlers seem pretty unobtrusive, standing in a neat line thumbing over all of their smartphones. They've made a point of staying out of the way. They don't look all that menacing.

"You can have this neutral-tone video, with no sound, just ‘hey watch what’s happening,’" Supawanich says, "and even with that, people can take it in very different ways."

He's suspicious of the timelapse video as a policy tool. "It is essentially anecdotal: This is one morning, at one spot in space," he says, "and it’s not necessarily a good thing that someone should say 'look what happened at minute 1:30, we should definitely ban all shuttles!"

But this video does have another benefit in a contentious debate: it humanizes the issue. We're looking at actual people, wearing dorky backpacks, heading off to work alongside neighbors walking their dogs.

The situation on this corner isn't an epic clash between tech culture and working-class San Francisco. We're just watching people on their way to work. We're watching two systems of transportation – operating at very different tempos – that largely coexist within the same space.

"I think at end of day, from a transportation end," Supawanich says, "this doesn’t need to be a zero-sum game necessarily."

The city, after all, has more than one interest here. Yes, it wants to run an efficient public transit system that's not disrupted by charter buses. But the city also has an interest in the efficient commutes of everyone who works or lives in San Francisco. And tech companies argue that each of these shuttles removes dozens of cars (and all their emissions) from the road. What if the solution wasn't zero-sum? "Is there a way to design around that," Supawanich asks, "to accommodate both?"

That's the other power of this video. It shows how space might be shared, how you might begin to think about allocating a street corner to simultaneously serve both systems. Supawanich drew the idea for the timelapse from an earlier Nelson\Nygaard project in Vancouver, where he and colleagues tried a few small design interventions to manage bus commuters who had been clogging a sidewalk and blocking access to an indoor SkyTrain stop.

Maybe a timelapse video isn't the best policy tool. But it tells a compelling story about design:

 

Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.
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