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The Google Bus Protestors Aren't Taking Yes for an Answer

Scott Lucas | January 7, 2014 | Story Tech World

"Is San Francisco just a town for the tech industry and wealthy folks?" asks Tony Robles, a co-editor of Poor magazine and one of the organizers of last month's protests that halted commuter buses in their tracks here and in Oakland. After Mayor Ed Lee's announcement yesterday that tech firms would begin paying $100,000 a piece for use of the stops as part of an 18-month pilot project, Robles could be forgiven for crowing a bit. After all, his group's demonstrations were reported around the world, and seem to have accelerated city negotiations over the fees. But the protests are unlikely to stop, in part because Robles has bigger targets in mind.

"The Google bus is just a metaphor," says Robles. "It's symbolic of this insulated and catered to class of people. The people on the buses are laughing at us." The protestors, Robles says, are much more concerned about the displacement of longtime residents than they are about the buses in their own right. He points out, for example, that the protestors haven't targeted buses of a similar size that use city infrastructure to ferry gamblers, many of them elderly Chinese-Americans, to casinos. For many of the activists, it's not how the buses are operating—it's who's inside of them. And the Mayor's deal yesterday didn't solve that. "They need to stop the theft of San Francisco," says Robles. "They are stealing money from us and causing evictions."

According to the Chronicle, which reported the details of the plan, shuttle bus companies like Bauer's and Compass Transport would be permitted by the city and pay $1 per day for use of the stops. The city has approved two hundred of its 2500 Muni stops for use by the shuttles, which will be required to yield to city buses, avoid steep or narrow streets, and provide usage data to the city. The average company is expected to pay $100,000 per year under the program, netting the city $1.5 million, which by state law is required to be spent on administration of the program, including improvements to some stops.

So why isn't this enough for the protestors? At one point they had based on a calculation of the fines they said the buses should have incurred, they put the total financial payment to the city at $1 billion. It's a far cry financially, but at least it provides public legitimacy to the shuttles—another key demand of the demonstrations, which had called for an end to what they called illegal use of public infrastructure. It's not perfect, but the deal gives the city some cash and the buses come in from the cold. Time to declare mission accomplished and go home, right?

Not a chance. "Mission Street hardly seems the same anymore," he says. "This is a culture of deletion. You can delete something from your computer; you can delete something from a neighborhood." Robles wants the city to increase the amount of affordable-rate housing being built ("market rate housing isn't for us," he says), and for the tech workers to stop taking private buses altogether. "Why can't they take MUNI like the rest of us? Instead of those yachts on six wheels. They want to feel special."

What's next? Robles isn't saying, but he suggests that tech workers should keep their eyes open. "When you have your head in an app, it's unbelievable what you miss."

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