Protests over Google shuttle program spill into Berkeley

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Tensions between “techies” and San Francisco residents over the use of private shuttle services have erupted into protests and nonviolent demonstrations across the Bay Area, most recently leaking into Berkeley.

Ten years running, the shuttle program — initially pitched to lower Google’s environmental impact — takes about 10,000 daily one-way trips, picking up employees from about 80 stops across the Bay Area and driving them to headquarters in Mountain View.

For protesters, the shuttles are a symbol of technology companies and their employees’ expanding impact on the city. Unhappy with high rents displacing residents and what they claim is a gentrification of the city, protesters have blocked private shuttles carrying Google employees and other “techies” from San Francisco to their workplaces.

In her 2013 research on the effect of the shuttles on the city, Alexandra Goldman, who graduated from UC Berkeley with a master’s degree in city and regional planning, contended that “buses are concretely contributing to gentrification” by increasing rent near the shuttle stations. Yet David Weinzimmer, a UC Berkeley graduate student in the same department who also recently researched the shuttles, said shuttles aren’t the core of the problem.

“Shuttles are one layer of the issue,” Weinzimmer said. “Employees of these companies are choosing to take long commutes, enabled by shuttles, because walkable communities are not available to them closer to work.”
Designing more urban neighborhoods with entertainment options for employees around the Bay Area is the implied solution, Weinzimmer said.

Protests have also spilled over into Berkeley. Last Tuesday morning, protesters calling themselves “The Counterforce” approached the home of Berkeley resident and Google X developer Anthony Levandowski, rang his doorbell and scattered fliers regarding his work throughout the neighborhood, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The protesters’ fliers call out Levandowski’s contribution in creating Google Street View and a development proposal for a sustainable housing complex, “Garden Village,” on land he owns near Downtown Berkeley as gentrifying the city while contributing to “the omnipresence of surveillance in our urban environments.” Levandowski declined to comment on the protest and the proposed housing complex.

That same day, about 10 protesters blocked a Google shuttle on Adeline Street near the Ashby BART station, according to Berkeley police spokesperson Jennifer Coates.

Berkeley City Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, whose district includes Levandowski’s house, said some Berkeley residents feel the protesters overstepped.

“This organization, if they have concerns with the company — Google’s not perfect — they should go protest at the headquarters,” Wozniak said. “Going to someone’s home, especially with someone with a family, is really uncalled for.”

Coinciding with Berkeley protests last Tuesday, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency approved a pilot program that, starting July, will charge a $1 fee per stop on private shuttles like the one the protesters blocked at the Ashby BART station.

News editor Sophie Ho contributed to this report.

Contact Daniel Tutt at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @danielgtutt.