The Future of Employee Shuttles is Alive and Well in the Bay Area

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In New York, big companies are distinguished by the size of the establishment with their name on it. In the Bay Area, these skyscraper-sized symbols of success have been replaced with a sprawling “corporate campus.” For Google, Apple, and Yahoo, these campuses could be 30 miles or more from the “downtown” area. The beginning of this campus concept was developed for employee convenience so that they could avoid downtown completely. Ironically however, a number of the Silicon Valley’s workers prefer to reside in the one place the campus designers never thought they would … downtown San Francisco. This has caused companies to create something that the motorcoach industry and their corporate transportation counterparts have long touted: high-quality, car-free transportation.

Despite the fact that recent news has been plagued with small groups objecting these successful shuttles that have now become a staple of the San Francisco daily commute, many have forgotten the roots where these particular services got their start. In June of 2011, the San Francisco Transit Authority commissioned a study to consider the impact that their recent influx of private corporate shuttles was sporting their community. In the study, they recognized the below list as the key benefits of the services that were being offered to employees of companies such as Apple, Yahoo and Google. Not only did this list speak to the benefits to the riders, but it also addressed the benefits to the community, businesses, and citizens of San Francisco.

Vehicle Trips Avoided: A shuttle passenger commuting to work may otherwise have chosen (or been limited) to driving alone to commute to work if the shuttle were not available. For comparison, the San Francisco Climate Action Plan calls for reducing 1.6 million intraregional solo vehicle roundtrips per year through employer-based programs: the shuttles surveyed represent 20% of the target for intraregional trip reduction from this category of strategies.

Effectiveness (Load Factor): Load factors (percentage of vehicle seats that are occupied during a typical trip) are an indication of operating efficiency. As a form of high-occupancy vehicles, shuttles compare positively from automobiles. Having vehicle load factors which are consistently low may point to an opportunity to consolidate that trip or eliminate or route, or to perhaps use smaller vehicles.

Load factors for regional shuttles were self-reported to range greatly from 20% to 70%. Shuttle providers reported a general flexibility to their service, which allows adjustments to be made over time as demand shifts.

Load factors for local circulator shuttles were determined from the thorough ridership figures of Adobe Systems for illustrative purposes. Load factors climb as high as 100% during some weekday peaks, but average between 18%– 42% depending on seasonal factors. This signifies that an opportunity exists to increase operating efficiencies.

Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) Avoided: Over-crowding is also eased by the magnitude of trips that shuttle riders are preventing, as generally long auto commute distances result in more pollution, more vehicles taking space on roadways, and more tear and wear on pavement. Multiplying the number of passengers by commute distances to their respective workplaces, the shuttle programs surveyed yield congestion benefits of 20 million VMT avoided per year.

CO2 Emissions Lessened: A crucial hint of environmental benefit is the reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, as CO2 is known to be one of the major greenhouse gases responsible for climate change. Applying the BAAQMD methodology to survey data and fleet characteristics from the shuttle providers, and assuming the following: a range of years the vehicles were manufactured (from 1994 onward); a range of in-vehicle emissions control systems (categorized based on the percentage of particulate matter they filter, from 25% to 85% resembling various emissions levels verified by the California Air Resources Board); and the presence of a nitrous oxide filter following conversations with the shuttle operators regarding their green fleets; 19 the analysis indicate that the shuttle programs surveyed reduced CO2 emissions by approximately 8,000 to 9,500 tons per year over the scenario where some passengers would have driven instead.

Non-CO2 Emissions Reduced: Additional vital components of vehicle exhaust emissions include nitrogen oxides (NOx), reactive organic gases (ROG), and particulate matter (PM). The analysis indicates that shuttle utilization yields a reduction in non-CO2 emissions ranging from 1 to 17 tons per year (compared to the case where passengers would have driven alone instead).

Local Spending Induced: The presence of commuter shuttles in local neighborhoods may contribute to increased economic activity, as a result of passenger patronage of retail locations between their residence and shuttle stop, which they may not typically have patronized. Of the survey respondents, 63% report that they patronize shops, restaurants, or other business as a result of their route to/from the shuttle stop. This estimated total spending (as directed locally near shuttle stop locations) is valued at over $1.8 million per year.

Employee Recruitment and Retention: Providing commuter shuttle service as a benefit was cited by the shuttle-providing employers in interviews as a key component of their benefits package offered to existing employees and potential hires. If the shuttle service were unavailable, survey results indicate that 14% of employees would leave their current employment.

Productivity or Productive Time Gained: Travelling a shuttle may free up time for doing work-related activities, especially if the shuttle is equipped with work-related amenities for instance, wireless connectivity. About 92% of respondents indicated that they gain productive work time by riding the shuttle, which they reported totals approximately 322,000 person-hours per year.

Accessibility: 62% of survey respondents indicated that their decision to live at their current residence in San Francisco was influenced by the availability of the employee shuttle service. One respondent pointed out that proximity to shuttle service is used in real estate listings (which was confirmed by another respondent, a real estate broker himself).

Car Ownership Reduced: 28% of survey respondents do not own personal vehicles; thus, the availability of the commuter shuttle may enable or at least further help employees to live without a car. Numerous employers maintain corporate partnerships with carsharing organizations including Zipcar or Enterprise WeCar (through either on-site company vehicles, or supporting costs for personal memberships) to compliment the shuttle service and provide further mobility for those without cars. About one employer also provides bicycles on site to provide mobility.

Leisure or Personal Time Gained: Riding the shuttle may free up time for personal activities (like sleeping, personal emails) or may reduce travel time compared to one’s travel time driving alone, due to the High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes obtainable along the route. 86% of respondents said they gain personal time, which they reported totals a minimum of 246,000 person-hours per year.

These shuttles have grown both in reach and in popularity since 2011 and now move on a daily basis over 30% of the total ridership of the public Metro transportation service. Although they have been the target of a small group of vocal opponents the city remains committed to their success and their use as a tool to improve the landscape for San Francisco commuters.

Vicki Rosen, president of Upper Noe Neighbors, explained in an interview that these shuttles are ultimately welcome in the neighborhoods. They just need to be managed like anything else.

“I think people are generally supportive of the shuttles. Like any other form of transit, they’ve got to be low-impact.

Like Muni, the shuttles have the prospective to bring more people to the neighborhood without growing private auto congestion. “It’s keeping cars off the street. Whenever you put a lot of people on a bus, instead of an individual car, that’s a good thing,” said Rosen. “It’s making it convenient and nice for people to live in Noe Valley and be able to commute down the Peninsula, instead of needing to live down there. We’d rather have them in our community and being interested and vital members of the community. We believe in transit. We believe in cars too, you know. The less cars on the street, the better.”

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