The first time I saw a white bus lumbering down the street in Chinatown, I froze in recognition. It was 2014 and I’d just moved to New York from the Bay Area, but the sight of the hulking thing sucked me back to 2009 on Valencia Street in San Francisco. Those were the years in which pricey grilled-cheese joints edged out taco spots, $200 hoodies danced off the racks of minimalist boutiques, and legions of 22-year-old men paid cash up front to live in buildings whose owners had just evicted families from rent-controlled apartments. They worked in tech, and they got to work on towering buses that looked just like the one on Canal Street.
The Google buses, as people called them, blocked city buses from their own stops; their riders had to tiptoe into traffic and pay a two-dollar fare, while the more fortunate slid off the curb onto private chariots free of charge. In a series of increasingly theatrical protests, some who felt powerless to block the tech industry’s bulldozing of local culture began physically blocking the interloping shuttles instead — to no avail. They continued to multiply apace with the tech industry’s violent reshaping of San Francisco, a city where by 2012 the top 5 percent of residents earned sixteen times the wages of the bottom 20 percent. Finally, earlier this year the city implemented regulations for the shuttles that make permanent their presence in the city’s streetscape. They became what Rebecca Solnit so eloquently described in her 2013 chronicle of life among the buses for the London Review of Books: “Some days I think of them as the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us.”
Now, as the New York equivalents of Mission techies dread losing the L train, an alliance between several companies that employ them and the developers of the buildings where they live is considering following Google’s lead and introducing large, private shuttle buses to run from Williamsburg and Bushwick into Manhattan. But they are unnecessary: There are the G, J, M, and Z, and the MTA plans to expand service on those lines during the L shutdown. There are also MTA buses that already connect commuters to these lines. The shuttles are being considered not because public transit can’t get people to work, but because young, privileged workers hate the public bus.
The assertion of class privilege here is the same underlying reason most people maligned the shuttles in San Francisco, but there they were a solution to a real problem specific to the vast sprawl of the Bay Area: The commuter rail running between the city and the South Bay had no stops within walking distance of many tech campuses — Facebook in Menlo Park and Google in Mountain View are both miles from the nearest CalTrain stop. Companies and workers hid behind this explanation when critics pressed them on the classism of creating a private fix for underfunded public transit. They also argued — somewhat compellingly — that consolidating people on the buses eased highway congestion, since many workers would otherwise have to drive themselves.
In New York, both excuses fall flat. Proponents are simply back-engineering a problem because San Francisco showed them a solution that caters to people who live in $4,000 rentals. People who are glad to take transit so long as it seats them alongside other young, mostly white creative-class workers, and not the working-class, mostly not-white New Yorkers who populate the public bus. It’s naive to think the shuttles will go away when the L reopens, or that they’ll even wait to start operating until repairs to the Canarsie tunnel begin in 2019. New York and San Francisco are different cities in key ways, but soaring inequality — and displays of one’s immunity to it — are not among them.
We still have time to follow a different path, and the lessons of San Francisco to guide that process. There’s a bit of hope, too: Earlier this month Albany proved less willing to prostrate itself before Big Tech when Governor Cuomo signed a bill severely curtailing Airbnb rentals. And already, Transportation Alternatives is meeting with private coach supporters to try to steer them away from privatizing commutes.
But as was the case in the Bay, if things are going to turn out differently here, those who would ride the shuttles, must not. Our streets will be spared an endless stream of alien spaceships if these New Yorkers tell their employers that they want to join the rest of the city. Or I should say we — save for working in tech, I’m one of these people, and until recently I lived off the L. I came east to escape the destruction of my home city, bringing with me the same privilege that encourages such destruction. It follows me, and my peers, wherever we go, but it doesn’t have to. But it means embracing the public transit that’s already here.