Feature

Silicon Valley: The battle over Google buses

Is sentiment against tech workers “nearing a boiling point?” It seems to be in San Francisco.

Is sentiment against tech workers “nearing a boiling point?” asked Levi Sumagaysay in SiliconBeat.com. It seems to be in San Francisco. Last week critics of Google and other tech companies scored a symbolic victory when the city’s transportation board voted to impose fees on tech firms’ private commuter shuttles like the so-called Google buses, which pick up employees at city bus stops and deliver them to offices in Silicon Valley. The modest fee of $1 per shuttle stop marks a compromise, but it “did not exactly inspire the concerned parties to join hands and sing ‘Kumbaya.’” Nor is it likely to quell rising resentment over the wealth and perceived arrogance of tech companies. Last month, at least one shuttle had its tires slashed and windows smashed, prompting Google to hire guards to protect its buses. Members of the group Counterforce have protested outside the homes of one Google engineer and encourage their supporters to “steal from the techies you babysit for.”

Why have commuter shuttles for tech workers become such an “eternally contentious issue”? asked Kevin Roose in NYMag.com. Because Google buses have taken on a “symbolic villain status” for their critics, fed by resentment over private and public surveillance, the exploitation of tech workers in the developing world, and especially spiking rents, which is causing longtime neighborhood residents to get “pushed out by coddled 22-year-olds with Stanford B.A.s and venture funding.” Many San Franciscans see parts of their beloved city degenerating into “a staid bedroom community for Silicon Valley.” Clogged bus stops can be “ironed out with better data and planning.” The real problem with Google buses is that they represent the working class’s “collective fears about the rise of the tech sector.”

Maybe so, but “don’t blame the bus,” said the Los Angeles Times in an editorial. Since when is mass transit a bad thing? “The buses themselves are a net benefit—reducing traffic on crowded city roads, lessening the need for car ownership and street parking, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Why punish tech companies for offering this service?” If anything, the city “should be holding them up as models.” That’s not to belittle the protesters’ concerns, however. “There is a real tension” between longtime residents and newcomers over rising rents and housing shortages, and there’s no doubt that the tech industry could use some “cultural sensitivity” training. “But San Francisco’s beef is with income inequality and neighborhood preservation”—not buses.

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