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Are Google Buses Already Legal? Yes and No 

Wednesday, Feb 25 2015

Disrupt the law, legalize later.

That's the modus operandi of tech companies such as Airbnb and Uber, which innovate in ways old-fashioned laws often don't address. It's also seemingly the tactic used by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to justify its pilot program to legally allow corporate shuttles, like the infamous Google buses, to use Muni bus stops.

Except maybe Google bus illegality is more clear cut than initially thought. California's state vehicle code right now specifically outlaws any bus from using public bus stops, save for school buses, according to a state lawmaker.

State Vehicle Code 22500(i) was explicitly called out by Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach), who is seeking to change the law in favor of corporate shuttles. Allen introduced AB 61, which would change state vehicle code to allow local transit agencies (such as the SFMTA, which runs Muni) to grant permission for private entities to use municipal bus stops. The change would allow for even more Google bus-style shuttles to proliferate on city streets across the state.

But the bill's existence raises an interesting question: Why seek to legalize something unless it is illegal? And if it's illegal, then how are those corporate shuttles getting away with pulling over at Muni stops across San Francisco?

Allen's office drafted a background memo on the legislation, which reads, in part, "PROBLEM BEING ADDRESSED: According to the City's own Budget Legislative Analyst and City Attorney, under the State Vehicle Code, 'stopping or unloading passengers in a bus zone is illegal for any buses other than those operated by Muni or other transit systems so authorized by SFMTA.'"

Those "other transit systems" can only be school buses, according to state vehicle code. Still, the SFMTA says everything is peachy-keen.

"California vehicle code is consistent with our pilot project," SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose told SF Weekly, adding, flatly, "this is not illegal."

The SFMTA declined to let us speak to Carli Paine, the corporate shuttle pilot project's head, to explain exactly how the program doesn't run afoul of state law, and how the Assemblyman is (allegedly) wrong. So we went straight to the corporate shuttle pilot project's approved language itself, which the SFMTA Board of Directors rubber-stamped.

It was revealing.

Firstly, the SFMTA decided against letting corporate shuttles use white zone curbs for bus stops, which would've been legal, the agency wrote, but would eliminate some parking spaces.

Instead, it decided to let Google and other companies use the city's public bus stops, where Muni and Google buses now jockey for passengers.

But the SFMTA warned that even though it was granting shuttle permits, "a shuttle placard shall not exempt a shuttle bus from any other Parking restrictions or traffic regulations," and those same shuttles "may be cited for violation of California Vehicle Code Section 22500(i)." That code is the exact one Rose told us the program was following, and was not running afoul of.

How can the program be legal, if the buses can still be cited under state law? Notably, state law supersedes local law.

A California assemblyman said the program is illegal, the SFMTA itself said the shuttles may be cited for violation of the vehicle code, and a lawsuit filed against the program, ostensibly on environmental grounds, also calls out the SFMTA for violating vehicle code.

Yet those corporate shuttle wheels keep on rollin'.

About The Author

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez


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