The Role of Uber, Google buses and the like | Invest & Innovate | Steve Levy | Palo Alto Online |

Local Blogs

Invest & Innovate

By Steve Levy

E-mail Steve Levy

About this blog: I grew up in Los Angeles and moved to the area in 1963 when I started graduate school at Stanford. Nancy and I were married in 1977 and we lived for nearly 30 years in the Duveneck school area. Our children went to Paly. We moved ...  (More)

View all posts from Steve Levy

The Role of Uber, Google buses and the like

Uploaded: Dec 6, 2014
In response to my last blog on two thoughts about HSR many friends wrote wanting to talk about Uber and related new transportation options with regard to Bay Ares land use, housing and transportation planning. Google buses

One article in the Mercury News today talked about the impact of Google buses on the demand for housing near bus stops and another article mentioned a new program in Mountain 'View where their TMA will run buses between major employers. Mountain View shuttle service

What do readers think about these new transportation options in regard to planning for future growth? Do any of you use them?

What is it worth to you?


Posted by Elaine, a resident of Downtown North,
on Dec 6, 2014 at 2:40 pm

Steve, great links! After reading that article by Michelle Quinn, the thing that crystallizes the issue for me is: how can EVERYONE have access to high quality, convenient, quick, wi-fi enabled transit, not just the people who are fortunate enough to work for a few select companies. I certainly would like that. I have never worked for any of these corporate companies and chosen a professional path that probably means I never will, but would love to see good buses get me to where I need to go whenever I need it, and allow me to be productive while riding them.

Posted by Bob, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Dec 6, 2014 at 3:47 pm

Palo Alto also just chartered a TMA (transportation management association) for downtown companies to find other ways for their employees to get to work other than driving alone. Everyone driving alone is not something that scales, and with office prices as high as they are, we're likely to see more intensive use of existing buildings even without new development. (And pre-1993 buildings didn't have to include parking at all.)

I know Cory Wolbach talked about revitalizing a Palo Alto "little green shuttle". Maybe we can get all these projects to work together and make something cool.

That said, the key barrier to giving people options other than driving is permitting new housing and development at higher density near transit stops. If we don't permit new housing in Palo Alto, the new employees are just going to be driving in from far away and no shuttle program can help reduce traffic effects. If we permit new housing only as single-family homes in South Palo Alto, we'll never have the critical density to make anything other than drive-alone work, and everything will just make traffic and parking worse.

In theory, city council candidates from Cory on one end to Tom Dubois on the other end were in favor of this. Let's see if it happens.

Posted by Not-A-True-Believer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Dec 7, 2014 at 1:20 pm

Before people start gushing about Uber/Lyft/etc. being some sort of "last mile" transportation link (portion deleted, misrepresents what posters said}--do a little thought experiment: scale up the demand on these alternative transportation services to five or ten thousand calls-for-service during the go-to-work/go-home time frames at both ends of a rail link (in this case San Francisco and Palo Alto/Mountain View/Sunnyvale/San Jose). Do you folks really believe that there are going to be two vehicles for every Caltrain passenger who wants to use these services {portion deleted, misrepresents what posters said}

Sorry .. but the numbers don't work out to my way of thinking.

Posted by Adina Levin, a resident of Menlo Park,
on Dec 7, 2014 at 4:35 pm

Adina Levin is a registered user.

re: 5 or 10,000 calls for service. Downtown Palo Alto has ~6000 average daily boardings, and 4th and King has ~ 12,000. Only ~25% of Caltrain riders drive to the train and park today. So unless everyone who walks and bikes and takes the shuttle plans to give up these modes, the demand for Lyft/Uber would be smaller than that. I think such services can be, and are already becoming a useful supplementary first/last mile mode.

As the not-true-believer noted above, there are unlikely to be enough drivers to meet a steeply peaking demand curve. Plus, even electric cars take up space and will cause congestion in a steep peak.

Fortunately, where there are dozens of people traveling making the same connection at a given time, a shuttle or bus would be a more efficient use of space and drivers. Where there are hundreds making the connection - as Mountain View expects for North Bayshore over time, a light rail vehicle would be a better fit.

But we don't need a single magic bullet to improve transportation. A set of smaller changes can add up to big improvements.

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Dec 7, 2014 at 5:14 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

I think Adina makes two great points.

One, we all know of a very successful, non Uber, non Google last mile solution. It is the Stanford shuttle service. The rapidly growing number of Palo Alto destination CalTrain riders can walk downtown to jobs or take the shuttle to a variety of jobs and activities at Stanford.

I hope and expect a company run or private shuttle bus service will meet BART at the new Fremont and Milpitas stations and complete the last mile trip to and from job centers in the First Street San Jose area and Mountain View tech complexes. There will be enough volume to run frequent high quality service and that will increase the value of living near BART stations in the East Bay.

I have walked to work nearly every one of my 47 years of working and have no experience with long commutes or any auto commutes, which is why i am asking users to weigh in.

I do know from my professional work that the to and from the station trip prompts many commuters to drive and park.

We are beginning to see new solutions at least for some commuters.

I think serving spread out origins and destinations with conventional bus service is not economical from either the taxpayer or user perspective but Bay Area trains and if we had express buses might work with some innovative solutions to getting to and from the "corridor" commuter run.

Housing now makes sense in downtown areas not so much because there is transit access as because these locations are near services and shopping and appeal to many residents.
Making these downtown locations better for commuting will require solving the "how do I get to work after the train stops" challenge but I am seeing hope here too.

Uber is more interesting to me and I know little about it except it is now part of my son's travel planning. I wonder, for example, if Uber would be of interest to folks at the research park or similar locations for a group to go to and from lunch in places that are great to eat and a terror to find parking.

I know we are in a mobile revolution that took some years to build. Are we on the threshold of a Uber, Stanford shuttle world in the next decade and what would that mean for job and housing location?

As Adina said, there are no silver bullets but lots of smaller innovations can help our traffic and parking challenges.

Posted by Justin, a resident of Cuesta Park,
on Dec 7, 2014 at 10:11 pm

I'm really excited by Uberpool and Lyft Line and Driver Destination. Maybe they will be able to reverse the continuing demise of carpooling (which has been a lot more rampant than the small gain in transit use). Then again, Lyft already failed with Zimride, so maybe it will not work out.

If and when Google cars are widely accepted, this service would tie in nicely (reduce costs by sharing a ride). Of course, there may be even greater safety concerns with ridesharing in a driverless car.

Posted by Steve Raney, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Dec 7, 2014 at 11:55 pm

Steve, we are seeing some nice progress from new options.

30% of Amsterdam commuters use bike in much worse weather. We haven?t begun to hit our biking potential. Bay Area cities are beginning to compete against each other to have the best bike plans.

Stanford charges $3.60 per day for parking. This is by the far the main motivator of the very high use of commute alternatives at Stanford. Marguerite by itself does not change behavior much. Stanford uses parking revenue to fund Marguerite, train passes, etc. If Stanford didn?t charge for parking, there would be no Marguerite. So, as far as expanding certain last mile solutions, it is important to consider how new services will be funded. It?s not always easy.

90% of Google SF employees take the WiFi Google bus, as it provides higher travel benefit than driving alone in traffic. Many employees at other companies yearn for their employer to provide the equivalent of Google Bus. But these services often cost $6,000+ per year per employee, so are financially out of reach of most companies. RidePal advertises that it is the Google Bus for the rest of us. It will be interesting to see how this service performs over time.

36-mile commutes from SF to Silicon Valley are about three times as long as the average US commute distance. In an SFMTA survey, 31% said they could not make the SF to Silicon Valley trip without a private motorcoach (IE some would presumably have to move to Silicon Valley, others would take jobs in SF). The even-greener solution than long-distance bus is to add lots of appropriate Silicon Valley housing.

Lyft is pretty expensive for an everyday first/last mile solution. The new feature, Lyft Line, is available in SF and promises 50% off for customers who are willing to share a ride with someone else. Lyft claims 1/3 of SF customers are using Lyft Line. We can expect to find out more about this service and Uberpool in the next few months. Could have a big impact. Could expand. {I have Lyft, Uber, and SideCar on my phone, and I like to check the number of cars available in Silicon Valley. I always interview my Lyft/Uber driver and take notes. I had led some last mile research using SideCar as a platform. Smartphone ridersharing at 1.0 occupancy (not including the driver and not counting 40% empty miles) isn't what we should aspire to. If Lyft Line could provide 1.9 occupancy, that would be a big breakthrough.}

There are also van+smartphone services in SF (Chariot) that provide higher-quality service than public transit, on selected routes.

Posted by trees, a resident of Charleston Meadows,
on Dec 8, 2014 at 11:00 am

trees is a registered user.

Uses for Uber tech:

1. As we see today, individual rides can solve the last mile problem and work well for people who only occasionally need a ride home - someone who bikes regularly but not in the rain, for example. At least as of today, that's probably prohibitively expensive for most people to use regularly, although certain segments of the population DO do this regularly and it's already helping

2. As we see today, this technology is also being used for shared rides. In the old days and in other countries, taxis would often pick up multiple fares at once and drive them together. With Uber-like tech this is now much easier to do and yields much more efficiency because drivers know ahead of time whether it makes sense to lump particular fares together. This is a great solution for things like job commutes or trips to the downtown area

3. in the future, I think that Uber-like tech can be used to create "smart" public transportation. If you requested a bus the same way that today you request an Uber cab, it's possible that buses could get a lot better about knowing which routes to take at any given time and which stops to stop at and which stops to bypass. This would look a lot less like today's bus system with a regular route and much more like a blown up version of #2 - ridesharing. The system could even ping you back and say something like "great, we can be there in 10 or if you walk two blocks north we can get you in 5." I'm not saying that this is an easy thing to do from a technical perspective, but there's actually pretty good evidence that this is possible from other companies like DoorDash who take online food orders from all over the city, lump certain orders together for a single driver and the driver picks up food from multiple restaurants and then delivers to multiple residents. If they can do that....the bus doesn't sound that much harder.

4. The data you could get from uber-like tech can also help planners make smart decisions about planning and public transportation generally. Today there isn't enough data, or the data is too disparate, to make holistic decisions that really reflect the needs of every person at any given time in the day. We just kind of guess about what routes are useful and what times are useful and hope that those guesses pan out. But even if you couldn't get transportation on demand, for example, cities could rely on existing Uber-like data to make better decisions about where to put shuttles, how to time public transportation, and an idea of where not to put additional development based on an understanding of people's travel needs and desires (if you know, for example, that a huge portion of the population travels from north to south to get from work to downtown all the time, then it doesn't really make sense to put housing not in the middle of that path).

And one last thing- today shuttles and buses follow a specified route without regard for things like traffic accidents and congestion. You could be sitting on a bus for over an hour because there's a big accident on El Camino and the driver is going to keep sitting there until the accident is cleared and won't consider bypassing the accident if it means missing a stop. The "smart" public transportation I mentioned in #3 would also be able to take things like traffic accidents into account and redesign efficient routes on the fly. Yes, there would be service variability, but I strongly suspect that it would have less variance than the current, inflexible bus system we have today.

Posted by Roger Overnaut, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Dec 8, 2014 at 11:53 am

Uber and its siblings will gain a huge local role after the RPP goes into effect, ferrying commuters parked in the streets of Crescent Park, Community Center, Duveneck-St. Francis, Old Palo Alto, and Professorville to downtown and the Marguerite shuttle. Watch.

Posted by Roger, a resident of University South,
on Dec 8, 2014 at 12:33 pm

To start with, I think people will buy a parking permit within walking distance. Only if permit prices skyrocket would Uber be cost effective.

Posted by Roger Overnaut, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Dec 8, 2014 at 2:03 pm

People will certainly try to buy parking permits within walking distance, but I doubt the supply is equal to the demand. As an economist would say, the supply is inelastic. But that's an opportunity for those lucky buyers to augment their incomes by becoming part time Uber drivers.

Posted by Roger Overnaut, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Dec 8, 2014 at 2:09 pm

Why didn't I see this sooner: Contrary to Steve's thesis, Uber-based shuttles will aid and abet automobile commuting by effectively turning streets everywhere into airport-style parking lots.

Posted by Norman, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park,
on Dec 8, 2014 at 2:25 pm

Use Google buses to and fro LA and SF and scrap HSR. Save young people from huge bills.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Dec 8, 2014 at 2:55 pm

If you're inclined to take public transit to Santa Cruz...the Hwy 17 Express bus (from SJ Caltrain to downtown Santa Cruz) has free wi-fi. Works great. $5/one way.

Between Caltrain and the 17Express, you can get to Santa Cruz for $10.50.

Posted by trees, a resident of Charleston Meadows,
on Dec 8, 2014 at 7:55 pm

trees is a registered user.

Currently, parking permits are expected to cost $466 a year (based on $233 for 6 months in the phase 1 plan for RPP). At 251 business days a year, that's a $1.86 a day for parking. Even short rides on Uber are $ why would you park outside the RPP zone and have the hassle of waiting for a cab to and from work, and pay $10 or more a day for Uber, when you can just buy a permit?? At those prices, you're just as well off driving to the caltrain and then taking the train into Palo Alto- looking for a spot in a neighborhood adds stress and unpredictability whereas at the caltrain there's a spot waiting for you.

Posted by Sarah, a resident of Cuesta Park,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 2:54 pm

Michele Le's SJMN article described the Google buses as a symbol of the haves and have nots. They are not a symbol. These buses are the embodiment of our acceptance of privatized services for those who can afford them replacing what we have here to fore seen as public services which build the community for the public good. Wealthy corporations such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Apple, Intuit, etc. would prefer to pay for services that benefit their employees almost exclusively rather than to invest in the form of taxes paid in public services such as transit. Our tacit approval of this disinvestment in public services perpetuates our poor transit infrastructure and further exacerbates the problem which in turn allows these corporations to justify their decision to opt-out of the public sphere wherever it is inconvenient for them.

Posted by Roger Overnaut, a resident of Evergreen Park,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 6:25 pm

That's $1.86 per day at brand-name Uber rates. That means Uber gets cut rate competition, likely as shared rides. Enterprise at its best in the cradle of enterprise.

Bought your van yet?

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 6:54 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.


The idea that Google and other large companies are funding private shuttles because they do not support public transit is at odds with all local evidence.

The large companies and groups like the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and Joint Venture Silicon Valley are among the largest supporters of funding for BART and CalTrain.

To my thinking the Google buses are an innovative perk to help attract talented workers. There is no public transportation system that could provide that level of service.

It is true that the more highly skilled workers do get paid more and have more perks but in no way does that mean these companies are uncaring about public transportation or more generally the challenges of poverty amidst plenty that we have in parts of the Bay Area. There is no evidence to support your claim that these companies are "opting out" of the public sphere.

Posted by Google reality, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Dec 10, 2014 at 2:18 am

Hey Steve. Good topic.

Google does not support public transit. At least, not the way you mean.

With respect, I think you might be out of touch of what Google is having to deal with all the way down here in MV. Over the years, they have massively grown and are continue to accelerate their expansion in the Shoreline / E. Bayshore area. Unfortunately, the road infrastructure there doesn't support the traffic and in order to get their building permits approved, they have committed to ensuring a cap on auto trips over those roads. Sure, the buses are an incentive to employees, but the overriding reason has to do with the messed up situation with their build up.

Google is pushing MV to accept expanding office space, which is getting us in trouble with the jobs-housing imbalance. (which I know you are intimately familiar with). I feel that the recently funded (for two years) shuttle bus in MV is an out-an-out BRIBE intended to sway the city to continue to support their expansion.

So, no, I don't think there is any public-transit altruism happening with Google. If you look at the gifts and donations they make, most are aimed to address specific business interests. In this case, toward a community that they are asking so much of and taking so much away from.

I don't blame Google. They are doing what every other corporation in the US is required to do: Build monetary value for their shareholders. If they just poured money down the drain on charitable cases without getting a return on the donation, then they would be violating their fiduciary responsibility toward shareholders. Unfortunately, it's the residents that lose out.. :(

Posted by Jay Park, a resident of Jackson Park,
on Dec 10, 2014 at 9:24 am

Most of these big companies also provide some sort of commuter vouchers, so clearly they are in favor supporting employees who wish to use mass transit.

Google buses are a perk, but they are also a clever way to wring out extra productivity out of employees. The Google buses have WiFi (unlike Caltrain, Muni buses) and the environment is controlled (company confidential discussions can be held, just like at a company cafeteria).

No amount of mass transit or alternative riding solutions will provide the same level of privacy as a corporate commuter bus. Companies like Google, Facebook, etc. have a vested interest in squeezing out extra work out of the riders, just like they will pay for cellphone service and home Internet.

Corporate commuter buses are a relatively recent development because technology improvements have made it available. Twenty years ago, there was no WiFi and notebook computers were a rarity. Today, many notebook computers can run 8-12 hours on a full charge.

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on Dec 10, 2014 at 10:20 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

The following is a letter in the San Jose Mercury News today relative to Google buses as one part of a multiple set of traffic solutions supported by the business community and residents alike. Following Carl's letter I have some comments.

Traffic solutions can unite the Bay Area

While there's some value in columns about what divides us, it's more satisfying to work on solutions that can unite us.

Michelle Quinn's "The Commute That Divides Us" (Dec. 6, Page 1A) is a great example. The region's traffic woes and lack of transit options have led many employers to fund shuttle buses for employees. They remove thousands of cars from our highways and greenhouse gases from our atmosphere.

The holistic solution is for true transportation solutions in our region. That's why the Silicon Valley Leadership Group has led four successful transportation funding measures in the past three decades, providing $10 billion in improvements that we all pay for and all benefit from. It's also why we've indicated our willingness to help lead a new measure in 2016 to benefit residents with traffic relief, cleaner air, construction jobs and a stronger economy. It adds up to transportation solutions that unite us.

Carl Guardino

CEO, Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

The idea that Google buses are a response to heavy traffic on the roads in Silicon Valley is interesting (there are crowded roads from the surging economy) but as Jay Park points out above does not pass the test of reasonableness.

I seriously doubt that the San Francisco resident and other riders are pining to drive to Google instead of being driven in a shorter time with the ability to work and converse to and from work. This is a level of service that could not be matched if the roads were moderately less crowded.

In addition Google and others are contributing to shuttle services within Mountain View and already run shuttles from CalTrain to the north bayshore area.

As Carl Guardino says, this is a both and not an either or approach to meeting the challenges of commute travel amidst a surging economy. We need both.

Posted by Google reality, a resident of Old Mountain View,
on Dec 11, 2014 at 2:54 am

Steve, you don't live in Mountain View (which is where Google is located, if you don't already know), so I don't know how you can comment intelligently about this topic. Google only instituted the shuttle program when their expansion over in East Bayshore was in jeopardy. OF COURSE it is a company perk and many riders do like it. They get to live in a great city like SF (which has culture, arts, etc...) and make a great paycheck down here. They will fund MV's community shuttle program for only two years and then the city will have to find the money SOMEWHERE to keep it going. As soon as MV shuts the door on office development, these type of local projects and donations will subside.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Dec 11, 2014 at 8:59 am

re: "36-mile commutes from SF to Silicon Valley are about three times as long as the average US commute distance."

While no doubt accurate, the anomaly that is the geography of the SF Peninsula is not considered. I would estimate that over 90% of the country has city centers that are accessible from all directions on the compass. While it is technically true that Silicon Valley is accessible from any direction, the reality is that you have a narrow Peninsula, a Bay, the Santa Cruz Mountain Range ... a very unique landscape that makes our area beautiful but difficult to commute

Posted by Neilson Buchanan, a resident of Downtown North,
on Dec 11, 2014 at 11:58 am

Thank you Mt. View for the GoMV experiment. We all will learn alot.

I hope Palo Alto will intensify its TMA and business registry. PA always slow start-up process concerns me and other citizens concerned with traffic and parking. These cautiously funded and managed solutions are out of phase with our epidemic of success. I predict that we will quickly learn that these little green jitneys must be integrated with aggressive inter-city-ness. I challenge "Bob in Menlo Park" to start a MP/PA/MV collaboration based on the findings of GoMV>

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood,
on Dec 11, 2014 at 4:55 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Palo Alto. Menlo Park and Mountain View would be wise to enter into a partnership with Stanford to expand the Marguerite shuttle to be a regional asset with expanded routes and schedules.

Posted by Oldster, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Dec 11, 2014 at 8:25 pm

Good idea, Peter! The Margueritte schedules and routes may be good for those who work at Stanford M-F 8-5 but are almost useless for anyone else! I'd be happy with any shuttle system running every 10 minutes along the major streets plus to and from both Caltrain stations with decent shelters and benches at crossroads. El Camimo, University/Palm, Embacadero, Middlefield, Charleston/Arastradero? The Dumbarton buses do not run often enough or provide useful evening service, so a shuttle leaving University Ave. every 10 minutes for EPA with a connector at Bay Road would be ideal. So, any plan should include EPA, too.

Posted by pogo, a resident of Woodside: other,
on Dec 13, 2014 at 7:34 am

pogo is a registered user.

The next time you see one of those $800,000 SAMTRANS buses running up and down El Camino Real, PLEASE COUNT THE NUMBER OF RIDERS INSIDE.

Hint: It won't take you very long.

Posted by Ellen Uhrbrock, a resident of another community,
on Dec 13, 2014 at 10:58 am

Uber and Lyft are transportation options for any senior who - (1) has a mobile phone with GPS - (2) wants to go out day or night and (3) can afford it.

For example, many seniors can not (or should not) drive, park or walk at night - Uber and Lyft make it possible to be housebound without a car, and remain an active and social member of the community.

Gift your elderly friends and family a mobile phone and teach them how to use it.

Follow this blogger.
Sign up to be notified of new posts by this blogger.



Post a comment

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from Palo Alto Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.

Burning just one "old style" light bulb can cost $150 or more per year
By Sherry Listgarten | 12 comments | 2,996 views

Banning the public from PA City Hall
By Diana Diamond | 26 comments | 2,155 views

Pacifica’s first brewery closes its doors
By The Peninsula Foodist | 0 comments | 1,882 views

Premiere! “I Do I Don’t: How to build a better marriage” – Here, a page/weekday
By Chandrama Anderson | 2 comments | 1,423 views

Holiday Fun in San Francisco- Take the Walking Tour for An Evening of Sparkle!
By Laura Stec | 7 comments | 1,411 views


Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund

For the last 30 years, the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund has given away almost $10 million to local nonprofits serving children and families. 100% of the funds go directly to local programs. It’s a great way to ensure your charitable donations are working at home.