Career Advice Apr 03 2012

Google, Facebook, Genentech's Silicon Valley Bus Mania

By joseph walker

For most people, taking a bus to work isn't considered a perk or a luxury. Driving a Porsche or riding in a chauffeured limousine, perhaps, but waiting at a bus stop to get picked up, is, well, for those who can't afford to do better.

Except in Silicon Valley. Just as it redefined dress codes with Steve Jobs's jeans and black turtlenecks and retooled company cafeteria food with Google's organic fare, the nation's tech center has redefined the daily commute.

As tech companies engage in the most fevered talent war in a decade, they've created a cottage industry in employee transportation. In San Francisco alone, at least 5,000 city residents take private shuttle buses to work everyday, up from 2,600 in 2009, according to city officials. Some 3,500 Googlers now get bused to the Internet search firm's Mountain, View, Calif., headquarters each day, up from 1,200 in 2007. Companies like Apple, Yahoo and Genentech are effectively running their own small transit systems in San Francisco's suburbs.

The use of the shuttles has become so ubiquitous that city officials are considering a plan to regulate the industry by setting up rules about where the buses can stop to pick up passengers.

"Right now it's the Wild, Wild West," said Jesse Koehler, a transportation planner at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. "The sector has gotten so big that the city no longer can have an ad hoc approach to it."

Precious Real Estate

What started as a unique perk to recruit and retain employees -- the buses, which can have as many as 52 seats, are outfitted with high-speed wireless Internet access and plush leather seats -- has become a necessity for companies that want to expand. Real estate is precious in the San Francisco Bay area and companies are reluctant to build new parking lots when they could be building more office space. Some California cities are requiring transportation systems for companies that want to grow staff.

"Shuttle buses are a nice way to get people out of single-occupancy vehicles," said Menlo Park, Calif., Associate Planner Rachel Grossman. "Facebook, Apple and Google, they provide this as an amenity to their employees, but it's also beneficial to the communities in that it reduces vehicular trips and the impact of increasing numbers of employees."

As Facebook prepared to move into its new headquarters in Menlo Park last year, its employee base was growing so quickly that it risked exceeding the 3,600 employee cap the city had instituted to keep vehicular traffic from overwhelming the town's residents. The company and city agreed it could continue to grow to an estimated 9,400 employees by 2018 as long as it didn't increase traffic congestion from cars.

Not One Parking Spot

Facebook will expand its use of buses and vans and subsidize public transportation for its employees. "We want to do this without adding one parking spot," said Facebook spokesperson Slater Tow. Currently, 47% of Facebook employees commute to work in ways other than single-occupancy cars, including car pools and bicycling.

As Valley companies build out their private transportation systems, they're creating relatively cushy jobs for a decidedly low-tech group of employees: the drivers who operate the buses.

At Google's Mountain View headquarters, there is a special facility designed to keep workers happy and relaxed during their downtime, a Google spokesperson said. It's got a kitchen stocked with food, televisions, bunk beds for napping, exercise equipment and showers for washing up afterward.

A personable driver who arrives on time and gets employees to work promptly can make or break a company's shuttle bus program, says Daniel McCoy, associate director of transportation at Genentech, the biotechnology firm which employs 69 drivers through a contractor and spends $15 million a year ferrying employees to and from its South San Francisco campus.

"The drivers are the most important piece of this whole puzzle," McCoy said. "Getting a California person out of their car who has a good job and two cars in the garage is not an easy thing to do. You have to be exactly on time, you have to be 100% reliable."

Genentech drivers, uniformed in black fleece vests with the transportation program's logo, gRide, embroidered beneath the lapel, earn between $17 and $30 an hour, plus benefits, and quarterly bonuses of $250, McCoy said. In addition, employees often pool their money to provide holiday bonuses, McCoy said.

Steady Jobs for Drivers

"Being a driver is a well-paying, steady, professional job," he said. The tough part of it is the split shifts, which often require drivers to work in the mornings, take the afternoons off, then work again in the late afternoon and early evening.

One Genentech driver starts her day at 5:30 a.m. By 8:30 a.m., she's dropped off her passengers at the company's headquarters, and waits until 4 p.m. to start shuttling employees home before she clocks out at 7 p.m. Drivers can sometimes pick up extra paid hours by washing or fueling the buses, McCoy said.

Split shifts aren't uncommon in the transportation business, but they're not always well-liked by its workers. In 2007, the issue came to a head when drivers working for Google bus contractor Bauer's Intelligent Transportation tried to unionize. The drivers wanted to do away with split shifts, said Jack Bookter, head of San Francisco Local 278.

The Bauer's drivers eventually voted down the unionization effort. At the time drivers received perks not enjoyed by drivers who worked ad hoc jobs like driving individuals and groups to weddings and Napa wineries, according to a ruling by a National Labor Relations Board official.

Bauer's Chief Executive Gary Bauer didn't respond to a request for comment. Google no longer contracts with Bauer's and now owns and operates its buses internally, a spokesperson said.

During their split time, Google drivers wore distinct uniforms with the company's name imprinted on the back of their shirts, received a regular schedule, and were given Google security badges that allowed them to use a lounge inside of Google headquarters. If a driver didn't live in or around Mountain View, he or she would be paid for two and a half hours of their split time. Google drivers were paid $15 per hour and received medical benefits, vacation time and sick days, according to NLRB documents.

"That was the company to work for as a shuttle driver for perks," said a former Bauer's dispatcher who worked with drivers at the time.

Bragging Rights for Being Green

Aside from providing jobs and reducing congestion, the Valley's shuttle system gives companies bragging rights to green initiatives. When Genentech decided to double the size of its existing campus in South San Francisco in 2007, it agreed it to mitigate the environmental impact of its staff increase by limiting the number of cars Genentech employees brought into the city each day. Nor would the company have to worry about building extra parking spaces, which can cost $35,000 each, Chief Financial Officer Steve Krognes said.

Genentech estimates that since its gRide program began in 2005, its employees have consumed 3.3 million fewer gallons of gas than they would have and reduced their CO2 emissions by 64.3 million pounds.

"We made a business decision that was in our best interest and in the city's best interest. It was a win-win," said Genentech's McCoy. "We agreed to limit [car] trips and the city agreed to not force us to build as much parking as we otherwise would have. So we were able to save money on concrete, rebar and other stuff that we don't care about."

"Why take up precious real estate here in South San Francisco with a parking space when you can build a lab?"

Write to Joseph Walker at Joseph.Walker@dowjones.com



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