The hidden bus routes in San Francisco that are only for techno-elites

Last year, design firm Stamen got a grant to create an art project based on the bus routes that people in San Francisco take to commute the 30-50 miles south to Silicon Valley. (Click image to enlarge.) Though they take busses, none of these workers take public transit. Their companies, such as Google, Apple, Facebook, and others, run private bus lines through many unmarked stops in the city, before heading straight to the high tech campuses where wealthy San Franciscans work.

Companies do not publicize these bus lines, and indeed these companies actively discourage people from finding out about them. Undoubtedly, they fear that ordinary people who just want to get around in San Francisco will mistake them for public transit and try to pay a couple of bucks take one of the many empty seats.

In a fascinating post about how they created these maps, Stamen's staff explain:

We decided to try some dedicated observation. We sat at 18th & Dolores one morning, and counted shuttles. We counted a new shuttle every five minutes or so; several different companies, high frequency. We also researched online sources like Foursquare to look for shuttle movements, and a 2011 San Francisco city report helped fill in gaps and establish basic routes . . . We enlisted people to go to stops, measure traffic and count people getting off and on and we hired bike messengers to see where the buses went . . . Google alone makes 150 trips daily, all over the city . . .

We wanted to simplify that, to start thinking about it as a system rather than a bunch of buses, so we began paring down the number of stops by grouping clusters where the stops were close to each other. The subway map is the end result of that simplification; it's not a literal representation, but it's much more readable than the actual routes. We also wanted to show the relative volumes, so the map segments are scaled by how many trips pass through them; you get a sense for just how much traffic the highways get, and how the routes branch out from there to cover the city. We only mapped San Francisco shuttles, many of these companies operate additional routes in East Bay, the Peninsula, and around San Jose, including direct routes from Caltrain stations to corporate campuses.

These buses are not subtle; anyone who has spent time in the city has seen these hulking, white buses with tinted windows, aircon, and wifi. Sometimes they are even double-decker. And there are many more lines not included on this map, such as the ones that go to Genentech. Of course, these buses are better in every measurable way than using a car to commute to Silicon Valley. They save on emissions, prevent traffic and parking snarls, and allow commuters to do work (or sleep) during the hour-long ride.

Still, it's also easy to see how these buses presage an urban future where public transit systems are divided into techno-elites and have-nots. Many techno-elite buses make several stops within San Francisco, and there's no good reason why they shouldn't allow ordinary city-dwellers to hop on and get downtown when the actual public transit system is so slow and infrequent. Standing at a typical bus stop in my neighborhood, where several techno-elite buses drop off at the same spot where the have-not buses do, it's viscerally obvious that the city's class divide is widening. At rush hour, 5 people trickle out of the gleaming white bus with their laptops nestled in crisp Google-branded Timbuk2 bags, while 40 harried people stream out of the battered MUNI rig.

Maybe these maps can help some of those have-not commuters demand a ride next time the Facebook bus stops at its no-longer-secret place. Or maybe they really are just maps of the future city, where rich people don't even have to ride on the same buses with the people who sell them shoes, teach their children in school, and take out their trash.

Read more about how Stamen made these maps on their website.