Real talk: I’m not the biggest fan of San Francisco public transportation. So when I first heard of the alternative transportation network of private buses coursing through the arteries of the city, my ears perked up. Imagine: buses with wifi, plush seats, sun roofs, arriving at reasonable intervals. Surely they had room for one more?
As it happens, around this time last year, Stamen, a design and tech studio in the Mission, was also watching the shuttle network very carefully. Stamen is known for mapping complex systems -- crime in San Francisco for example -- and they tend to get creative. They looked on the social site Foursquare for all the Google stops where people had “checked in” online. They hired bike messengers to follow the buses and define the routes using Field Papers.
Eric Rodenbeck, Stamen’s founder and creative director, says their research led them to something they didn’t expect. “I thought this was mostly about gentrification in the Mission and young people new to the neighborhood who were taking these buses,” he says. “Turns out, there’s a whole corridor that goes up Van Ness and up to the Marina, bigger than what’s happening in the Mission. Lawyers going down there, marketing people, not just about programmers and young people going down there, it’s a whole supplanting of the city’s transportation network, all the way up and down the chain.”
Stamen ended up making an elaborate map of the routes, modeled after the famous NYC subway map, except instead of trains, they showed travellines of companies like Yahoo, Facebook, Google and eBay. I decided to use it as my treasure map... and my treasure would be a cushy and convenient ride around town.
Step 1: Get on the bus
Before I could get on the shuttle bus, I needed help from some insiders. I figured my friends in the tech industry would help me. I knew a few people at Apple and Google. But, when I reached out to them for interviews, everyone gave me a resounding no. I promised I’d grant them anonymity and distort their voices to protect their identities. No way, they said.
If my tech friends couldn’t help, I’d just have to take to the bus stop on my own. Would anyone help this private transportation hitchhiker?
Spoiler alert: the response was basically a fat “no way.” A Google badge is the ultimate passport from San Francisco down to Silicon Valley, and the Google employees I talked to let me know that security was really tight. Still, I had to try.
Step 2: Make a plan
My plan was: wear all black, some nice shiny red shoes, glue eyes to phone screen, clutch bright blue backpack, and just get in line with the other nerds like I owned the place. I’m 28, white, and blonde. I thought that would help, too. With no Google-branded gear, I thought this was the second-best thing.
When I got to the stop, a Google employee came running up to me to ask if he had missed the bus to San Bruno. So I must have looked the part! But soon I decided to give up on Google. Their bus was like a fortress, and the stop I picked was the last one before the bus headed down on the highway to the Valley. It wouldn’t deliver me to the Mission like I had planned.
A few blocks away, though, I hit a hitchhiker’s goldmine. This street intersection had stops for Facebook, Apple, and Electronic Arts. Only a few people stood around, no long line like the Google stop. And they were laughing and talking. It was a totally different feeling than the Google spot. Maybe because Facebook is a social company? Anyway, I asked the technorati if they thought I could use their bus as my bus.
Alas, the Facebook guys told me the same thing as the Google guys. I would need a badge. But they were totally into scheming with me. So for those of you taking notes, here are some ideas:
I could look like a hot mess who misplaced her badge. Pretend I’m a non-English speaking tourist who is terribly lost. Act like I’m a part of the cult of Apple…. except, one guy pointed out that, that probably wouldn’t work with “your 3GS phone.” Burn.
In one last attempt I asked them if they’d vouch for me and say I was on their project team. Nope.
But when the bus pulled up, I knew it was go time….
Step 3: Go time.
Want to find out if I accomplished my mission? Listen to the audio above to find out if this private transportation hitchhiker is really stealth, or if I’m pounding pavement on my way home.