San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee announced today that Google is donating $6.8 million to fund the next two years of the city’s Free Muni for Youth program amidst ongoing protests against plans to let the company’s private commuter buses use municipal bus stops.
The Free Muni for Youth program started as a 16-month pilot last March, after the San Francisco Unified School District decided to reduce the use of yellow school buses for transporting students to and from school, according to the mayor’s office.
The program currently allows more than 31,000 qualifying low- and moderate-income youth between 5 and 17 years old to ride San Francisco Municipal Railway buses and light-rail vehicles at no cost.
Before today’s announcement of Google’s donation, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s board of directors had been considering whether to renew or possibly expand the program.
Mayor Lee said in a statement that, “with this unprecedented gift from Google, we can keep this successful pilot program running for at least two more years at no cost to taxpayers or Muni riders and free up critical funds for other vital Muni maintenance and services.”
Lee said “Google is demonstrating with real action and real resources that they are a true partner in addressing our city’s affordability crisis for lower and middle-income families.”
SFUSD Superintendent Richard A. Carranza said more than 28,000 of the city’s public school students “come from households where their families struggle to make ends meet.”
Carranza said that having free Muni available for low-income youth is a great way for Google to support the city’s children and families.
Lee said he is hopeful that the donation is the first of a number of steps that will make the city “more affordable, more compassionate, more inclusive.”
Mountain View-based Google and other local technology companies have come under criticism recently because of concerns that high tech salaries are driving gentrification and increasing rising costs of living in San Francisco, and for problems related to the companies’ commuter buses.
San Francisco Supervisor David Campos, an initial advocate for the Free Muni for Youth program and one of the critics of the so-called “Google buses,” agreed that the donation was a good first step and said it gives him hope that the “tech industry can be a part of the solution.”
Campos said, “I’m looking forward to working with the tech industry in the future on other important issues like housing, jobs, and tenant protections.”
While no Google representatives were at today’s press conferences at City Hall, Lee said that after meeting with the tech company, he was sure that “they do not want to be viewed as some corporate entity in opposite of the values of this city.”
Another Google initiative in the works is creating wi-fi capability in 35 of the city’s parks, Lee said.
Google has also requested additional information about the city’s affordability challenges so as to better work with the city to tackle those issues, according to Lee.
The mayor said that the employees working for Google and other tech companies were attracted to the city’s eclectic neighborhoods and should work to preserve them. While Lee said the city is now known as a tech innovation capital, it should remain true to its roots as a city that is inviting to artists and working class citizens.
Activists who gathered on the steps of City Hall to celebrate the announcement this afternoon urged the public to address related issues.
One of the major problems with the current Free Muni for Youth program highlighted by activists, who support the program, is that many high school students turn 18 years old before graduating and lose their eligibility for the Free Muni for Youth program.
Activists such as Manuela Esteva, a leader in the Free Muni for Youth coalition and a long time Mission District resident who spoke in Spanish with an English-speaking translator said that while the program helps families with their transportation needs, it is still difficult for working-class families to survive in San Francisco.
Esteva said she is facing eviction and that “while I feel grateful to companies like Google for making this type of donation to us, we also exhort them to support us in dealing with this housing crisis,” in which “low-income families are being pushed onto the streets.”
Hannah Albarazi/Dan McMenamin, Bay City News