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MOUNTAIN VIEW — Meet a kinder, gentler Google bus — not the sleek and occasionally despised charter service that transports thousands of Googlers to the company’s suburban headquarters each morning, but a free public shuttle that launched here this week.
The electric-powered Mountain View Community Shuttle is Google’s gift to a hometown still grappling with the weight of being the corporate hub for a global Internet giant. The two-year pilot program also helps the company sustain its do-gooder image amid rising anxiety over the Bay Area’s real estate prices and economic inequality, both frequently blamed on the meteoric incomes of tech workers.
“They’re responsible for a lot of the pain the area is feeling,” said newly inaugurated City Councilman Ken Rosenberg, part of a new political slate at Mountain View City Hall eager to build more housing to accommodate the tech worker influx. “But ultimately I think Google is just a really good corporate citizen, and this is an example of it.”
The Google-funded fleet of four 16-seat buses quietly began following an hourlong loop through Mountain View’s residential and commercial neighborhoods earlier this week, picking up curious seniors and other passengers beckoned by drivers offering a free ride. Heads panned wherever the blue-and-white shuttle bus stopped, and some were clearly confused by its presence despite a months-long publicity campaign in English, Spanish and other languages.
“Are you supported by Google?” asked 74-year-old Ying Lu as she boarded the bus near her home on Wednesday afternoon looking for a way to get to a cellphone store. “Somebody told me Google donated some bus.”
Partially blind and unable to drive, she said “public transportation is very important to me. It’s the only thing I can use.” The regular rider of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority’s bus service said she was happy for another option to get around.
The new bus makes 30 stops, passing the library, shopping malls, senior and teen community centers, parks, residential neighborhoods, the Caltrain and VTA station and the city’s downtown commercial district on Castro Street. It has bicycle racks, Wi-Fi connectivity, a wheelchair lift and space for two wheelchairs.
Google has declined to say how much the service costs. The pilot will run for at least two years, with an option to continue for a third year or longer.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Google real estate director John Igoe, after watching a bus depart during the service’s launch celebration Friday. “This is our home, our community.”
He added that the company has plenty of experience running shuttle buses.
City records show Google employs more than 11,000 people in Mountain View. Add contractors and it rises to some 15,000, about 19 percent of the city’s job base. But only about 3,000 of them live in Mountain View. More than 6,000 others arrive on a corporate fleet of about 140 luxury, WiFi-enabled buses that carry Google workers from San Francisco, the East Bay and other far-flung parts of the Bay Area. Some of the buses have been met with protests since 2013 in urban neighborhoods of San Francisco and Oakland where activists are concerned about tech-fueled gentrification.
Anxiety is not quite so high in Google’s home base, but concerns over the company’s impact on traffic and real estate exist — especially over the question of whether to build housing in the booming North Bayshore office district between 101 and San Francisco Bay, where the Googleplex and other corporate campuses are located.
Along with its free community shuttle, Google is helping to launch another free shuttle Monday — this one to get commuters out of their cars on their way to tech campuses in the North Bayshore district. Google and six other companies, including Intuit, LinkedIn and Samsung, are splitting the costs of running the new MVGo buses, run by the corporate-funded Mountain View Transportation Management Association.
“This is really about solving the very common problem of what’s called the “Last Mile,’” said Michael Alba, a transportation manager for LinkedIn, describing the distance between a transit stop — in this case, Mountain View’s Caltrain station — and the suburban office parks where most commuters are headed.
“Some of the large companies are able to fund private shuttles on their own, but that ends up being less efficient than a shared, public system,” Alba said.
Contact Matt O’Brien at 408-920-5011. Follow him at Twitter.com/mattoyeah.