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A Surge in Ridership and a Spate of Deadly Crashes

SF plans new rules for unregulated shuttle industry

On Tuesday, a paratransit shuttle bus turned right at the intersection of Eddy and Leavenworth streets in San Francisco's Tenderloin District, slamming into a man with a cane who was walking in the crosswalk. The bus pinned the man under its wheels — a gruesome scene captured by a nearby corner store's surveillance camera.

Police say the man, who broke several bones in the collision, had the right of way.

The collision is the latest in a string of high-profile crashes involving the burgeoning fleet of private shuttles that zip around San Francisco ferrying tech workers to Silicon Valley companies like Google and Yahoo! and students to universities like the Academy of Art Institute and the University of California, San Francisco.

In the past two years, UCSF's shuttles were involved in two fatal accidents. On Wednesday, driver Wallace Richardson pleaded not guilty to vehicular manslaughter charges resulting from a July collision that killed Dr. Kevin Mack, 52, an associate professor of psychiatry at UCSF. Prosecutors allege that Richardson ran a red light.

The accidents come as San Francisco is looking to regulate the shuttle-bus industry, which has grown exponentially in the last few years. Transit planners at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority estimate that 5,000 people commute to the South Bay on shuttles, up from 2,000 in 2009.

“It’s a really great and growing part of our transportation sector, and our policy framework hasn't caught up,” said Carli Paine, a project manager for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

Paine is now collecting data on exactly how many shuttle buses are cruising around the city — and coming up with recommendations about how and where they can go. Some residents complain that the private buses travel on residential streets that don't allow commercial vehicles; Muni drivers say the shuttles use their bus stops to pick up passengers, Paine said.

“We had an example where a shuttle provider said, ‘I have to choose between double parking and risking an $80 dollar ticket or parking in a Muni zone and risking a $271 ticket,’” said Paine, who hopes to roll out policy recommendations in the spring.

Another issue, Paine said, is that people don't know whom to call if they have a complaint about a private shuttle.

Tuesday’s accident involved a paratransit bus owned by BayMed Express, which transports seniors and the disabled. Police say that the pedestrian had a walk signal when the BayMed driver ran him over. But the driver, who cooperated with police, wasn’t cited, outraging pedestrian advocates.

A manager for BayMed, who identified himself as Sam, said that the company’s shuttles have received a top rating in annual inspections by the California Highway Patrol. He declined to say whether the driver had been in previous accidents.

Dr. Kevin Mack

Under state law, a shuttle driver must have a Class B commercial license and must pass a separate written test, called a passenger endorsement, to be able to carry passengers. But shuttle companies doen't have uniform standards for driving records.

BayMed’s website says it doesn’t hire drivers with more than one point or one accident on a DMV report. Elizabeth Fernandez, a spokeswoman for UCSF, said drivers "must have a good driving record," but added that the university evaluates driving histories on a case-by-case basis.

After Mack was killed, UCSF added seat belts to all its shuttles and posted a number for passengers and motorists to call with complaints. Shuttle drivers are also allowed more time to complete their routes.

Witnesses told KGO the BayMed driver was hurrying to get through the intersection, honking at a car before accelerating into the pedestrian. 

“These are folks that log a lot of hours on the road, and they have deadlines and schedule issues,” said Shaana Rahman, a San Francisco accident attorney. “The problem is they’re always hurrying somewhere.

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