On a recent weekday morning, computer engineer Dan Feusse hopped aboard a RidePal shuttle near the Nob Hill apartment he shares with three roommates.
Inside, he and other tech workers leaned back in plush seats. With onboard Wi-Fi, they quietly tapped away on laptops, listened to music on iPhones, read books on Kindles. Others just napped as their seasoned driver navigated busy streets, bypassing slow-moving, run-down city buses overloaded with morning commuters.
Feusse said the 45-mile ride, which can take 90 minutes or more each way to and from Mountain View, is worth it. Like many young techies, he prefers living in San Francisco. Living any closer to work would remind him too much of the Ohio suburb where he grew up.
"If I lived in Mountain View, I would never be able to hang with any person I knew," said Feusse, a 26-year-old data visualization engineer at NetBase.
The reality is that there aren't many options even for folks who want to live closer to work.
Silicon Valley has been home to large tech companies for decades. But the rise of Google, Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc. is straining the region's infrastructure unlike ever before. These companies are building campuses far larger than anything the region has seen before.
The communities in which they are expanding — Cupertino, Mountain View and Menlo Park — have not built housing to match these expansions. Yet in many cases, municipalities are limiting the amount of parking that can be built and have required companies to reduce the number of car trips.
"Some in San Francisco believe that if the buses weren't here, these people would just live in Silicon Valley," said Adrian Covert, a policy manager for the Bay Area Council. "But that's wrong. Silicon Valley's voters and NIMBYs have been very effective in enforcing no-growth policies, to the point that there's literally no vacant rentals left to move into."
Even public transportation agencies have come to depend on these private shuttles. In San Mateo County, several public transportation agencies have formed public-private partnership with 400 companies, including Google, Genentech, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Oracle Corp., to operate 51 shuttles that took 8.6 million employees to their respective offices last year.
Those private employers pay a little less than half of the $8.8 million it takes each year to operate the shuttle program, which picks up riders at places such as train stops and takes them the last couple of miles to their offices. Because government funding is involved, anyone can ride any of the shuttles, not just employees.
"It's a key component of our transportation network," SamTrans spokeswoman Christine Dunn said. "Caltrain and BART would not be nearly as popular as they are now if it were not for the shuttle program that makes that last mile connection."
The future of these private transportation networks is taking shape in Cupertino, where Apple has begun building its new spaceship-like campus.
Apple has a Transportation Demand Management program with an annual budget of $35 million and the goal of getting as many employees as possible out of their cars. It runs the company's fleet of shuttles, all biodiesel, that on average 1,600 employees ride for free each day. The current system provides more than 200 service runs from 55 pickup locations around the Bay Area. Employees can download an app to track the location of the shuttles.
To win approval for its new campus, the company agreed to increase the percentage of employees using alternative transportation, which includes such things as walking and riding the shuttles, to 34% from 28%.
As part of that expanded program, Apple will increase its fleet of buses and shuttles. It's building a dedicated transit center with eight parking bays for 45-foot coaches and 25-foot vans. The goal is to keep the buses parked for three minutes or less, particularly during peak commuting hours when there could be as many as 76 buses or shuttles moving through.
The program was such a point of pride that the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs bragged about it when he appeared before the Cupertino City Council in 2011 to unveil plans for the new campus. Expanding this network, he said, would be just one example of how the company's new campus would be good for Cupertino.
"We've got 20 buses that run on biodiesel fuel," Jobs said. "They're the cleanest buses you can buy. And we've got 20 of them doing routes all the way from San Francisco to Santa Cruz bringing people in. Those are the kind of things I think could benefit Cupertino."