When companies break the law and people pay: The scary lesson of the Google Bus

"Google and its ilk have always known that they could break the law right up until the day they were invited to make new laws."

During yesterday's hearing, Michael Watson, the shuttle company representative, defended his company's operations, saying, "We've used Muni stops for 10 years cooperatively." It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to recast a behavior that is, in point of fact, illegal as a virtuous act of private-public collaboration. San Francisco's Curb Priority Law prohibits non-Muni vehicles from blocking bus stops, a law that carries a $271 fine. Bus blockaders say that the various tech companies owe San Francisco $1 billion in fines for their illegal use of the stops over the past decade. [...] Google, Facebook and Apple aren't facing millions in unpaid parking fines, however, because the MTA hasn't been writing the tickets. Since the shuttles began using public bus stops, they've simply flouted the law without consequences.

Not only has San Francisco allowed tech companies to violate the law with impunity, but now that public outcry has made some kind of action politically expedient, the MTA seems to have allowed the industry to write the very regulations that are supposed to rein them in. [...] Under the guise of regulating the shuttles, the program regularizes the status quo -- allowing the private buses to continue using the approximately 200 bus stops it already uses for a nominal fee. (Large employers like Google are expected to pay about $100,000 per year; were Google to be charged the $271 fine, its bill would balloon to $27.1 million each year.) [...] If Muni simply enforced its current laws instead of creating this new program, the monetary benefit to the city would be significantly higher.

This might not anger San Franciscans so much were it not for the fact that the MTA does enforce its laws, harshly, against individuals. Several speakers at the hearing had received tickets for the same behavior Google buses get away with daily -- pulling into a bus stop to drop someone off. And while the $271 fine may be insignificant to a company like Google, it's a potentially devastating sum for people struggling to get by in a city where the cost of living seems to rise by the day. [...]

This is the contradiction of the Google Bus, and it's one that should resonate across the country. The Google Bus is the embodiment of a system that indemnifies the actions of corporations while increasingly criminalizing and punishing individuals. Google and its ilk have always known that they could break the law right up until the day they were invited to make new laws. That is the power of corporate wealth, and in San Francisco as in the rest of the country, it rules supreme.

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63 Responses:

  1. Jeremy Wilson says:

    A few of my friends are angry about the Google Buses and I'm having a lot of trouble understanding the cognitive dissonance going on - getting angry over something that gets a bunch of cars off the road and helps the environment, lowers wear and tear on roads, and frees up space on public transit.

    I get that they're actually angry at the gentrification of the neighborhoods and being priced out of them, but at the same time enjoying the benefits that come along with the improvements.

    You are the poster boy for the techie invading SF, but you've used your tech dollars to vastly improve the nightlife of the city and provide a unique live music venue. Yet by these people's standards, you're ruining the area. Or are you not a recent enough immigrant to warrant their vitriol?

    I guess being a tech nerd myself I have a natural bias, but to me the logic of the free market is simple - supply and demand. Length of residence doesn't grant immutable rights, owning the property you live in does.

    • nwf says:

      I don't see any cognitive dissonance: there's no incompatibility between the assertions that 1) running shuttles are a good idea and 2) there should either be some recompence to the city for the use of municipal bus stops, which is, as it stands, illegal, and vigorously enforced against individuals, or that the illegality should change.

      However, the larger point remains: these large companies knew they could get away with breaking the law without penalty. That is not a desirable state of affairs: even your hypothetical "free market" depends upon the law to enforce certain behaivors.

      • Jeremy Wilson says:

        It seems like such a minor issue, like jaywalking. It makes sense as being the "straw that broke the camel's back" in that people are pissed that they can't afford to live in the Mission anymore and this is an easy target.

        Perhaps it's less the big companies getting away with something and more the city realizing the companies are doing them a favour by providing transit services that the city doesn't have to pay for, so they let it slide.

        • Other jamie says:

          It might seem like a minor issue to someone who isn't being priced out of their home.

          It might seem like a big symbol worth banging on to people who are.

    • Tom Lord says:

      Yet by these people's standards, you're ruining the area.

      You made that up.

    • jwz says:

      My suggestion is that you read the fucking article.

      • DC Dan says:

        It's the attitude that says, "it's fine for me to profit from all of the benefits and infrastructure of the State without paying back into the commons, because hey, 'they' made up the rules and I am completely amoral." Libertarians, in other words.
        -jwz http://www.jwz.org/blog/2012/05/more-tax-dodging-sea-steading-nonsense/#comment-105257

      • I just read it. The article as a whole is just as hypocritical as the excerpt you posted.

        New York doesn't have a "Goldman Sachs bus". That's because New York has functional public transportation--even the partners at Goldman ride the subway in every morning.

        San Francisco, by contrast, has embarrassingly bad transportation, as you've written about often. A paralyzing bureaucracy and obstructionist residents make progress difficult. Hence, private companies fill the void.

        Google buses are a gift. A company is stepping in and and providing for its employees what would normally be a taxpayer-provided service. It reduces congestion and emissions. If you'd asked many of these same malcontents five or ten years ago, they would have said the same: Google buses are a social and environmental good.

        The issue of illegality is a red herring. The spirit of the law is as simple as the letters on the road: "BUS ONLY". The letter of the law should simply be amended to match.

        The real reason for the rage has nothing to do with the bus stop law, or with the buses in general. The real reason is entitlement: disgruntled renters who feel that a neighborhood is "theirs" though they don't own the property.

        • jwz says:

          This must be that new definition of "hypocritical" that means "doesn't fit my preconceived notions of which laws it's cool to break and which aren't." Is that what the kids are calling "disruption" these days?

          Google isn't paying their share. They get away with it because they are enormous. People who are not enormous don't get away with it. I don't get to say, "I'm doing a societal good by stopping my car in the bus stop to drop my friend off instead of circling the block in search of parking. Look, Officer, I lowered my carbon emissions!" If I do that, I get a $271 ticket. Google does not.

          If they found the existing, public infrastructure insufficient for their needs, Google could have spent that money to improve it into suitability. Instead, they chose to build their own parallel, private system, unavailable to the general public and illegally piggybacked off of public resources, while giving nothing back. There's a term for this: it's called parasitism.

    • Elusis says:

      A recent survey found that without the shuttles, 40% of shuttle riders said they'd move closer to work.

      The alleged carbon benefits of the shuttles never account for the increased commutes created for the displaced low- and middle-income workers who have to move to the far-flung suburbs, then commute back into the city for their jobs working in the restaurants and gyms and clothing shops frequented by the techno-elites.

      "Our workers need better mass transit in order to get to work on time from their homes" is a problem that can be solved in ways other than creating a private transit service piggybacked on the structure provided by the public sector. But that would involve paying taxes, which Silicon Valley (among others) is notoriously loathe to do.

      "The logic of the free market" is not the only way to run a community. Smoothing the way for your people to go into another community, suck all the resources out of it, displace the residents while relying on their labor, and generally making life shitty for anyone who isn't your people reminds me of something... what is it? Wait... I've got it. Colonialism.

      • Jeremy Wilson says:

        That leaves 60% of those people driving single-occupant cars every day. Still seems like a decent solution to me, given the options available.

        The problem isn't the tech workers or even Google, it's the local municipal governments not wanting to allow increased density to meet the demands of a growing population. SF wants to stay a small, low-rise city but the insane cost of what housing is available clearly shows that's not a sustainable state of affairs. Thus, you end up with $4,500/month 1-bedroom apartments.

        Sure, better transit would be great, but how do you get Google to pay for it? They're not even in SF proper so you can't just charge them property tax. What other options are available to the city other than increased density?

        • Dave Pease says:

          You could get Google to pay for it by fining them $271 each time a Google Bus blocks a MUNI stop.

          • Jeremy Wilson says:

            What happens if the Google bus stops before the bus stop, or after, or in a side lot not near a stop?

            That's what I meant by this seeming more like jaywalking than a serious crime. The problem isn't the buses, really, it's what they represent to some people. Why they're choosing to focus on the buses I can't understand, because if the argument is being against gentrification, that message is getting lost.

          • NotTheBuddha says:

            Google is not liable for the traffic fines, the contractor(s) operating the busses are. If the proper fines were applied, the operators' losses are limited to assets and cash not yet paid to the owners of the operating corporation ("Loop Transportation, Inc" for one in the Daily Mail photos).

            This would be a momentary disruption for Google with people having to find other ways to work, but random tour busses could be hired to replace them starting as soon as the next day. The same busses might even be back in service where the operating contractors were leasing them instead of owning.

            Our AI overlords got nothin' on corporations.

        • Tom Lord says:

          it's the local municipal governments not wanting to allow increased density to meet the demands of a growing population.

          Unless new construction produces enough housing to raise the vacancy rate it won't increase affordability. Meanwhile, developers generally have little or no interest in building housing that would be sufficient to increase the vacancy rate.

          Why is it that every tool in the world heard vaguely one time about the law of supply and demand and forever after figures they've pretty much got the gist of economics?

          • Jeremy Wilson says:

            Supply and demand is a simple enough concept to understand - you don't need an economics degree to get the idea.

            If you're renting, it is by its nature a temporary agreement with the owner of the property - why are people surprised that the conditions change at the end of the term? Why should the renter dictate the terms of someone else's property?

            If you want to maintain a community, the best way is to be an owner so you can make those decisions.

      • A recent survey found that without the shuttles, 40% of shuttle riders said they'd move closer to work.

        Good luck to them. The peninsula burbclaves to a one have lower vacancy rates than SF, and are even more politically opposed to building new housing that's not single-family homes or luxury condos. (If even those.)

        a problem that can be solved in ways other than creating a private transit service piggybacked on the structure provided by the public sector.

        You mean like cars?

        But that would involve paying taxes

        The reason public transit into and through the southbay has been terrible for 50+ years is that Google doesn't pay enough taxes. Uh huh.

        Please, continue. People moving here to take jobs offered to them in the middle of a depression are colonialists. A college grad moving to the Mission is "sucking all of the resources" out of it (I completely tripped over an open-pit tin mine this morning, it's true) and sending them... where exactly? My notebook is out, this is fascinating stuff.

        • Tom Lord says:

          The peninsula burbclaves to a one have lower vacancy rates than SF, and are even more politically opposed to building new housing that's not single-family homes or luxury condos. (If even those.)

          That's understandable. They're not allowed to overtly red-line any more.

          • ding ding ding

            Congratulations, you have noticed part of the actual problem. Can we make more of you please? :)

            • James says:

              Seconded. Clone Tom, upload a hi-res scan of his vitrified cryonic brain before it's too late and crank the simulator up to 11. I don't want any more excuses.

            • NotTheBuddha says:

              What does the red-line part mean?

              • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redlining

                Basically, you're not longer allowed to explicitly make policy to keep "undesirables" out, but if only zoning for single-family houses with yards and garages and luxury apartments (and a trickle of even those two things) just haaaaaaaaaaappens to have roughly the same effect, well, clearly that's just the invisible hand at work, right?

    • King Mob says:

      I guess being a tech nerd myself I have a natural bias, but to me the logic of the free market is simple - supply and demand. Length of residence doesn't grant immutable rights, owning the property you live in does.

      I'm quite late to this discussion, but I really enjoy imagining you saying this with a bad lisp.

      • jwz says:

        Whenever these Randtards get going I always feel like asking them, "Is the merit of a painting exactly how many chickens you can trade for it?", and "How much for your women, how much for the little girl?" but then I don't bother because wow, what a waste of time.

  2. Steve Rhodes says:

    Even if it was "just like jaywalking," there is a big difference between a person jaywalking and a huge 18 foot tall bus.

    Yes, the buses are symbols (and symbols which have worked - the protests have received international media coverage, changed the dialogue, and begun to bring about policy changes - something many earlier protests weren't able to do though the rallies trying to prevent the Lee family from being evicted under the Ellis Act helped build up to this).

    But they also are a very physical reality in the neighborhoods many of live and work in.

    Just tonight while I was waiting for my bus home to Bernal, the 24 Divisadero, at Castro & Market, one Google bus and 3 other tech shuttles passed by in less than half an hour.

    On Valencia, it is even more frequent.

    A couple of people in public comments before the vote on the pilot program mentioned the 26 Valencia which ended due to budget cuts in 2009.

    It wasn't the most reliable bus, but it was damn useful when it did arrive. It went from 5th and Mission, headed down Valencia. I could get off at 30th & Mission and transfer to the 24 to go up Cortland. and it continued to SF State.

    Now people can't catch the bus on Valencia, but they see all the tech (and some biotech) workers taking the private buses on Valencia.

    A street which is too busy and narrow for the huge buses (not sure why they can't be just one level. They already run frequently - smaller and safer buses could run more frequently).

    And they are dangerous. Even a Bauer driver (which provides buses for Electronic Arts, LinkedIn and other companies and is mentioned in the salon piece) admited it to Buzzfeed:

    Driving in the Mission and Noe Valley, oh my god, it is such a nightmare going through there. The lanes are really small. It is so dangerous. Thankfully nothing has ever happened, but there were lots of close calls...

    http://www.buzzfeed.com/justinesharrock/what-its-like-to-drive-the-google-bus

    And I had a close call the night of the vote. One tech bus turned onto 24th from Valencia and was way too close or even over the curb I was standing on. I was too busy backing up to tell for sure. And there was a woman with her child right behind me.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ari/12082281386/

    There is much more (I've covered the 3 bus blockades in San Francisco and many other protests - there are links from the photo), but this is already too long.

  3. Ludwig says:

    How “private” are the Peninsula tech buses in practice? Do you have to show an employee badge or something? I know the intra-city UCSF shuttles are free for anyone (technically you’re supposed to be staff, a student, a patient, or a visitor, which effectively means everyone can use them since hospital visitors don’t carry any proof of their status.)

    • Nick Lamb says:

      Even if in fact it works just to look like you belong, that's a problem.

      "Looking like you belong" is a hidden privilege. It's how a 35 year old white male tech worker can look around at US society and say "I don't see any privilege", and while it's the subject of many a funny stand-up sketch by non-white, non-male comedians it isn't that funny in real life. It's useful, and you can't get rid of it, so if you've got it you should try to use it for good. But don't forget you've got it and others haven't.

      If Google declared that it would pay for a bus that everyone can ride as a matter of policy, but which tends to travel to and from Google's sites, I suspect a lot more people (not everybody because for some the bus is just a symbol) would be OK with these buses existing and using Muni stops. In my city one of the bus companies is run on behalf of the university. It will come as no surprise that every single route by that company goes to, or from, or via the university's sites. But the buses say right on them that they're for everybody in the city and indeed one of the major user groups is the elderly. Of course the elderly don't pay (old people ride local buses for free by central government policy) and the staff & students do but who's counting?

      • gryazi says:

        As someone on the wrong coast:

        Google only employs white males in California?

        • tkil says:

          My limited personal experience is that Google's workforce is probably well over 95% white or Asian. (Full-time employees, that is; the percentage of non-(white|asian) workers in contract / hourly roles is higher, which is its own sadness: Low pay in a land of plenty)

          On the plus side, that same limited experience seems to show that, to a first approximation, Google supports alternative sexualities and genders without much compromise.

          (Whether a trans-gendered employee can truly climb the ranks is a separate discussion. I'm a cis-gendered het white male, so I'm pretty much excluded from providing meaningful input on discussions regarding privilege.)

        • Nick Lamb says:

          When Google hires somebody that changes whether they belong, but not whether they look like they belong. There's a big difference between belonging and looking like you belong.

    • DC Dan says:

      It's worth noting that UCSF is a public institution.

    • Extremely private: on the google shuttles at least, you have to swipe your employee badge with a card reader. You could sometimes get away with bringing an unscheduled guest on the less-packed runs, but a non-employee on (for example) the 8am from 24th & Mission was a nonstarter.

      Back before they got the mobile card readers, you did occasionally get a non-employee on the bus: usually by accident and often an employee of another valley company who'd mistaken Google's black Bauer bus for one of their own in a pre-caffiene haze. This tended to be a massive hassle for everyone: the busses run on a schedule and make no stops between SF and Mountain View.

      Letting random SF residents use them would be a nice gesture in theory but not terribly practical: they just don't make enough stops in the city to be useful, even if there were available seats. The Mission run, last I took it, stopped only at 18th & Dolores and 24th & Valencia, once an hour. There would basically never be a situation in which it would be more practical than taking the 14-Mission or BART.

    • Ronald Pottol says:

      When I took Yahoo buses the driver took a hard look at my badge when I got on.

  4. Steve Rhodes says:

    I've heard they used to be more lax and people would hitch hike on them to google, but even before the protests people had to start showing ID and now google has guards checking IDs at 24th and Valencia where 2 of the 3 San Francisco protests took place.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2541541/Google-hiring-security-guards-protect-work-buses-San-Francisco-following-protests-tech-workers-driving-city-rents.html

    I'll try and take some photos next week.

  5. nooj says:

    All people are created equal. But some are more equal than others.

    • tkil says:

      All people are created equal.

      You need to be more precise with your use of "equal". It's often taken to be "same", which is manifestly untrue: people have different genetic potentials (e.g., hair color, skin color, height).

      The expression of those genetic potentials is hugely determined by the "nurture" environment: available calories, stimulation, role models, access to health care and education, etc. Essentially: "luck". (This is horrible, and I would like to see it fixed, but decades of "pay more to move into a better school district" excludes any solution there.)

      Even if those potentials are nurtured perfectly, there is the question of the "value" of the resulting phenotype. Currently, "value" is largely determined through market pricing and return on investment.

      Markets are flawed, and nobody can read the future, so that valuation will always be incorrect. But we haven't figured out any better way to determine the value of an activity (and hence the recompense given to someone who can perform that activity).

      In this case, we're supposing that some random Google employee is moving into an area and offering a certain amount for that privilege. Existing tenants can't offer as much money, so it's a rational decision for landlords to prefer the higher offer.

      Is there a fault in that? If so, whose fault is it? Can it be fixed? Who or what would pay for that fix?

      • nooj says:

        I took it from the Declaration of Independence. And I meant corporations are more equal than humans.

        • tkil says:

          Yeah, I knew where you were going with it. (Although it caused me to flash back to Animal Farm before going to the Declaration.

          Sorry if you thought I was beating up on you; it just caught my eye, and I had been thinking about this for a while.

          • nooj says:

            Nah. I was a little surprised you didn't take my joke as rhetorical; but on the other hand, what are wryness and conflation for, if not to evoke the eternal societal struggles buried within?

      • Hint vis-a-vis argumentative tactics: if you find yourself trying to argue against the phrase "all people are created equal," and you also realize that your go-to starting point is that people have "different genetic potentials," while, I could go on, but that's enough to say that maybe you should take a long look in the mirror and stfu.

        • Aaaaaaaaaaaggghhh "while" = "well" I regret this error.

        • Chris says:

          Not against but about. Makes all the difference in the world.

          • relaxing says:

            Nah, that post was still a load of bullshit.

          • When one is directly contradicting another's thesis statement, it is generally acknowledged to be an accurate descriptor that one is "arguing against" the thesis statement. If you do not wish to argue against a statement, in the future I encourage you to not dispute it or perhaps even whitesplain it to others.

            • Chris says:

              It's an argument about what the word equals means. The Declaration does not insist that outcomes will be equal, it's pretty specific about what's meant by the term.

              Saying that people are unequal in certain ways does not contradict what the Declaration is saying, unless you've decided that in this context "equal" should include every definition anyone's ever used.

              The glory of you using the term "whitesplaining" is your apparent insistence that anyone disagreeing with you is doing just that.

        • tkil says:

          Thanks for the tip. I'll share one with you: say exactly what you mean.

          In this case, I'm assuming you took my post as promoting racism if not eugenics. Correct? If so, could you please point out where I made racist comments?

          What I was trying to say, and what I thought I did say, was something no more radical or offensive than saying "sunflowers grow from sunflower seeds, while poppies grow from poppy seeds". That's it.

          No matter how well either of those seeds are tended, much of the overall shape and possibility is set by their genetic makeup. This is what I called "development potential".

          An example in humans is the different ratios of fast-twitch vs. slow-twitch muscle fibers. Given perfect nurture, the person with more fast-twitch fibers will be a better sprinter, while the other will be a better distance runner.

          Depending on which theory you care to read, humans exhibit 5 (or 7 or 9 or however many) different types of intelligence. My belief is that genetics plays a role in how readily and how intensely those intelligences can be expressed. I then added on that nurture plays a huge role as well.

          I didn't, and don't, believe that either of those statements is particularly controversial or offensive. I did use skin color as an example of a physical trait largely determined by genetics -- but did I ever correlate skin color with any other attribute or outcome?

          Finally, I segued into the discussion of "value", because that's the point of contention here, isn't it? The connection in my mind was this: someone could be a genetically gifted dancer. They could have had the perfect upbringing, intense training, and let's say they're in the top 50 dancers in the entire world.

          The unfortunate reality is that, on average, our society does not value that activity as highly as it does a technical degree, or a medical degree, or a financial degree.

          That's the connection. You're dealt a certain hand at birth, in the form of your genetic makeup. You're dealt more rounds of cards through nurture -- family, neighborhood, school, country, etc. At any given point in your life, what you have to offer has a certain value in others' eyes.

          For you to get what you want from life, you have to hope that you find someone you can trade value for value. If others don't value your offer as highly as you do, can you do anything about it? If the answer is "I force them to accept it at a lower value", who makes up the difference?

          That's it. No skin color, no sexual identification, nothing.

    • tkil says:

      To be abundantly clear:

      I believe that all people should be given equal opportunity, and that nobody should be put above (or below) anyone else due to their birth.

      Which is what I believe all those old white men really meant, even if a bunch of them owned slaves at the time.

      Interestingly, taking this ideal to its logical extreme would outlaw inheritances of any sorts. Because if all people are created equal, why are your kids special?

  6. Jake says:

    The more I read about SF, the less I think I want to move there.

    Perhaps that's part of the point?

  7. GussDolan says:

    Sometimes it's about the buses and the corporations that provide them...
    But sometimes it really is about the bus riders.

    Here is the voice of one Google Bus commuter whose picture and comments have been repeatedly portrayed in the media…

    “My name is Crystal Sholts. I’m a program manager in engineering at Google.
    I just wanted to say that not everyone at Google is a billionaire. Like many people, ten years after the fact I’m still paying off my student loans. I moved to the Mission because I am a pedestrian, I don’t own a car”
    [from SFMTA hearing, Jan 21, 2014]

    Disingenuous, to say the least.

    On 04/17/2013 Crystal Alexis Sholts and her husband Robert Adam Lauridsen purchased the house at XXXXXXXXX St. in the Mission for approximately 1.2 million dollars (Her husband last year became partner at his law firm and I would not be surprised to learn that her husband does own a car which she would be using).

    She said “I’m not a billionaire”, and I’m not sure if that’s just because of the world/culture she lives in (millionaires are a dime a dozen?), or if she purposely did not say ‘millionaire’ because she (combined with her husband) might indeed be a millionaire.

    In any case, she is not “like many people…paying off my student loans.”

    Call me an old fashioned liberal progressive San Franciscan, but I do not want my tax dollars subsidizing private shuttle bus rides to a corporation 40 miles away for this ‘non-billionaire’.

    • nooj says:

      Note that the statement you quoted doesn't say she's not a billionaire.

      They may not be millionaires, either, just holding a lot of debt. She hasn't paid off her 30-year school loans because ten years ago, the interest rate she locked in when she consolidated was about 2.7%, lower than inflation right now! She's making money on that debt! Why would she pay it off early?

    • NotTheBuddha says:

      Article on that meeting says:

      In a small, cramped city, the private buses are forced to load and unload at public bus stops. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency says this forces city buses to stop in traffic lanes, snarling traffic and placing bicyclists in danger.

      MTA's got your back, JWZ!

  8. They should just put a pink mustache on the front of the busses. Problem solved via disruptive business model!!!

  9. Have a friend who worked at Oracle. She said they were able to dictate accounting interpretations to the auditors, they had that much power....

  10. I once saw three police cars - one parked on a sidewalk and two others in the bus stop. I was furious - given I had just received a hefty parking ticket for something similar, so I went into the coffee shop I saw them at and demanded they move their vehicles, because if I couldn't park there to make way for a bus - then neither could they. They didn't say much, so I asked for their supervisor's name and reported them. I went home and registered policethis.org because I wanted to start a whole movement around the city's hypocrisy.

    The supervisor told me they are allowed to use these zones to quickly go to the bathroom etc, but need to leave their lights on to indicate they are in the area. I told her they were all congregated at a table for nearly an hour - not taking a piss and slowly drinking their coffee.

    I wanted them to be fined as normal citizens but they were above the laws we endure.

    I agree - if I get ticketed, anyone who isn't a fucking city bus gets ticketed or nobody gets ticketed.