For over 10 years, Donna Morrison has endured “loud as a truck” engine noises from GoCar’s yellow tourist buggies.
The Gough Street resident of 47 years is fed up with the noisy engines and loud GPS-guided narration that comes with the vehicles rumbling past her 131-year-old Victorian home.
“You stand out on the street and you're having a conversation, and it’s as loud as a truck. You can’t talk above it,” said Morrison.
And there’s nothing that the city can do to change the vehicles’ route, or quiet them down, as they’re not regulated by SF’s municipal transportation agency or Caltrans.
The company is only regulated by California's DMV, which also doesn’t have the power to change the company’s routes or engine noise. Caltrans, SFMTA and the DMV were contacted for comment.
The DMV directed The Standard to the police department for noise complaints, SFPD have been contacted for comment.
GoCar riders have noticed the noisy engines too. Tourists Adam Francisco and his wife Kira were visiting San Francisco from Oklahoma City to celebrate their third anniversary and hired a GoCar for a three-hour lap around the city.
“We’re gonna enjoy this tour, but it is pretty loud,” Francisco said as he rode a GoCar out of the Beach Street rental office.
Morrison believes GoCar is disrespecting the time and effort she put into restoring her historic home by profiting from tourists in loud buggies eager to see the city’s older architecture.
“We do so much to preserve our neighborhoods, and I think the corporations kind of take advantage of that,” Morrison said.
GoCar rents three-wheeled vehicles that are classed as motorcycles by the DMV. Riders can tour planned routes, guided by a GPS system that plays a recorded tour-guide over speakers about areas of interest when the buggies pass by.
Drivers can go anywhere they want in the cars—they are not self-driving—but often follow the tour’s pre-programmed route, which passes through residential Gough Street.
“It’s all done for us, it’s pre-recorded,” said Phil Ellcock, who is visiting San Francisco from Margate, England for a two-week vacation with friends. “The beauty of it is we’re going to see a guided tour, but on our own, so we can stop and spend as much time at each destination as we want.”
GoCar co-founder and co-owner Nathan Withrington admitted that there have been periodic noise complaints around the city about the buggies, including along Lombard Street when the company was launched in 2004. But Withrington said that the noise generated by GoCar’s vehicles is similar to the noise made by other small-engine vehicles.
“We’re conscious that having our vehicles drive by someone’s house could be perceived as annoying, but I think that at the end of the day you need to look at what the background noise is,” Withrington said. “They’re no noisier than any other scooter going around the city that’s got a gasoline engine.”
Morrison said up to 30 GoCars pass along her street every day in the fall. Gough is already a busy street, but she said the buggies travel in convoy and loudly accelerate as they go uphill past her home—she says the noise blasts through her home’s thin windows.
“These houses have single-pane windows, they’re Victorians, and the front has a lot of glass,” Morrison said. “And you hear the speakers, and it’s the same speech everytime.”
Withrington couldn’t say how many of his vehicles drive along Gough, citing drivers’ ability to decide where to drive, but estimated it can range between 10 and 50 vehicles a day depending on how much business they get.
Withrington added that routes have been changed in the past in response to complaints about the cars’ speakers and their 150cc engines.
In 2006, tour routes that passed along the Palace of Fine Arts were diverted to run along Divisadero Street due to noise complaints. Withrington said that changing the route is not expensive, but can affect a customer’s experience.
“It’s more to do with the experience of the customer,” said Withrington. “To move it from one block to another isn’t a crazy amount, it’s just making sure that there’s a real and valid reason to move it.”
Morrison suggested that GoCar change their route every couple of years to give Victorian owners on Gough Street a break from the noise, but noted that other streets nearby have Victorians as well.
“[A route change] could be done.” Withrington said. “In two to three years we’ll all be electric anyway.”
For Morrison, that may be enough.
“They’re noisy, that’s my beef,” Morrison said. “If it’s quiet then, yeah, I’m not against tourists enjoying the city—that’s our lifeblood.”
For others annoyed by vehicle noise there is hope yet, as a new law sitting on Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk could limit loud engine noise.
Bill AB2496 has a deadline of Sept. 30 to be signed into law and would limit motorcycle noise output to 96 decibels. If signed, it would go into effect on Dec. 30. GoCar’s gas-powered vehicles are regulated as motorcycles according to the DMV.
Withrington said he was unsure if the law would affect his vehicles if passed.
Garrett Leahy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org