Googlers, used to being coddled by the luxuries of the Googleplex, now worry they'll have to pay to ride the company shuttle bus. It's the latest sign of the giant search engine's nervous breakdown.

For almost five years now, Google has a sprawling network of shuttles that ferry workers from San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area to their Mountain View, Calif. headquarters — thus sparing its employees the indignity of living in the dreary, decidedly unhip office park sprawl of Silicon Valley. Some 1,200 people ride the shuttles each day. After the company's famous free cafeterias, the shuttle is one of Google's most visible perks.

But it could be taken away so easily. Contractors pay $15 a week, and since Googlers have to swipe their ID cards to board the bus, it would be easy for the company to start charging employees and interns the same rate, or more. (A ride on public transportation costs about three times as much and takes nearly twice as long, because of Google's environmentally unfriendly location across a highway from local transit links.)

The buses have Wi-Fi and run on biodiesel, a less polluting alternative to regular gas. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have become environmental crusaders, spending shareholder money on renewable energy efforts, which might have some salutary impact on Google's electricity bills, but seem far afield from its core business of Web search.

A Google spokesman, asked for a statement, offered no comment on the record. It would strain credulity for Google to start charging. The cost-cutting symbolism would pale compared to the negative environmental impact of sending green-thinking Googlers back into their cars — not to mention the PR hit the company would take.

But it's notable that Googlers, who are generally smart and aware of the precarious state of the economy, are gossiping about the notion of losing such a beloved perk as their free ride to work. And it's telling, too, that Google wouldn't just come out and deny the rumor. That fact alone suggests it's in the realm of possibility.

(Photo by jyri)