Ripping on Silicon Valley Shuttles Won’t Solve SF’s Parking-Induced Problems

The corporate shuttles that whisk tech workers from the highly-valued urban habitat of San Francisco down to the burgeoning suburban campus job centers of Silicon Valley are the newest additions to San Francisco’s streets. But while it’s become convenient for critics to point the finger at this increasingly-visible symbol of gentrification as the cause of everything from skyrocketing rents to blocked Muni stops, that anger is misdirected.

A corporate shuttle and Muni bus compete for use of a curbside stop, while the vast majority of curbside space (not pictured) remains devoted to personal automobile storage. Photo: Joe Eskenazi, SF Weekly

In a new article in the Business Insider, editor Owen Thomas blasts writer Rebecca Solnit for her piece in the London Review of Books, in which she blames corporate shuttles for making housing-starved San Francisco a more attractive place to live for well-paid Peninsula tech workers, creating a housing market that is more and more difficult for other prospective residents to compete in.

Rather than blame companies for providing car-free commute options to supplement inadequate public transit, Thomas points the finger at San Francisco’s outdated parking requirements, as well as the free parking provided by Silicon Valley companies, as the real contributors to San Francisco’s housing crisis.

Complaining about a “brilliant innovation like workplace shuttles when the real problem holding back San Francisco is private cars and the way we accommodate them,” Thomas writes, is “monumentally stupid”:

The reason why Google, Apple, Facebook, and other tech companies have instituted shuttles to carry employees to and from San Francisco to their Silicon Valley campuses is because they cannot retain employees who are forced to slog in traffic for an hour or more a day, each way — then spend almost as much time circling trying to find scarce parking when they get home.

Meanwhile, the reason why those campuses exist is because the suburbs are the only places where they can situate low-slung office buildings surrounded by seas of parking lots.

There’s an easy way to fix this: Stop allowing companies to give employees free parking at work, and stop requiring parking in housing developments in San Francisco. In fact, San Francisco ought to rewrite its zoning to discourage parking in all new housing developments, if not ban it altogether.

Here’s a news flash: If you don’t require parking in apartment buildings, you can build more space for human beings, at less cost.

Yes, that might raise more demand for public and private transit. Google might have to put even more shuttles on the road—horrors!

This map shows the private bus routes of major Silicon Valley employers. Thicker lines indicate more frequent service. Click to enlarge. Image: Stamen Design

Thomas hits on a fundamental point that advocates like Livable City and the Housing Action Coalition have been getting at for years: Parking minimums and free parking not only contribute to housing costs and limit the number of apartments that can be built, they also add a huge incentive for residents and workers to own and drive cars. That’s why car-free housing projects are catching on in San Francisco, and Portland is already building two-thirds of its new housing without any car parking.

And while corporate shuttles loading in Muni stops can create a headache for public transit riders — an issue that city supervisors like John Avalos want to take on through better regulation — Streetsblog readers have pointed out the shortsightedness of pitting transit services against one another in the competition for curbside space, while the vast majority remains devoted to personal automobile storage. In a thread last month, one reader suggested reallocating some curb space from car parking to shuttle pick-up locations.

It’s an idea the SFMTA has already started to implement. As the SF Examiner reported last week, a proposed new loading zone devoted to private shuttles on Van Ness Avenue near Union Street was on the agenda for a public hearing on Friday (while we haven’t confirmed that the proposal received preliminary approval, items that don’t see strong opposition typically sail through the engineering hearings). As the Examiner noted, this new type of curbside use “could be a sign of things to come.”