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car-free commute options to supplement inadequate public transit, Thomas points the finger at San Francisco’s outdated parking requirements, as well as the free parking provided by Silicon Valley companies, as the real contributors to San Francisco’s housing crisis.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

  • Florida is a god, to me, only in the sense that most Streetsblog types seems to worship him, no matter how flimsy, contradictory, and arbitrary his theories are.

    He can also switch teams with the best of them. One minute he’s waxing lyrical about kicking all the working class people out of a city…errrrr, I mean…about how awesome ‘The Creatives’ are for just being so darn John Galt, next minute he’s lecturing the growth machine gentrifiers with his faux concern for the plight of the people who are victims of the policies he espouses. This guy.

    I took the google bus for a while, but it sucked, so i moved down to palo alto and started riding my bike. mind you, the google bus was still orders of magnitude better than anything public transit was providing.

    if you’ve been listening, people have been arguing for years that the Google buses were bad for transit and bad for transport generally. kind of obvious, really.

    As for the economist, Mr. Moretti, I knew i’d heard his name before…the Nation’s one-line abstract sounds about right:

    “Geo-economic arguments about jobs smuggle in neoliberal economics under the cover of geography.”

    Nobody should be kicked out of their homes. Nobody should be poor. If possible without destroying the planet, everyone should be rich, and have meaningful work. Everybody should have exactly the same wealth, and should be treated fairly/equally/the same way, and have the same opportunities and rights and privileges. Nobody should be forced to ride a public bus. Everybody should be able to walk and bike.

    In more ways than one, the private corporate bus system is the antithesis of all that.

  • Trying to Stop Displacement

    I’m much more worried about how the additional pressure of of all these high paid workers now moving to SF have on housing.  I think you and Thomas are missing the point, Solnits great article was about Housing Displacement.  Less private buses would have an effect as Thomas said “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.”  Maybe these workers would move close to their jobs.  In the meantime, these high paid workers are pushing low wage workers out of their housing so that low and mid pay workers who work in San Francisco are forced to move to the East Bay and commute back to SF.  (If they are working swing or night shift probably driving) I agree that we shouldn’t waste space that could be housing on off street parking.

    Street blog should be arguing that Google and these other companies build more quality walkable housing and infrastructure in Mountainview and the rest of that area so their workers moving to the Bay Area don’t displace those of us who live and work in SF.

  • All that does is move the displacement issue to another town. Or are you convinced there are 1000’s of empty units in Palo Alto, wihch has higher housing costs than San Francisco?

  • don’t try to stop displacement in SF because if you do, that’ll just displace people — presumably an equal amount or more or faster or worse or something — from Palo Alto?

    can’t say I’ve ever heard that argument before, but i guess it’s worth a shot.

    is that like saying don’t try to stop murder in SF b/c murder will just end up happening in Palo Alto?

  • No Peter, it’s not. Stopping murder in SF does not push the murder to anywhere else. But if you have a finite amount of housing and more people than will fit in that housing, then displacement will happen.

    A lot of the same people complaining about the googlers displacing “the natives” from San Francisco are also showing up to City Hall to protest increased density. You can’t have it both ways. There is no magical fairy wand. Nicer places either grow in population or have an increase in cost of housing. At the very least the shuttles result in an increase in population with a lessened increase in car ownership (which uses real estate the same as people do).

  • it would seem to follow, then, that you would like to see the discontinuation of all policies/activities/etc. aimed at slowing/stopping/reversing (rate of) displacement in San Francisco and all places everywhere?

    so, for instance, you would like to see an end to all affordable housing and rent control and whatnot in SF because you believe these policies that in theory result in reduced rents for at least some of the population of SF also result in increased rents for at least some of the population of Palo Alto?

    and presumably you think this is all zero sum? that is, that if 10 rents in SF are decreased by $100, then 10 rents in Palo Alto are increased by $100? 

    Or, maybe the depressed rents happen with 5 rents in Palo Alto, 3 in MV, and 2 in Sunnyvale (for a total of 10)?

  • SteveS

     Actually the effect of BMR units is felt in the very same developments in San Francisco: the few low income households which are selected in the lottery for the BMR units get affordable housing, but those who do not get picked are out of luck. Meanwhile this makes the development overall more expensive, so middle class people who make too much to qualify for BMR but nowhere near enough to afford the market rate units are squeezed out of the market altogether. This policy may make the rich people in these development feel that they are living in an “inclusive community,” but it hardly seems to serve the interests of anyone else.

    To have housing become more affordable for everyone, the supply of new housing units needs to increase faster than the demand. This can be accomplished by any combination of making it easier to create more units to increase supply, or making San Francisco a less desirable place to live to reduce demand. We could certainly accomplish the latter by banning corporate shuttles and shutting down Caltrain, as well as by eliminating parks, shutting down the Ferry Building, or any number of other creative projects that reduce amenities desirable to the rich, but it seems far more sensible to focus energy on increasing the stock of housing units so that more people can afford to live here and our city continues to become more environmentally friendly.

  • i don’t imagine it’s desirable to shift the entire burden of fixing the tax code onto housing policy.

    there are myriad ways to get rich people to pay their fair share, including:
    * putting a sales tax on gasoline, or 
    * directing the gas tax into the general fund, or 
    * adjusting the tax rates in the city so that they are progressive rather than regressive, or
    * making public transit free, or
    * freeing non-drivers from having to subsidize drivers in the myriad ways they do – including but not limited to paying for police enforcement & fire & rescue, or
    * providing universal healthcare, 
    * limiting the SF work week to 32 hrs, or
    * some combination of all the above.

    whatever handouts the state and federales give to the Richie Riches, SF can just take away. a couple of hundred Richie Riches won’t be happy with the changes, but 98+% of the population will, and we’ll have a healthier, happier, more just, livable society.

  • +1 to Steve.
    The policy we have that causes displacement is “anything that makes it harder to build more housing”. And I believe – and I know there are plenty that disagree – that this means “any housing”. But it’s preferred to have a mixture of levels of units to attract a variety of populations.

    Peter – when you start devolving into ad hominem like “Richie Riches” nobody will listen to you. This matters unless you have the upper hand. On this issue, the coalitions for the “non Richie Riches” (whatever the cut off is) don’t have the upper hand.

    As opposed to the bike issue where we have the upper hand and the haters can go walk the plank.



  • so, instead of ‘Richie Rich’ i should call rich people….’exactly like Richie Rich, except demonic in nature, people’?

    i know rich people don’t like to have their fee fees hurt, but i can’t imagine any rich folks would object to be characterized as Richie Rich — well, except for the ones that prefer to be known universally as ruthless and uncaring and all those other Ayn Randian things.

    calling a rich person ‘a Richie Rich’ is, generally speaking, an outrageous slander, because Richie Rich is “portrayed as kind and charitable” and “an altruistic adventurer who travels the world helping the less fortunate.”

    rich people simply don’t know anything being kind or charitable, about altruism, about helping the less fortunate.

    the Richie Rich characterization is true in one of the most important ways — his wealth is extraordinary, the way that rich people today are extraordinarily wealthy when compared to the non-rich.

    ridicule is an effective form of activism. not much seems to bother the ‘beautiful minds’ of the world, but making fun of our overlords will never get old.

    i guarantee you that people listen to me. not many, but an important few at least.

    i don’t know how you would consider bikers to have the upper hand on the bike issue. that’s incredible.


New Study Recommends Augmenting the Benefits of Private Shuttle Service

Photo: Matt Baume With Bay Area public transit languishing, market forces have evolved a "shadow industry" solution: fleets of shuttle buses, operating outside of any agreement with public transit agencies, carrying employees between work and home with greater efficiency and comfort than Muni could ever hope to offer. Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Genentech, Adobe, and Advent […]

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