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: ##http://blogs.sfweekly.com/thesnitch/2013/01/corporate_shuttle.php##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providing car-free commute options to supplement inadequate public transit, Thomas points the finger at San Francisco’s outdated parking requirements, as well as the free parking provided by Silicon Valley companies, as the real contributors to San Francisco’s housing crisis.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: ##http://stamen.com/##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.”

  • Bravo.

  • Um, what?  None of this has anything to do with housing, parking, or transit.  The problem is that companies are building mega-campuses in remote places where nobody wants to live.

    You solve that problem, the related issues solve themselves.

  • Cityzen

    I guess families with small children or seniors who might need rides are not welcome in the City anymore. It’s great to build more apartments but to force people out of their cars reeks of hipster elitism.

  • We lost our apartment in San Francisco, and were looking around for places to live. We considered the Peninsula. Guess what. It’s not any cheaper.

    Plenty of people want to live in the 408/650

  • Anonymous

    This article raises a key point: it’s important to keep the whole frustration with corporate shuttle buses in context of the bigger picture. However, they still need to be regulated (so they aren’t using streets which aren’t intended for regular usage by what are essentially heavy trucks and so they aren’t blocking Muni or cyclists). And I think they need top to be put in their appropriate place in the “transportation pyramid”. Modified from that put out by Portland’s DPT, in order from highest precedence to lowest, I believe it should be:

    pedestrians
    cyclists
    public transit
    corporate shuttles <————–
    commercial vehicles
    taxis
    high-occupancy vehicles
    single-occupancy vehicles

    If corporate shuttles conflict with anything above them in they pyramid, it's a big problem that warrants attention. If they conflict with anything below them, it's much less of a problem. I don't think you can cover the issue of corporate shuttles with any sort of blanket statement that they are bad or good without putting them in the context of the larger transportation picture.

    In the end, it's true: the real problem still is the private autos and all their externalized costs.

  • Justin E

    Just building denser housing without parking won’t save SF from being a city only for the rich.  The city would have to do some pretty drastic things in terms of new legislation aimed at affordable housing and rent control. If the goal is just fewer cars on the road, the solutions won’t have any affect on housing prices uncoupled to other major changes.

  • There are plenty of public transit services built around helping seniors.

  • If we don’t stop building parking and start building housing, families and seniors will not be able to afford to live here whether they need a car or not.

    Using the term elitism to describe “hipsters” while supporting policies that solely favor the wealthy is truly elitism. Usually espoused by those who woke up one day sitting on a golden nest egg provided by their parents in the form of a big house protected by prop 13.

  • I’d get rid of the words rent control, but everyone has an opinion on that. The TIC wars of today are being born out of the fact that the population for whom owning a 2-3 unit building, living in one unit and renting the others out is going to zero. If you have enough money to buy a 2 unit in SF, who wants to hassle with being a landlord?

  • Anonymous

    The argument presented doesn’t make sense. Being a city with land is insanely expensive, and heights limited, the costs of not building car garages is not really relevant to the price of new residential units.

  • mikesonn

    ” the costs of not building car garages is not really relevant to the price of new residential units.”

    WRONG!

  • Saucetin

    Won’t have any Effect. Affect means something else.

  • anyone who disagrees with Rebecca Solnit best bring their A game — that clearly did not happen here.

    maybe Streetsblog should question conventional wisdom once in a while — you only get to live once. the transit nerds will forgive you for stepping out of line just once. maybe.

  • Guest

    You touched on a lot of things in this article, but it’s good to get a discussion started. Yes, office space is expensive in SF, and therefore companies build big campuses outside of the city, but I wished you touched more upon the lack of transit alternatives.  Yes there is Caltrain and BART, but that only works for a limited number of commuters since Caltrain only serves the eastern side of the city (still waiting for connections to the transbay terminal). I wish there was another option on the West side of the city. Taking MUNI to BART to Caltrain just adds so many uncertainties and still doesn’t get you to your destination on the other end.  

    I support shuttles but hope they’re really running based on actual demand.  Running full buses is the best for the environment and takes the most private vehicles off the road, but I also hope that some of these companies could share their resources. And even better, if these companies could help push for additional transit improvements, bus only lanes, etc. 

    I concur that we should create peak hour bus loading zones replacing traditional parking for private vehicles, but we should also create a fee for operating in the city to make the types of improvements that would benefit MUNI and buses in general.

  • Anonymous

     Being a city with land is insanely expensive, and heights limited, the costs of not building car garages is extremely relevant to the price of new residential units.

    Am I missing something? If you can build four stories, and you can fit one apartment per story, you can either build three apartments with parking or four cheaper apartments without. 

  • Seniors need rides? That’s what taxis and MUNI are for. My 5 person, 8-to-80 household gets by fine without a car. A car would just be a ginormous pain in the ass that would make everyone cry if they ever had to get in it.

  • Gneiss

    Our building has no garage and three units.  The ground floor unit would not be possible if there was a garage.  In addition, that ground floor unit is a one bedroom effeciency, which means that only one car would fit in that space.  So, you would effectively be trading a one person living space for car storage. 

    If we took most of the space currently used for car storage in the city and made it into living space, we very probably create enough space for 1/3 more people than can currently live in the city without needing to go up as much.

  • Anonymous

    I agree, both articles took a few lines from a beautiful article (Solnit’s) and then slammed them without any regard for the context in which they were written or even showing they’d read her entire piece. She’s not complaining about corporate shuttles like some letter to the editor, she wrote a nuanced piece about San Francisco, our past, present, and future. 

  • 94103er

    Whatever, dude. So many ways to pick apart her ridiculous screed it might’ve been tough to decide where to start. Here’s my take: When was she born, like 1985? Was she too young to remember the dot-com boom of the late ’90s? Turns out that this city–this area, really–has a cyclical economy. Every few years the real-estate market gets heated up, traffic gets worse, etc etc. This time, companies got smart and are trying to make the big Peninsula migration a bit more efficient for people. So what do they get for their efforts? A whole heap of scorn from whiny non-techies who feel excluded.

    Never mind, too, that the creative class being here at all is the ENTIRE reason why the Bay Area attracts innovation, or that the amenities we have are fueled by a healthy tax base from boring office jobs, etc etc. But jobs move around a lot and people aren’t lifers at companies anymore. Hence the need for mobility.

    Also never mind that the hipper, younger companies *are* in SF and perhaps that’s marking a larger trend of job clustering–who knows? Not Rebecca Solnit.

  • Anonymous

    I’m envious of peternatural for not needing a car.  For our 4 person household, one car plus zipcar and bicycles are required.  Every family has different requirements, but like us, I think many could get by with FEWER autos.  I believe that eliminating ALL autos and residential parking is a utopian dream that is not feasable.  I would imagine that one could build car-sharing right into a lease/HOA agreement with access only to residents.  Zipcar or city car share could “manage” the program relatively easily, I’d think.  Then you could easily reduce the need for personal auto requirements.

  • I agree with a lot of what you said, but we should not confine ourselves to academic discussions when people are suffering — we should talk about practicable solutions.

    Wishing for private autos to start paying the true costs of their presence would obviously banish them overnight from the face of the earth, and it is not going to happen — just like nobody is going to have to start mortgaging their house to buy bullets.
    http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/01/09/comedian-chris-rocks-gun-control-plan-you-should-have-to-have-a-mortgage-to-buy-a-gun/

    That SF Streetsblog decided to throw in with the pro-gentrification crowd so explicitly, and with the likes of the mean-spirited Owen Thomas, former editor of Valleywag, says a lot about who Streetsblog represents.

    Those private shuttle bus armies are just another outcome of class warfare — providing the relative Richie Riches of the world with something much, much better than public transit — with many of the advantages and very few of the disadvantages of driving a personal, private automobile.

  • Anonymous

    All of this SF blame-gaming misses the role of Silicon Valley communities in actively preventing development, both residential and commercial, that would be attractive to high-tech employees.  Google recently proposed a campus expansion including dorm-style housing for its workers, which was shot down by the city of Mountain View.  Mountain View and other NIMBY cities in the South Bay are laughing all the way to the single-family ranch house, watching San Francisco have to cope with skyrocketing rents and congestion, while they adamantly refuse to accommodate young single tech workers near their employment centers.

  • “Need” is a word that is only meaningful in context.

    When someone says they “need” a car to take their child to pre-school, having chosen a pre-school 3 miles away instead of the one down the street, they’ve created their own need from thin air.

    Cue: “Someone with a special needs child cannot just go to the pre-school down the street” or some other anecdote that applies to 1% of the population but is spoken of as something that applies to 99%

  •  Peter – are you saying that nobody should be successful at all? If someone makes money they should just vanish off the planet? If all those richie riches decided to live in Mountain View and displaced the lower income people in Mountain View, would you be similarly complaining about the gentrification of that town? Or rich people are only supposed to live where you decide they can live?

    Where would you put the entire population of the shuttles? There is a housing crunch in the valley too… oh wait we’ll put them in dorms on the Google campus. Sorry, but no.

  • Fran Taylor

    Of course, one bus is better than 30 private cars, but these shuttles also carry a whiff of the apartheid society San Francisco is becoming. Just consider how Mayor Lee pandered to Twitter by creating a new bus route, sadly underutilized, instead of adding buses to already overcrowded routes used by less favored riders, and you can understand the resentment stirred in the hearts of your average clerical or hotel worker hauling downtown with someone standing on her foot.
     
    On the other end of the economic scale, such pandering lessens understanding of the social fabric that makes a city livable for all. Why care about public transportation when you have your own luxury bus? Why care about public education when you have the money to send your kids to private school? Why care about libraries when you’re surrounded by every electronic device?
     
    Rebecca Solnit doesn’t deserve this dismissive treatment. She’s an insightful author who’s written a wonderful book on walking called Wanderlust and has likely thought a lot more about the issues under discussion than her detractors here.
     
    http://www.salon.com/2000/04/27/solnit/

  • Anonymous

    Sfstreetsblog really wants to side with a piece from the “Business Insider” over Rebecca Solnit? 

    ????

    Maybe you guys don’t really care or know much about SF… go home techies.

  • mikesonn

    Maybe you should read Solnit’s column first…

  • Anonymous

    I just reread Solnit’s piece and am still incredulous by your response mikesonn.  While I think “go home techies” is pretty extreme (and not in the article) and I do find some of the anecdotes in Solnit’s piece can be a little grating to people who disagree, it is disheartening that streetsblog would side with business insider on this. Anyone who thinks Solnit’s article is about the private shuttles needs to take a few deep breaths and focus on their reading comprehension.

  • mikesonn

    Solnit’s column is about getting squeezed in a tight housing market and finding the nearest and most obvious scapegoat.

    And just seeing “business insider” and dismissing the column is no better than you are claiming of those disagreeing with Solnit.

    The real issue is that SF is the only real source of walkable dense housing in the Bay Area. If the Peninsula would just address the very real demand for density and stop making the car king of El Camino, you’d see a huge shift. Yes, SF would still be a very popular place to live, that will always be the case, but a lot of these workers would jump into a condo in MtV or RWC just a fast if those downtowns were more than 2 square blocks of half-assed mixed use with formula retail. Add in that the lack of density on the peninsula and in San Jose also means horrible transit (especially off-peak and more than 1/2 mi from Caltrain).

    Right now SF is dealing with all those demands because the rest of the Bay Area doesn’t want to and digs in their Prop 13 heels. Not only do people want to live in the Bay Area, they are going to live in the Bay Area. Hopefully the GOOG buses are just a stop gap in mean time until MTC and C/CAG get their act together and start building communities that are walkable/bikeable.

  • Anonymous

    Take a ride on MUNI someday and observe the many families with children and seniors crammed into standing-room-only buses, or waiting for buses that don’t come.  People who can’t afford cars in the first place, or the cost of housing when it is inflated by mandatory parking minimums.

    The “elites” are those who think everyone can afford to own, maintain, fuel, and garage a car, and if they can’t, well, underfunded crappy transit is good enough for them!

  • Anonymous

    Even a stopped clock is right twice a day…

  •  I take MUNI, ride a bike, ride Caltrain, have no access to shuttles. And I do not resent the buses.

    I also know a lot of people who work at those firms and do take the buses. I also know people who work downtown – not commuting a long long distance – and drive to work. Who do you think cares more about our public transportation and public schools and libraries? The Apple/Google/etc… employees, that’s who. I know a lot of shuttle folks with kids. They attend Alvarado and Milk, walking, biking, or MUNI shuttling their kids to school before jumping on their shuttle. They pump a LOT of money into the SFBC, WalkSF, etc…

    If their drivers are cretinous – and it’s happened, mostly with respect to bike interactions – the companies respond very quickly and usefully, and I feel dignified. When I was shouted off a MUNI bus by a driver who didn’t understand how the Clipper Card works, I got no such love from the SFMTA. And if the shuttle drivers do something bad – who do I call? Google front office? No, I email the people I know from Google who get really pissed off that one of their drivers broke protocol.

    This opinion piece was a poorly researched hatchet job. Did Solnit bother to go talk to any of the cadre of people who ride these shuttles and discuss with them the choices they have made and their vision of the city? No. She has been personally impacted by the changing demographics of the City and is personally upset about it and used her platform to vent.

  •  For crying out loud if you have ever watched Blodget and Task, Business Insider is pretty left leaning in America today, and they bring on all sorts of right wing yahoos to let them embarass themselves.

    I’d put them on the political spectrum with Scott Wiener. Oh wait, in SF that means they might as well be Pat Buchanan.

  • Anonymous

    As far as I’m concerned, Rebecca Solnit didn’t bring her A game.  She erroneously said that the UFW got its start in San Jose organizing plum pickers, when it actually began in Delano organizing farm workers who harvest row crops.  But mostly she slagged off people who make money in the new economy and romanticized the poor. In other words, the usual socialist drivel.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not dismissing business insider as such, I read the article yesterday when you tweeted it, and the article has some huge problems. The author obviously didn’t get past the comparison of shuttle employees with Prussian soldiers after the Franco-Prussian war.  

    Solnit’s article is a reflection on our present “tech boom” and is a nice perspective on what SF is like for someone who isn’t working in tech. There is a very destructive side to the current boom that lots of people are experiencing and in some ways makes me look forward to this bubble’s deflation. I think her comparisons to gold rush days, the current fracking boom towns, and the fronteerism in SF are particularly useful ways to look at the current experience of SF. I think what you’re missing is that not everyone works in tech:

    “Boomtowns also drive out people who perform essential services for relatively modest salaries, the teachers, firefighters, mechanics and carpenters, along with people who might have time for civic engagement. I look in wonder at the store clerks and dishwashers, wondering how they hang on or how long their commute is. Sometimes the tech workers on their buses seem like bees who belong to a great hive, but the hive isn’t civil society or a city; it’s a corporation.”

  • Shuttle buses reduce demand and funding for public transportation — that’s the fundamental problem.   They should be taxed.

  • mikesonn

    I don’t work in tech.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    murphstahoe: +1000

  • Let me think about that one.

    The public transportation line that would take these workers to their office is Caltrain.

    Caltrain is currently servicing an all time record load of passengers and most rush hour trains are running at or *beyond* capacity. No more demand can be accepted at this point – certainly not the current shuttle ridership.

    Caltrain is getting funding towards electrification, which would allow them to increase supply.

    Your point seems correct in a vacuum, but it’s wrong. 

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think it was a hatchet job at all though, I think it was a reflection, “The Google Bus means so many things” and yet we’re saying all she’s doing is condemning the bus or the boom. It’s not an on-off switch, she’s complicating the discussion about a boom that a lot of people are only seeing the good of. The article is in the LRB, not the Chronicle so it wasn’t a “both sides of the story” journalism where she needed to interview people, it’s titled Diary for heaven’s sake! I think it would do a lot of good if people reading the article (especially tech workers) take a break from binary thinking and see a bit more of the grey.

    And anyone here made it that far, she ends on a decidedly moderate note:”Both sides of the divide are bleak, and the middle way is hard to find.”

  • Anonymous

    I’m just going to quote pieces of her post in hopes that people actually read a little of it:

    Poverty is cruel and destructive. Wealth is cruel and destructive too, or at least booms are. The whole of the US sometimes seems to be a checkerboard of these low-pressure zones with lots of time and space but no money, and the boomtowns with lots of money, a frenzied pace and chronic housing scarcity. Neither version is very liveable.

  • I do not agree that “one bus is better than 30 private cars” — we know that this is not how traffic works. because car transport is so much nicer/better/subsidized than all other forms of transport in America, we know that cars always fills roads to capacity, and oftentimes beyond, far before the point where non-car transport takes off. i.e. add one bus to the roads, you’ve potentially, at best, taken a couple/few cars off the road, but those empty slots are then filled by drivers who now find it easier to drive — increased road capacity just induces demand.

    other than that, i’m a nerd and have used the google buses — nobody is calling me evil for that, but the private bus system was and is an evil institution — a decent-ish private system for the Richie Riches, and a crap public transport system for the rest of us.

    if the private armies buses went on strike tomorrow, we’d have some increased traffic on the roads for a few days until traffic dissipated in all the ways we know that happens — people start walking/biking/taking transit/carpooling/leaving at different times/working from home/move offices/jobs/etc.

  • Anonymous

    Nice transportation pyramid. I’d add parked bikes/buses/taxis/vehicles into the list, which would put parked private cars at the very bottom.

    Sadly, in many parts of the city the private cars are put at the top of the pyramid instead of the bottom.

  • SteveS

    This can be simplified even further: shuttle buses reduce the demand for public transportation, but not the funding (unless you can somehow prove that shuttles result in less tax revenue). Since all bay area public transportation has a farebox recovery ratio of far below 1.0, the fewer people that ride it, the less money transit agencies lose (assuming agencies have some flexibility to respond to demand).

    In other words, shuttle buses are actually subsidizing public transportation by delivering mass transit trips that would normally have received taxpayer funding for free.

  • oh noes, Richard Florida, the God of All Things Urban, agrees with Solnit.

    http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2013/01/more-losers-winners-americas-new-economic-geography/4465/

    “Our main takeaway: On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits. Its benefits flow disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers whose higher wages and salaries are more than sufficient to cover more expensive housing in these locations. While less-skilled service and blue-collar workers also earn more money in knowledge-based metros, those gains disappear once their higher housing costs are taken into account.”

    http://www.npr.org/2013/02/06/171257463/cities-must-strategize-to-boost-service-workers-pay

    And this is coming from the guy who invented modern-day, feel good justification for gentrification/displacement. 

  • mikesonn

    Provide better transit to more housing options. This is more a lack of investment in the public sphere. Housing cost savings are only realized at such a distance that transportation costs far outstrip those savings.

  • 94103er

    @shmooth:disqus You are really not paying attention to what’s going on with companies like Facebook if you think people would move, work from home, etc etc if the shuttle drivers were to go on strike right now. Facebook is currently hiring on the order of 100 people a week. A week. Do you think Menlo Park, Redwood City, and Palo Alto have the housing capacity to absorb that? No, they do not. Also, product-oriented work is too collaborative to allow much work from home, unfortunately.

    Nor can any of the public-transit systems absorb that kind of surge in job creation. You all have got to get a clue: The private-shuttle system isn’t just taking cars off the road. It’s saving the butts of these sclerotic transit agencies who continue to be paralyzed by pension obligations and fights over scraps of their respective budget allocations.

    @twitter-14678929:disqus Don’t forget another couple key features. First, there’s instant response to demand. When too many show up for the 9am bus, the company quickly dispatches another bus to the stop. Second–and this is truly key–is that there’s secure wi-fi on the bus. So you’re effectively at the office when you step on the bus, and your commute is suddenly useful productive time. So so important for people with families.

  • Anonymous

     Thanks for these interesting links.  Though I would not (even sarcastically) call Florida “the god of all things urban” — his “creative class” concept for instance is ridiculous and is not real sociology by any stretch. But as an influential pop commentator, his views are worth reading.

  • 94103er

    @8273895862f4828764c2a8d05a9b4e2d:disqus  @coolbabybookworm:disqus  Sorry, but I just don’t care about Solnit’s street cred as a writer (which I believe is coloring your opinion too much). I firmly believe that if you’re writing for a wider audience (whether or not in a “diary”) you should check your assumptions before posting. The fact of the matter is, this has happened before. We’ve had tech booms. We still have policemen, teachers, and hotel workers. 

    Also, our job base is spread out over a 50-mile geographic area, and that will not change. Company shuttles have to exist to bridge the gap between scalable, livable communities and the campuses that most efficiently cluster workers. Whether it’s an automotive production facility or a silicon-chip fab or a social-media company, that’s how it is.

    If she’d been more meditative on the current migration of workers in the context of historical migrations, I’d be more forgiving. But really, this is nothing more than yet another bigoted, generalizing finger-pointing at the tech workers who ruin it for everyone.

  • 94103er

    I think I’ll stick with local economist Enrico Moretti’s side of the story. (Moretti, cited in Florida’s article, is the author of “The New Geography of Jobs.”) Florida is trying to pin the blame of housing costs on the tech boom and ignoring Moretti’s point that government has to play a role if the tide is to raise all boats. 

    We’re not going to see an end to the problem of housing affordability until we get rid of deadweight loss (Prop 13, rent control) and greatly expand the type and scope of housing vouchers.

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