The Bay Area Needs More Walkable Housing, Not Google Bus Bashing

The anger of the protestors who blockaded a Google bus in the Mission on Monday was very real and understandable. San Francisco residents, living in a highly sought-after city with a limited housing supply, are coping with a crisis of skyrocketing rents and evictions. Meanwhile, Muni riders increasingly find their stops blocked by private shuttles that appear to be whisking away the very Peninsula tech workers blamed for driving up rents.

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Plenty has been written about the strife caused by SF’s housing crisis in the last few years. But as we wrote in February, pointing fingers at tech shuttles doesn’t help solve the problem — if anything, it’s a distraction from effective solutions.

The real culprits are the decades-long failures of SF and other Bay Area cities to develop efficient transit systems and the kind of walkable neighborhoods that are in ever higher demand, yet in scarce supply in the region. And deeper than that is the cultural aversion to change and the political establishment that caters to it, avoiding tough but necessary decisions.

Don’t get me wrong — the fact that private shuttles are illegally using Muni stops without paying anything for it is unjust and unsustainable, as Monday’s protestors rightly called out. But those specific problems can be addressed by devoting more curb space to transit — both public and private — the vast majority of which is currently devoted to free, subsidized personal car storage. The SFMTA’s plans to convert car parking to shuttle stops and establish a private shuttle fee system are a step in the right direction.

But what’s really hampering Muni performance is all the private car traffic that bogs down buses and the unnecessary frequency of stops. Imagine if protestors devoted this much energy and media savvy to demanding speedy implementation of the Transit Effectiveness Project by City Hall.

Meanwhile, the fact is that the Bay Area can’t have the dynamic tech-based economy sought by Mayor Ed Lee and an affordable housing supply for middle-class and low-income people without building substantial amounts of walkable development.

One factor we’ve pointed out on Streetsblog is that housing development in SF and other cities is hamstrung by minimum parking requirements, meaning housing for people is mandated to come with a certain amount of housing for cars. This adds to the cost of building, owning, and renting that housing, and limits the amount of space for residences or businesses. And as research has shown repeatedly, when housing is bundled with a parking space, residents are more likely to own a car and drive, making the transit system less effective.

Unfortunately, the positions staked out by Supervisors David Campos and Malia Cohen on recent housing development projects coming out of the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan work against the goal of affordability. Campos and Cohen have fought projects on the basis that they don’t have enough parking, causing developers to add spaces or subtract apartments, flying in the face of smart zoning policies developed over ten years. Meanwhile, parking-free housing is a growing trend in other American cities.

Plan Bay Area is a start on smarter housing development — it lays out how cities can accommodate population growth around transit hubs like Caltrain and BART stations, minimizing the need to drive and keeping the costs of housing and transportation low.

As David Edmondson of Vibrant Bay Area wrote in November, increased transit-oriented development helped stem the tide of rising rents and displacement in Washington, D.C.:

Rising rents spurred new development, which has halted the rise in most areas and slowed it in particularly high-demand parts of town. Nearly all of this growth has been along the region’s Metrorail subway system, too, so rising population has not equated to rising traffic.

And, importantly for keeping urban character alive, quite a bit of this growth has occurred outside the city core, often in new urban centers in what were suburban strip-mall landscapes. To San Francisco, this has been the equivalent of tens of thousands of new housing units along the East Bay BART lines and Caltrain, and the virtual elimination of the urban strip mall.

That’s not to say DC has been immune to displacement. The once-burned-out H Street NE corridor gentrified quickly, as has Hispanic Columbia Heights. African-American Petworth and Brookland are coming under pressure from well-heeled renters, too.

But the thousands of units in the suburbs and in the city’s center have given these areas time to prepare. Affordable housing, inclusionary zoning, and various direct legislative efforts to keep people in their homes can be attempted, improved, and applied to neighborhoods that have yet to be overwhelmed. Areas without any pressure, armed with these protections, are starting to wonder when their day will come.

In the near term, residents can only do so much to fight the crisis of evictions and insane rents, and it’s frustrating. I’m experiencing this myself — my fiancée and I are fortunate enough to not be at risk of eviction, but we feel trapped in our small studio. Scapegoating private transit that fills the gaps in the public transit system — perhaps the most visible symbol of change — is easy, but it’s counterproductive.

The bottom line is that San Francisco needs to make the tough political decisions to prioritize people and transit, not cars. Cities up and down the Peninsula and the East Bay need to ditch the suburban model of the 20th century and embrace the creation of more human-scale, transit-friendly neighborhoods that more of us want so badly to live in.

  • Aaron Priven

    Thank you for writing this, it captures the situation perfectly.

  • murphstahoe

    If MUNI were better, there would be no need for a Google Bus. Therefore, the Google Bus is why MUNI is not better. QED.

  • murphstahoe

    It’s all very easy. “They” don’t have the stones to do anything about housing or MUNI, and sooner or later that would cause problems – unless they can find a scapegoat. If Google and Facebook went under tomorrow they’d find another one.

  • Andy Chow

    I look at it as companies are dumping their housing problems to San Francisco by essentially giving their employees free transportation that may not otherwise be willing to pay (either having to own a car and drive the long distance, or having to deal with Muni and Caltrain). Other workers who otherwise had short commute on Muni are priced out and may have to settle longer commute on AC Transit or BART or having to pay a daily toll on the bridge by living in the more affordable East Bay.

    The public might not be directly subsidize these employee shuttles, but are indirectly subsidizing them by the raise in rent.

    If these companies intend to attract talented workers from all around the world to work on their campus in Silicon Valley, they should also plan to enough housing to accommodate them.

  • Upright Biker

    “they should also plan to [sic] enough housing to accommodate them.”

    Since when do private companies “plan” housing? That’s one of the purposes of local government, and as Aaron rightly points out, the City of San Francisco has been shirking it’s duties in this regard.

    Yes, these shuttles — and all shuttles — should have and pay for their own infrastructure, which should be taken away from private automobiles. But to blame successful businesses and money-spending citizens for our woeful transit and housing policy inadequacies is laughable.

    They are still taking private automobiles off the road, helping the environment, and providing a useful service to their employees that increases productivity and happiness.

    Why should anyone be opposed to that?

  • IHeartPandas

    I don’t think that the problem is that Silicon Valley companies don’t plan enough housing for their workers, and I don’t believe that private companies (tech or otherwise) are obligated or responsible to do so.

    A lot of these companies are located in places where young-ish tech workers don’t want to live. So the compromise is that they provide shuttles so that their employees can live in SF and work in the valley. And having these shuttles is way, way better than having an additional 30k+ cars on the road every day — but they should absolutely pay for the use of the infrastructure.

  • Davistrain

    The idea of companies providing housing is nothing new. Many years ago, one of the predecessors of today’s Muni, Market St. Railway, had company housing next to their Elkton Shops (where today’s electric railcar repair shops are). The houses were built in 1907, because Elkton was “way out in the boonies”, and the company wanted at least some of the workers to be nearby. They lasted until after World War II, after Muni had bought out MSRy. The houses were finally razed to make way for the Ocean bus yard in the late 1940s.

  • rickbynight

    Muni serves the valley now?

  • Emilio

    You correctly identify central planning and regulation as the primary cause of many of the problems the Bay Area is experiencing. However you fail by simply suggesting different types of central planning and different regulations. The reason for the regulations have little to do with what would be optimal for the people of the Bay Area — it’s simply what is best financially for people with vested interests who control the central planners. Determining what is optimal is a very hard thing to because the problem is so complex. It’s probably impossible. That’s why just a different set of decisions by central planners will not be any better just because they are decisions that you think are right. The only clear path is removing regulations and central planning, making it possible for creative and organic solutions by individuals.

  • mikesonn

    San Francisco’s real enemy:
    Tim Donnelly

  • Techies should congregate with other techies, like termites in a big nest. After all, it’s not like they have any ties to normal people. They could move away. They don’t have parents, spouses, or kids who live with them and who would find themselves stranded in some car-centric hell-hole after the move, where the kids and seniors would be dependent on some [non-existent] person to drive them around anytime they needed to go someplace.

    Just move, techies. Then we can go back to ignoring issues around housing and transportation.

  • mikesonn

    Andy, south bay cities are why there are corporate shuttles. Genentech has been doing this for years because these office parks (and the cities they are in) have traffic caps. Sadly, they also allowed these campuses to be built with huge parking lots far from any fixed transit (BART in north Peninsula, Caltrain in the south). That is why there are campus shuttles, etc. The GOOG bus phenomenon was a self-perpetuating loop. In order to appease Mountain View’s strick traffic quota and not get fined, they set up a couple shuttles for their SF employees. Once employees saw that they could take the shuttle from SF (and avoid the dreaded 3-seat trip of Muni-Caltrain-shuttle), more employees choose that option creating a need for more shuttles (have to stay under the traffic quota!) and hence more employees.

    And really, the public isn’t subsidizing these shuttles, they are subsidizing all the space wasted for free on-street parking and having housing cost $$++ because of off-street parking. San Francisco is back near its population high but it isn’t blowing it out of the water (there is a lot of demand, yes, but SF isn’t 100+% capacity). However, everyone now, after living through the lean years of the 70s-80s-early 90s, expects to still keep that same life style (free car parking, low rents, traffic free highways, etc). They think fighting any new housing and any new residents will bring that back. That ship has sailed, tech bubble or not, the trend is to return to urban centers (walkable, etc) and the Bay Area is well poised to absorb that growth. However, the entire Bay Area is failing to build anything near the capacity it needs and are especially failing to build it in a way that would create or expand city centers (Redwood City is finally building some apartments and offices downtown near Caltrain, but that’s about it).

    We have a built environment to deal with and I think south bay cities are doing the best they can considering their stick-in-the-mud constituency. They know that traffic would be (and for the most part already is) unbearable without these traffic mitigations but the citizens won’t allow more housing (especially the coveted mixed-use) to be built. Companies are stuck, pay fines for traffic created or supply corporate shuttles because the bay area is 20-30 years behind where it should be on transportation and housing?

  • coolbabybookworm

    if Google and Facebook went under tomorrow I think we’d have a shifting economic landscape that would collapse the current building boom and at least some rent prices.

  • coolbabybookworm

    While I agree with your sentiment, anecdotally, everyone I know who works for tech companies in the South Bay/Peninsula and lives in SF has few family ties to the bay area and no kids. Those with family in the Bay Area and kids live closer to their work in the South Bay or if they live in SF, they work in SF.

  • coolbabybookworm

    As the article states, the immediate steps that need to happen are permitting of private transit in some fashion and increased loading zones/bus stop sizes, which should happen regardless of the private shuttle. Since this is going to mean removed daytime parking, I wonder what battle it is going to start and if SFMTA has enough guts to stand up to parking zealots on such a contentious issue as the google buses.

  • You know you’ve backed yourself into an ideological corner when the best idea for controlling rent costs is an economic collapse. That would REALLY help the poor.

  • coolbabybookworm

    I just mean the conversation would likely shift away from scapegoating rising prices and muni, not that this would be my plan for controlling rents. And actually, in a lot of ways this tech boom has been worse for unemployed, underemployed, and poor than the financial meltdown of 2008 was.

  • mikesonn

    That’s not true. I ride SF2G with many people who live in SF and work down the peninsula and have families and are also very active in their communities.

  • coolbabybookworm

    as i said, anecdotally.

  • I’ve lived in SF for years, along with my wife, mother-in-law, and two kids who go to SF public schools. None of them would want to move away from their current job, schools, and community. (And have to get a car? Ugh.) Yet, these days I commute to the south bay on a corporate shuttle. It’s by far the worst part of the job, but it sure beats driving. (And having to get a car. Ugh.)

    (My life may be an anecdote, but it’s MY anecdote 😉

  • mikesonn

    I know, but people are extrapolating their anecdotes into full on stereotypes and then fighting strawmen instead of the real issues.

  • coolbabybookworm

    Well i do think all the talk of recent grads getting hired at tech companies and not caring about the community they live in is guilting at least some of them into getting more involved in their communities.

  • murphstahoe


    s/MUNI/Public Transportation/g;

  • murphstahoe

    Interesting Andy. Do you believe that the major employers in San Francisco – places like Levi Strauss, Bank of America, Gap, etc… are dumping their housing problems on the East Bay, Marin, and Peninsula? 250,000 workers commute into San Francisco every day.

  • murphstahoe

    So what you are saying is SF’s public school system is so crappy that the kids aren’t getting into Berkeley and Stanford so they can get a job at google.

  • murphstahoe

    When this was going down…

    The people supporting the street plaza – and I know who they were because I did the lion’s share of the work – in Noe Valley fit the Google Bus stereotype completely. The longer term residents extrapolated this to mean that the “new” people did not care about the community because they were trying to ruin the neighborhood with this crazy pedestrian plaza.

    The “recent grads” have also run amok going to Board of Supervisors meetings and community meetings trying to get those damn gentrifying bike lanes.

  • coolbabybookworm

    I’m sorry but we’re not supposed to use anecdotes in this conversation.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Which agency is supposed to run buses or trains to suburban campuses several miles from the central spine of the South Bay? Who is going to ride these buses other than a few rush hour commuters? Caltrain makes sense all day, because there are at least some destinations near the stations. If the companies had located close to the stations, then Caltrain would be fine. Caltrain can’t be expected to add new tracks to appease every corporate headquarters. And Samtrans can just add more buses, if there are no other destinations on the bus routes.

  • aslevin

    Also prop 13. Housing doesn’t carry enough of its cost burden for services, so jurisdictions would rather have jobs than housing.

  • murphstahoe

    I’ll take a line from Rob Anderson’s book. 85-87% of emails sent to the Board of Supervisors come from Techies.

  • coolbabybookworm

    In my ideal world, muni and biking works better for workers to get to Caltrain/HSR. Caltrain adds much more capacity and then workers take private shuttles, VTA/SamTrans, and bike routes from Caltrain to their respective campus. Also needed is greater density around caltrain, including in SF. A train route is better for these long distance commutes than a bus in my opinion, but the companies probably don’t want their employees mixing with the public and it’s easier for companies to hire buses than to improve transit, but it still feels like a permanent stopgap to me.

  • mikesonn

    And Prop 13 incentivizes homeowners to keep their property value (money in their pocket) going up because their property taxes are fixed regardless. This means stopping all new building and shrinking supply as much as possible. Also, any new homeowners will shoulder the tax burden because their taxes will be pegged to the much much higher purchase price.

  • murphstahoe

    Oh for crying out loud. There are shuttles from Caltrain to various offices, and for Google specifically there is a fully separated bike path from the train station to the campus, the bike ride is ~10 minutes, an expansion of bike share could make this a no-brainer.

    And it really sticks in my craw for people to rag on google for not locating close to the station. I suppose Google could build a brand new several hundred thousand square foot campus on land that does not exist instead of reusing an existing, abandoned campus.

  • Jame

    This problem has nothing to do with Muni. There are a few questions: why isn’t Bay Area transit better coordinated to access the job centers? And why are the job centers so far from transit?

  • aslevin

    Bay Area transit isn’t better coordinated because there are 26 transit agencies that work in their narrow self interest ahead of cooperating. Job centers are far from transit because downtowns near transit stops don’t have good policies to accommodate growth without gridlock and some people are allergic to taller buildings.

  • Jame

    I was just chatting with a colleague about this. It really illustrates that we don’t have enough neighborhood types near job centers. These tech workers have decided they value living in a denser, more walkable neighborhood and they are willing to sacrifice living closer work.

    I have made a similar choice, but unfortunately my company is far too small to have a shuttle to transport workers to the office in the Peninsula, and I am the only one who lives in the east bay. Half of my colleagues also live in SF, and they drive. I drive alone. I would take transit if it didn’t require so many legs to be workable: AC Transit > BART > Caltrain or Samtrans.

    How do we fix this? We need more housing types near job centers, and jobs that are better connected with transit infrastructure.

  • It sounds like all sides agree. The solution to the housing crisis is for the wrong kind of people to get out of town 😉

  • coolbabybookworm

    Maybe we should all leave and let nature retake the city. Then at least we’ll be better prepared for the rising waters 🙂

  • mikesonn

    Job centers are also far from transit because they were all built car uber alles, just like 90% of the Bay Area. Then we wonder why everyone drives. And now those living on the peninsula fight new growth tooth and nail, for many reasons but “we got ours, FU” is one and so is “Prop 13 makes me rich but I don’t have to pay higher taxes” is another. Now we are stuck with poor transit, poorly planned (read: very car-dependent) cities, and job centers that must use private shuttles to avoid traffic-mitigation penalties.

  • mikesonn

    Protest at city halls on the peninsula, not at bus stops in SF.

  • aslevin

    The people who will be heard best are Peninsula residents. One big problem is that baby-boomer homeowners show up to Council meetings. Younger people who prefer biking, walking and transit and aren’t freaked out by taller buildings speak up much less. So the conversation can be dominated by people who like the low-density car-oriented environment.

  • mikesonn

    100% correct. See: San Carlos.

  • Eric

    Shhhh, remember, he’s one of these San Franciscans with “roots” who has serious concerns about displacement…you know, one who’s lived there for 5 years.

  • Mojojo

    As a property owner, I can tell you that property taxes are high enough and constantly going up due to inflation. I pay close to 10,000 dollars annually. My street has not been not been paved in decades and basically resembles a gravel road, street trees were trimmed by neighborhood volunteers, cops are far and few in between, Schools consume more than half of my contribution and I have no school age children. We do need more revenue, but we should consider other user fees instead of using property taxes as the panacea. ** Just a few ideas – How about higher parking fees, Some states require that parents contribute a stipend amount (usually ~$500) to help pay for school services, statewide tax on lic plates for roadway maint, Marijuana tax, water fees should be higher in desert areas that require expensive water transport projects, either higher storm water fees, or water retention mechanism at the home sites, allow and tax more mobile food vendors in parks and other city properties, allow and tax more advertising on transit and inbeded in crosswalks. MY POINT is that we have other options to monazite and pay for things.

  • Jame

    OMG, if I had a magic wand I would consolidate the agencies. I think I heard there are actually 37 in the greater Bay Area. Imagine how much more transit money we could have just by consolidating the operational staff. Not even considering the volume discounts etc we could get with streamlined procurement.

  • aslevin

    Another model is like what they have in Switzerland and some parts of Germany, where there are different operators but one overarching agency that mandates integration in fares, schedules and marketing. In the Bay Area one of the big headaches in agency consolidation is labor contracts. Think about trying to harmonize the labor contracts between BART, Muni, AC Transit, Caltrain etc.

  • vcs

    The big difference is those older companies have a more diverse and stable workforce who are far more ‘locally grown’. The tech companies are in the middle of a hiring war which is importing highly-paid mostly young men, who naturally want to live where the action is.

  • vcs

    Eh, SF rents were very stable through the entire 2000s, and the economy was just fine after it recovered from the last tech bust.

    The current rent spike can almost entirely be pinned on a handful of large tech companies who are doing a crapload of hiring.

  • 94103er

    Also, you are wrong about transit and job centers. As @aslevin:disqus pointed out in the Peninsula transportation blog (linked from yesterday’s Today’s Headlines), 80% of Bay Area jobs are within 3 miles of BART and Caltrain. And that’s not counting new BART stations to come. Truly mind-blowing, isn’t that?

  • TN

    This is a bit confused. The portion of total real estate property tax revenues that come from commercial properties has decreased significantly since Prop 13. Commercial properties don’t turn over in ownership as frequently as residential properties. So they aren’t reassessed as often. Residential property taxes now make up a much bigger portion of revenues than before Prop 13’s passage. This is why some tax reformers have been pushing for a split roll reform of Prop 13 for a long time.


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