What Drives the Google Bus?

Forget measuring carbon emissions and counting blocked Muni buses. The real meaning of the Google bus is the deeper illness it reveals – a co-dependent relationship in which sprawl and gentrification reinforce each other.

The Google campus in sprawling Mountain View. Photo: Austin McKinley/Wikipedia

Tech companies don’t run buses just to please their city-loving engineers. Silicon Valley land use makes them do it.

The Valley’s upscale towns welcome prestigious firms like Google and Apple. Their offices yield ample tax revenue, and residents like the short commute. But housing those who work there is another matter. Zoning keeps apartments out – they would dent the exclusivity of single-family suburbs – and new hires are forced into long commutes.

This building pattern creates a transportation problem. In sprawling suburbs transit attracts few riders on its own; it’s rarely as convenient as the automobile. But the roads couldn’t handle all the traffic if everyone drove long distances to the big office complexes. Local governments insist that companies must make active efforts to entice their employees out of cars.

Thus the Google bus. But the bus can’t go just anywhere. Sending it to Los Altos Hills or Atherton would be a wasted effort, because houses there are too far apart for riders to gather at a stop. Mass transit needs masses, and the bus travels to the densely packed neighborhoods of San Francisco.

There’s no conspiracy here. Younger software engineers, like lots of people their age, enjoy urban living, and they’re moving to the city on their own.

What the bus does is let Silicon Valley keep this trend at bay. The Valley preserves the suburban look of its towns by building offices without housing their occupants. The workforce, unable to find the walkable neighborhoods they want near their jobs, flocks to the ones in San Francisco.

The influx drives city rents up, turning run-down districts into islands of affluence. City-dwellers, attacking the symptom of the disease rather than the cause, limit new building and send housing prices even higher. An exclusionary arms race ensues, and a growing population is pushed into the farthest reaches of the metropolis

Gentrification enables sprawl, and sprawl begets more rapid gentrification. Neither can be controlled without breaking the cycle. City and suburb alike should embrace the urbanism that is in such great demand and in such short supply by creating walkable neighborhoods for everyone who wants to live in one.

Ben Ross is the author of the new book Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. He will speak at a SPUR lunchtime forum about his book on May 1.

  • Don’t Ever Change Ever

    Pro-sprawl writers like Wendell Cox and Randall O’Toole decry land use policies as driving up housing prices as well, but focus more on urban growth boundaries (what they call “urban containment”) than restrictive zoning. In their view, housing would be more affordable if the Bay Area would only be allowed to *sprawl more* like Houston or Phoenix.

    Additionally, they reject the notion that people really enjoy living in urban areas, and if they do, it’s only a passing phase that twenty-somethings go through on their way to wanting a big house with a two car garage and a lawn like every freedom-loving American.

  • Ben Ross

    I will also be speaking in the evening of May 1 at the Green Arcade bookstore, on Market Street at Gough.
    Ben Ross

  • Nick

    “Zoning keeps apartments out – they would dent the exclusivity of single-family suburbs – and new hires are forced into long commutes.”

    As a region, it’s important to remember that “The Valley” is not a single political entity. It’s a collection of cities with a wide range of outlooks and strategies when it comes to housing and growth. Lumping them together and characterizing them as a mono-culture of affluent NIMBY-villes oversimplifies the challenges we face as a region.

    Take Mountain View, for instance, pictured in this article. It’s become an easy target for these types of articles because Google is headquartered there. I know this probably wasn’t the author’s intent – but if I read this without any knowledge of the region I’d assume Mountain View is just like the other cities mentioned mentioned – Los Altos Hills and Atherton. True enclaves low-density affluence that have been stridently anti-growth from inception.

    Mountain View on the other hand – perhaps more so than most Bay Area cities – does not fit that mold. The majority of housing there is multi-family (56.1%) and the majority of residents (58.5%) are renters. The city actively pursued growth and strove to balance housing, jobs, and commerce until the 1970s. Why the change? Prop 13. The area where Google is located today was originally planned in the 1960s as high-density mixed-use neighborhood. But after Prop 13 passed, the City zoned the area for commercial/office. Why? To stay financially sound.

    Dig a bit deeper, and you’ll find that our state’s flawed tax structure is at the root of many of our housing problems.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    How does that keep the city financially sound? Aren’t the property taxes for commercial property fixed by Prop 13?

  • david vartanoff

    The techies are smart enough to want to live in the cities only “visiting” the suburbs; the real issue is why should the tech campusus be in sprawl deserts?

  • Guest

    I don’t know why Facebook is in a swamp, but I do know why Google expands in Mountain View instead of San Francisco.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Huh that’s wierd, I can’t figure out how to post as Guest on purpose, but only randomly? Anyway, suffice it to say that there are internal, personal reasons among the management at Google that keep it in the suburbs.

  • Duncan

    It’s not about commercial property taxes, it’s about business taxes.

  • BBnet3000

    Have they actually mentioned the Bay Area in particular? There are natural barriers to growth in the Bay Area that were reached years ago, unlike in Portland where the growth boundary is artificial.

    I know theres some growth boundaries being used in the Bay Area but for the most part its built out. The regional parks are a great amenity and much of the land in them couldnt be developed easily anyway because its too hilly.

    A lot of the most expensive markets either have natural barriers to growth (Bay Area and LA) or are built out with sprawl beyond where people would commute from (New York and LA again)

    Those idiots love to beat up on Portland, which despite prices going up a bit is still quite affordable and probably always will be.

  • Facebook and Google both share a common reason for their respective locations: big companies had recently sold or gone under, leaving vast swaths of empty office campuses (Sun and Silicon Graphics, respectively.)

    One wonders if any of these companies considered that those locations might be bad for attracting talent before signing the lease.

  • Don’t Ever Change Ever

    Yes, Cox mentions it most recently here:


    O’Toole here:


    Lots of discussion of “containment,” the growth boundaries, and rent control, but little mention of zoning or other policies preventing density.

  • BBnet3000

    Cox is right in the article linked, I know he tends to be more of an anti-regulation market guy in general vs a straight up pro-sprawl type like O’Toole.

    Prices are rising the fastest in San Francisco because people want to live IN San Francisco and supply is constrained. O’Toole thinks building a few more ranch houses outside of the UGB in Walnut Creek is going to change that. Few of the people taking Google buses to Mountain View want to live in Walnut Creek.

  • Don’t Ever Change Ever

    There’s probably an element of truth to Cox’s post, but his interpretation of the Economist link is telling. The link he quoted mentions zoning several times and height restrictions implicitly, but never mentions the land use boundaries. Cox ignores zoning and instead characterizes SF NIMYism as “rationing land” and links to his own study claiming that urban growth boundaries raise housing prices.

    My point is these guys seem fine with regulation when it promotes sprawl but they’re dead set against it when it promotes density.

  • jwb

    Sure but that doesn’t explain why they keep adding headcount in the same places.

  • Andy Chow

    I think a lot also has to do with how and where these companies (mostly internet and software) want to expand. If these companies are willing to have offices in other regions, there will be a lot of states and cities willing to provide tax and zoning incentives. I think these companies stay and grow here because the bosses want to keep an eye on the action and the valley is where the bosses want to live.

  • murphstahoe

    There are other taxes besides property taxes….

    I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if Google has to pay “sales taxes” on the free company meals. Use taxes have to get paid for dumb stuff like office chairs.

  • murphstahoe

    When Google moved in in 2001 (?) the South Bay was still the epicenter. Netscape was founded in Mountain View, not San Francisco. Their primary recruiting target was Stanford students some of whom may not have even known San Francisco exists.

    When I came out on my job interview in 1994, I flew into San Jose and had no idea that San Francisco was anywhere nearby.

    Facebook was founded in Palo Alto. Same deal – a lot of Stanford students, working and living in Palo Alto. I *think* Facebook offered the same deal that Palantir does – any Palantir employee living within a certain small radius of the Palantir office gets a housing subsidy, something like $500 a month. And you think Google bus stops drive up housing prices?

    In the dot com boom, there were a lot of parties being thrown by boutique weird startups in San Francisco, most of which went nowhere, but the real work was going on down South. I would go down to work and it felt like a different planet – serious people doing serious work, vs a bunch of airheads throwing parties on VC money in SF.

    The location is becoming a downside *now* because of the housing squeeze down there. A big issue with housing down south is that if you are just starting out, the supply of small 1 BR/Studio apartments is pretty slim, and a lot of it is in way off places in odd corners of San Jose.

  • murphstahoe

    They will stay and grow here because it’s hard to get talent to move to other locations. “Come to Houston – the cost of living is low! Of course, if our company tanks or you don’t like the job – you’ll have to move because there aren’t any other jobs here!”

  • Gezellig

    Probably not a whole lot.

    Plus, at least based on my experience a lot (though not all, obviously) of the types that have been making the office-location decisions for those kinds of companies are the types that do live in places like Los Altos Hills or Cupertino.

    I think things are changing, though. The market is inevitably responding to the clear draw of where the talent lives and wants to live. If Google were starting out in a garage/studio today, I’d almost expect it by default to be in a SoMa or Emeryville-type neighborhood as most of the more recent-than-Google tech firms have been gravitating towards.

    It’s very telling that even when those newer firms expand they almost never move down the Peninsula to a sprawling suburban campus in Silicon Valley. Their workers wouldn’t have it–it’s no longer the unquestioned ideal. Even companies that aren’t going as far up as SoMa are realizing when the leases on their current transit-black-hole “campuses” are up they should consider relocating to more transit-friendly places the next time. A friend of mine works at a company in just such a situation (the city he works in has Caltrain but his campus is like 3-4 miles from it) and the CEO apparently told him “yeah no more of this isolated campus thing. People are quitting over the commute. After our current lease expires we’re definitely moving to an office right on a Caltrain stop.”

    Anyway, what I’d really love to see is more companies choosing to set up shop in the urban East Bay along the BART and Amtrak corridors. I imagine that as office space becomes scarcer/pricier in SF this will begin to happen more.

  • Gezellig

    Yup! It seems many tech companies will stay in the Bay, though a reshifting of the epicenter from the Valley to SF/Oakland may be happening over time.

    If I were a forward-looking Valley city I’d be concerned–but enough people may not be realizing it yet. I see it as fairly inevitable that one of these days one or more of the Big Guys (Bookface, Google, etc.) will suddenly drop the bombshell that they’re relocating to Mission Bay/SoMa. I wonder if such news might cause some of the Valley cities to more seriously consider what they’ve been doing wrong in terms of turning droves of people off from ever considering living there in its current state.

    It’s possible to retrofit low-density car-centric suburbia, but the will has to be there to get it done.

  • Andy Chow

    I don’t think that urban lifestyles/amenities are major issues. Other regions have urban cores and are capable to provide more of those amenities. For instance, Asian communities don’t just have Asian-oriented businesses in SF Chinatown. There are also LGBT-oriented businesses outside of Castro Street.

    I strongly believe that it is the bosses preference to stay in the valley and their ability to oversee. Having all the “talents” in the valley is not good for business. Right now there’s a class action lawsuit alleging the big valley high tech employers have a wage fixing scheme. If these firms are located far apart there would be less likelihood to establish such schemes as it would raise the employees cost to switch jobs.

    Since these companies recruit employees from other part of the US and around the world, I don’t think there’s such a strong attachment among them to live and work in the Bay Area versus Houston.

  • Nick

    Focusing exclusively on commercial/office development in the North Bayshore Area (where the bulk of Google offices are located in MV) offered the potential for more sales tax revenue with less extensive expansion of city services to the area. Conversely, adding more residents would have placed more of a strain on city resources (at least compared to adding more workers).

    Also, worth noting that Google did not build any of the buildings it now occupies in Mountain View. 15 years ago, before Google moved, the area housed a bunch of different companies and commercial uses generating sales tax revenue for the City.

  • SuperQ

    There’s also the fact that the majority of the people working at google live down in the south bay, and most of them would not want to live or work in SF. They grew up in the burbs and don’t plan to leave. Some of them are families with kids and want to stay in a specific school district. Some is “The City is a nasty, dirty, crime ridden place”. Some just like having their single family home with backyard. While there are a ton of googlers that live in SF, they’re still a minority.

  • NoeValleyJim

    It is more than just the housing squeeze, there is a cultural shift going on as well.

  • Andareed

    Allowing more sprawl and building denser both lower housing prices by increasing supply. Additional sprawl comes with other problems, of course.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    There’s no natural boundaries yet reached around Livermore. Plenty of sprawl left to perpetrate!

  • Patrick

    The paragraph “Gentrification enables sprawl, and sprawl begets more rapid gentrification” isn’t quite right in this context, unless Mr. Ross is referring to the gentrification and sprawl that happened in the 50’s and 60’s when the Silicon Valley was created. Gentrifying the Mission and SOMA isn’t a direct result of “rapid gentrification” in the Silicon Valley because that land was developed over the course of 60 years.

    I think what’s happening in SF is the same thing which happened in Europe and in Vancouver, which is that people got fed up with congestion and driving culture. They decided density and walk-ability was more preferable to sitting in a car. It’s *proximity* that enables gentrification, the opposite of what Mr. Ross is saying. Affluent people want to be closer to the things that they value. In the city, that meant gentrification of SOMA and the Mission, but before that the Castro and other neighborhoods. Places like Atherton and Los Altos hills are the flip side of the same coin, in that they are *close* to the job centers in Mountain View and Palo Alto. Because of their lack of density though, they displace a disproportionate amount of real estate and cause sprawl.

  • Macro economic forces at work:
    Expanding supplies of energy facilitate an expanding periphery (low density suburbs), often at the expense of hollowing out the center/core.
    Contracting supplies of energy cause the outlying periphery to contract inwards. The center/core again grows in value and importance.

    As energy supplies expand, everyone gobbles up more in more and more extravagant ways. As energy supplies contract, various demographic groups are squeezed out of consumption, and not in a particularly democratic or fair fashion.
    –First we see millennials (most laden with high student loan debt) not “want” to own cars, and desire a lower energy lifestyle instead. Good for them. It is the most intelligent response possible.
    –Next we will see seniors not “want” to own big houses with yards but choose instead small condos in lower hassle, walkable communities.
    –After that we will see lower income families in drive-until-you-qualify suburbs get tired of their commutes and “choose” instead to live in a 2 bedroom condo near transit.
    –Then we will see outer suburbs fall apart/decay/be scavenged/turned into slums. (This won’t be the fate of suburb on any kind of rail line, however.)

    I do see how corporate buses are a response to poor land use policies, but I don’t see them as a problem. What is a problem is that we continue to subsidize cars, roads, low density housing, and the entire energy-sucking suburban experiment. If car ownership and use had to actually pay its true costs, then poor land use patterns would rectify themselves soon enough.

    Last week I saw two new corporate buses on my street–Linked in and Ebay. I think the corporate bus thing is expanding, mimes and vomiting notwithstanding.

  • Jame

    Sure, but you’d have the worst commute ever, unless you work in Livermore. Maybe Dublin and Pleasanton.

  • Gezellig

    Yeah, and paving over too much of the open land might be at odds with Livermore’s relatively recent rediscovery/reinvention of itself as “Livermore Wine Country.”

  • murphstahoe

    Wrong. Being in the Bay Area means you can switch jobs any time you want. Being in Houston means you are stuck. And that depresses wages, not raises them.

  • Gezellig

    This is especially true if you specialize in a relatively niche skillset. I don’t see jobs listed for what I do in places like Houston because those jobs really don’t exist there. Over the years I’ve maybe seen a couple in Austin, but that’s about it.

    This is also a huge natural constraint on the working (very) remotely thing. Sure, more companies are increasingly ok with letting office veterans relocate themselves to faraway places and work 100% remotely but then what happens if that job ends? You’ve got to have a very clear Plan B, C and D E F.

  • danieleran

    We do not want to “stop gentrification.” That as a goal is profoundly stupid.

    We should do a better job of managing growth and building policy that helps protect people most vulnerable to change. But we shouldn’t naively try to keep SF stuck in 1993 or whatever year today’s GoogleBus dancers think the SF Museum should be frozen into.

    That sort of myopic view will ensure that nothing ever gets built, that investment in times of economic expansion will never benefit SF, and that the very people this sort of nonsense-goal aims to help will continue to bear the brunt of affluent people being able to live where they can afford, while the poor cannot.

    SF is an attractive place, just like Paris, London, NYC and other very expensive cities. The small geographical area of central SF not going to be a little village where poor people charmingly suffer to feed their dozens of children, nor should it be. There are much more affordable places for poor families to live, where there are fewer dangers and more opportunities for children to learn and play safely. That’s the kind of sheltered place I grew up before moving to SF.

    This notion that SF needs to be a series of poor neighborhoods where families struggle to live in policy-enforced “diversity” is just as nutty as the kind of intellectual nonsense propagated by Mao in China, policy that similarly hurt the common people, not the pseudo-intellecutal planners who churned it out.

  • sforick

    Everybody wins with the google bus. The suburbs get to keep their choice of ambiace for the workers that choose that family lifestyle.. The young single workers that prefer an urban life can live in San Francisco. Choice wins. The “new urbanism” preferred by developers isn’t for everyone.

  • That pile of straw used to be horse-shaped.

  • NoeValleyJim

    I was really hoping that Google would end up in the transbay tower.

  • Gezellig

    That’d be awesome. And definitely a game-changer. I also wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up in Mission Bay.

    And while we’re daydreaming, in these scenario they’d also push for/fund cycletracks à la Amazon: http://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2012/09/21/amazon-will-fund-7th-ave-cycle-track/.



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