Sprawl

The Silicon Valley Shuttles, Revealed

"The elite's mass transit" versus "underfunded Caltrain." Is this really a class divide, with all the perils that class-based thinking implies? These buses have to drive to San Francisco because the geeks on board aren't willing to buy a big house in the suburbs of Silicon Valley. They want to live in a city, where they step over homeless people and deal with crowds but also have access to all that a city offers. So they're an unusual elite.

If you love inner-city living so much that you're willing to commute almost two hours a day, then I expect you're someone who's happy with the basic proposition of city life. That means that you're used to being in close proximity to strangers, so I'd guess you'd be a willing passenger on a public transit system if that transit system were useful.

So the real story here is not the upscale demands of "elites" but the story of "underfunded Caltrain" and and more generally the way that infrequent, slow and poorly connected transit systems are forcing these big employers to run so much expensive service of their own. [...]

But why should people have to commute such distances at all? In this case, it happened because a whole mass of companies decided that they all had to have vast corporate campuses that are too big to be in walking distance to anything. The critical mass of Silicon Valley congealed in the high-car age, as early icons like Hewlett and Packard outgrew their garage. Stanford University has always sat in Silicon Valley's midst like a queen bee, happy to seem the indispensable center of the burbling mass of innovation. Since then every new breakthrough firm, from Google to Facebook, has felt they had to be there.

But now, that critical mass is in the wrong place for the needs of the next generation. A few of the area's suburbs are trying to build downtowns that will give a bit of the urban vibe that younger geeks seem to value, but many of these suburbs are dominated by people who want nothing to change. So it comes down to how the next generation of internet employers choose think about how to attract top employees. Twitter made a courageous choice, moving its headquarters right into San Francisco, but Apple is digging itself deeper, building an even larger and more car-dependent fortress in its corner of the Valley.

Finally, this joke is on the lords of Silicon Valley itself. The industry that liberated millions from the tyranny of distance remains mired in its own desperately car-dependent world of corporate campuses, where being too-far-to-walk from a Caltrain station -- and from anything else of interest -- is almost a point of pride. But meanwhile, top employees are rejecting the lifestyle that that location implies.

Geeks whose brilliance lightens the weight of our lives have bodies that must be hauled 70 or more miles every day, at a colossal waste of energy and time. Is this really the future?

Previously, previously.

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24 Responses:

  1. Pity that SF (and for that matter Oakland and Berkeley) can more than hold their own in the "dominated by people who want nothing to change" stakes.

    • jwz says:

      It's not an uncommon affliction.

    • Blame the SF city government who through idiotic policies encourage the people who want nothing to change.

      • Honestly, I think you've got it the wrong way around. The people who want nothing to change are well-organized, understand the political process, and have a lot of money and connections. Hence, the city government caters to their interests.

        There was a picture posted on this very blog just a few months back of a meeting of the neighborhood association that was suing to keep a concert venue from holding concerts in Nob Hill. Smirking self-satisfied 60-year-old white folks in Prada as far as the eye can see. Do not expect improvements.

  2. gryazi says:

    Skimmed the first dozen comments on the OP; nobody observes that segregating a single company's employees on a private bus is a way to gain additional collaborative time (aka 'work') without additional compensation?

    This has to be hugely cost-effective for the employers as well as convenient for the employees. Just getting the context-switch out of the way by extending the work bubble back into the commute has got to improve throughput when actually on-campus.

    • jwz says:

      The people that I know who commute by these busses spend the time buried in their laptops, but you could also do that on Caltrain. For a company large enough to run a fleet of busses, the odds that someone who is actually in your work-group also coincidentally takes the same bus at the same time is pretty small, so the idea that productive face-to-face meetings happen on the bus strikes me as a fantasy.

      Your suspicion on this front is well-targetted when aimed at on-campus cafeterias and bottomless snacks, though. That's exactly what those are for.

      • You surmise correctly. I've never seen a work-related conversation happening on the shuttle, and I've taken shuttles for two different companies.

        Occasionally there is random socialization, but most people want it to be private time with their laptop or a book.

  3. Kevin Lyda says:

    "They want to live in a city, where they step over homeless people and deal with crowds but also have access to all that a city offers. So they're an unusual elite."

    What the fuck was that in there for? The first thought of living in a city is "stepping over homeless people?" The growing poverty in suburbia (and which has existed for decades in rural areas) is going to be a really rude awakening for closeted little suburbanites like the author of this piece.

  4. I also find it baffling that people line up for 10 minutes to catch a Google bus, when they live 3 miles away from Google.

    Seems much worse than a nice bike ride (over mostly-flat territory) to me.

    • Julien G says:

      When I stay in California it's usually to work at the Mountain View Googleplex for a while, and the place I prefer to stay at isn't even three miles away.

      There's one major reason I don't bike it (ok two, it takes at least two weeks to get used to the whole "wrong side of the road" thing) and that's that there's no sensible way to get from El Camino up into the campus if you want to avoid the major car routes.

      Luckily the Sydney office is inner-city and I can live 20 minutes walk away and be close to all the good (and most of the bad) the city has to offer. That's close enough that while I could bike it the time to get out and put away a bike in the lock-ups makes it not worth it.

  5. Jason Scott says:

    I love this article because it's classic, CLASSIC San Francisco. In just a few short paragraphs, the author punches:

    The commuting techies for being anti-social, against public transit, deluded, want city life but no city issues
    The companies, for being old-school in terms of living patterns and urban-averse and paying for redundant transport
    The Caltrain, for being not up to snuff, ostensibly being no good for transport before they have a chance to die when people realize the author's dream of everything being in SF
    The city, for not catering to all these convergent needs and filling the city with company home bases
    Telecommuting, for not taking over more comprehensively sooner
    The Suburbs, for Being The Suburbs
    The laws of physics, for making the action of transport cost so much energy, especially non-renewables ostensibly

    AWESOME.

    For what it's worth, one very specific advantage of using your Google bus is that Google buses have wireless, allowing you to do secure, dependable work all the way to the Google Campus. I'm sure jwz totally approves of this "sponge every last moment of your life for the company" approach.

    Also, I'm trying to imagine the Apple building being built ANYWHERE in San Francisco city limits and being finished in the next millenia.

    • Forget Apple's insane UFO HQ. Where in SF proper could you build any HQ for a >10,000 person company without spending the next 20 years locked into lawsuits, community board meetings, environmental review appeals and other nonsense before you broke a single foot of ground? It took Twitter the better part of 3 years to negotiate the mid-market deal, and they are a substantially smaller company than Google or Apple, nevermind the serious headcount behemoths like Oracle, HP et al.

      The only possible part of the city where you could even consider doing this would be the bayview, and I expect it would take about half a day before the Save Our Historic Abandoned Warehouses Committee filed its first lawsuit.

      • Ben says:

        Underground. Maybe. If you did it as secret as possible.

        More than the internet companies, I find it fascinating that there are a few small aerospace companies in SF itself.

    • Lun Esex says:

      Reading more of this guy's blog you can see more that he's indicting a lack of comprehensive regional transit planning in the Bay Area as systems have to cross (or don't) the fiefdoms of different counties. He's a big advocate of interconnected systems with easy transfers (he prefers the term "connections") rather than multiple routes over similar paths that mainly diverge at the ends.

      I'd summarize the article from his point of view more as "Look at how lack of cooperation and coordination between county transit agencies in the Bay Area has led to a weak public system (Caltrain) and big corporations running their own expensive private bus lines in its place; Is this the future we're going to see more of elsewhere?" The biggest shots I see him taking at companies are for not doing more to site their big campuses in more transit- and walking-friendly locations in general (not necessarily in San Francisco).

      I'm sure you can still call him out for being significantly anti-car culture, if you want (though he prefers busses to light rail, so it's not like he's anti-roads...). I guess that's still "classic San Francisco." :)

  6. solarbird says:

    Up here in Seattle, Amazon made the go-in-city decision too. The old Cascade/South Lake Union light-industrial neighbourhood is now mostly Amazonia and it's been kind of a stunning (and fast, omg) transition for longtimers, like, um, me. But I have to say, it's pretty awesome. South Lake Union had been a good working neighbourhood once, but was a semi-abandoned dump by the late 90s. Now there's things and stuff and a new streetcar and city transit through it and and and. I really like it. Hell, you can even get gigs there now, because it's not all Amazon, there's general-commercial mixed in.

    Meanwhile, out on the Eastside, Microsoft is running its own private transit system, is pretty much trying to turn into its own city but without anything else in it, and absolutely is getting work time out of those busses. At least there's housing nearby.

  7. Mark Logan says:

    Wow, this particular formulation of stupid really burns.

    The author may be shocked to learn that substantially less than 100% of the employees of any of the mentioned companies live in SF, so even if the idea of moving a 10,000+ person campus into SF were remotely possible, it wouldn't help with the supposed problem, since the suburbanites would just have to commute north.

    If the author really wanted to score maximum hand-wringing points, they could have looked at the correlation between recently skyrocketing rent and corporate shuttle services, and written an article blaming the shuttles for gentrification.

  8. This isn't a condemnation of SF, but more the car-centric suburbs, which limit their urban density, but not their workforce, so rents are sky-high and many workers are forced to commute long distances; walking or biking to work is rarely an option, and nightlife/culture is sparse at best. Silicon Valley could hypothetically instead allow and plan for the kind of urban density (with pubtrans, dense streets, tall buildings and mixed-use neighborhoods) that one now must go to SF for. It would be sad to lose the tree-lined beauty of a place like Palo Alto, but not the hideous sprawl of, say, all those Cupertino / San Mateo "office parks" and strip malls.

  9. Unholyguy says:

    I'm sure the special per-employee tax that SF levels has nothing to do with no company wanting to be there. Twitter got a special dispensation to that one...

    • Andy says:

      The SF payroll tax is 1.5%. So about $2000 per year per engineer, round numbers. We spend more than that in keyboards and monitors. Twitter's 6 year exemption is contingent on them moving to the Central Market area, which sorely needs the help, and the tax break is a cheap way for the city to get what it wants.

  10. gcb says:

    taking the train means you can't stop some place on the way back or go to someplace else from work that does not have subway.