– map from Eric Rodenbeck, writing (and mapping) in Wired. Thanks to Louis Suárez-Potts for the link.
For many, San Francisco’s transition from center of finance, trade and manufacturing to a new role as a suburb of the Silicon Valley (the latter comprising the ex-surburbs to its south), seems wrong – a vibrant, heterogeneous city gentrified, converted into a pretty place for techies to perch. It feels wrong to me, too, but at the same time it says something beautiful to me: urban density rules! After a century in which Californians and our imitators have built low-density sprawl, the most attractive living environment in the San Francisco Bay Area is the most densely populated, the old-fashioned City (I use the capitalization of my youth: San Francisco was then The City for anybody in the Bay Area). It is true that San Francisco is beautiful, but it is also cold and foggy, with sunny suburbs to its north, east and south; there are many places in the Bay Area where beautiful cities could have grown up if the fragmented system of local government and the interests of many decision makers hadn’t favored sprawl. Now highly paid engineers and executives who work protected from the sun in air conditioned cubicles, voluntarily spend time in corporate vans so that they can live in the wind and fog. Apologists for sprawl often argue that the suburbs are what people have chosen. This has always been a silly argument, since individuals choose where to live from a limited menu, based on the uncoordinated choices of millions of others – no individual chose suburbia, suburbia happened. But if you wanted a good demonstration case of the desirability – and desire for – life in real cities, the number of people who want to live in San Francisco while working in Mountain View and Los Gatos provides it. If the trip were any shorter the techies would jog instead of van-pooling, and we could say they were voting with their feet; as it is, we must say their seats.
As for what it says about public transportation in America, the glass is only half empty, which is to say half full. Half empty, that’s easy to show: the need for the vans – from so many companies, going down similar routes – shows the pathetic state of the public service. If you know the area, you’ll notice that Rodenbeck’s maps show the corporate shuttles essentially replicating what a half-decent urban rail system would do with the route of the lumbering, infrequent Caltrain (the line between San Francisco and San Jose), with the addition of a few extensions and branches. Public transport in this setting is a no-brainer, and the expensive part of the infrastructure is already in place – it is political will at every level, from Federal to local, that is lacking. (My favorite source for well-informed and entertaining commentary on this is Systemic Failure, a.k.a. The Drunk Engineer.)
And, yet, what the shuttles also demonstrate quite clearly is the demand for alternatives to automobile transportation. The people riding those shuttles mostly own nice cars, and are commuting in an environment dominated by cars. They choose to ride in a van to and from work: they are not made inseparable from their cars by some deep current in American culture, any more than they are inseparable from suburbia. In Britain now, advocates of Dutch-style bicycle infrastructure say that the infrastructure will change the behavior, that it will bring forth the cyclists: build it, and they will come. The same goes for public transit in America.
p.s. I wrote the above before reading past Rodenbeck’s maps to his argument, which is worth reading. He sees the shuttles – and the housing of much of the Silicon Valley workforce in San Francisco – as responses to zoning restrictions in the Silicon Valley, which have made it impossible for companies there to supply a parking space for each employee. It’s a nice argument, and a very nice application of the increasingly influential critique of free parking and of zoning that establishes parking minimums, rather than maximums.