Given the parallels between our two cities, I’ve been watching San Francisco’s battle with gentrification and private bus systems with interest. Here’s an interesting quote from Rebecca Solnit, a Bay Area activist and writer, discussing the private buses that some Bay Area tech companies use to shuttle employees to the office:
The buses represent, first of all, accommodating people living in San Francisco even though they don’t work anywhere near here. So it’s really about making San Francisco Silicon Valley’s bedroom community.
Second of all, it’s privatizing public transit. In another era, the captains of industry would have said, “OK, our workers live here, our factory is there; let’s encourage, enforce, and subsidize the improvement of public transit.” Caltrain does run down there. We could have beefed up that system and had a tremendously efficient train system, with trains leaving every 15 minutes or so for the peninsula—and it would be so much more environmental, too. Instead we have these luxury coaches picking people up at public bus stops in such a way that they’re displacing the city buses.
I’m not going to dissect the entire piece. You can find a great takedown here. I want to ask a narrower question: was there ever really a golden era in the past where “captains of industry” subsidized public transit? I’m sure you can find a few examples, but you’ll probably find more examples of private industry ripping out public transit, advocating for freeways, or building and profiting on transit (in the case of Seattle’s original streetcars, New York’s subways).
In trying to understand San Francisco’s troubles, It helps to remember just how big the Bay Area is. It’s 45 miles from downtown San Francisco to Cupertino. That’s more like Seattle to Snoqualmie Pass than Seattle to Redmond. In that distance you have many different counties and transit jurisdictions, compounded by the fact that inter-county transit planning in California is notoriously terrible.
On top of that, public and private companies work on completely different time scales. Even if, say, Facebook, found a willing transit agency to partner with on a public transit investment, I would imagine the conversation went something like this:
Facebook: We like to move fast and break things. We’d like to fund some buses between Palo Alto and the Mission District starting next month.
Bay Area Transit Agency: Great! We’ll conduct an environmental impact study and get back to you in 2019.
Facebook: OK, thanks for the chat. We’re going to go ahead and order some private buses now.
Not to say that these kind of public-private partnerships are impossible. Here in Seattle, we have a few good examples, such as the extra buses funded by the First Hill hospitals, Microsoft’s investments around Overlake, and Amazon’s investment in the Streetcar in South Lake Union. And while Microsoft does run its own shuttles, at least they try to run distinct routes from Metro. Did Apple, Google, or Facebook even make an effort to coordinate with an agency before going their own way? I’d love to know. As of Monday, at least, the buses will be charged a nominal fee by the city of San Francisco, though the fees are limited by state law to “covering the costs of overseeing the program.
Honestly, the solutions to the Bay Area’s woes (and I use that term loosely — most cities in America would give their right arm for these “woes”) are straightforward and boring: (1) build denser, more walkable communities everywhere, from The Mission to Palo Alto to Fremont, (2) abandon office parks for more transit-oriented employment centers, and (3) improve mobility by making better use of existing transportation infrastructure and building new infrastructure where warranted.
Easy to say, hard to do, of course. But there are some bright spots to point to. Google is leasing more property in San Francisco. Yahoo’s moving downtown as well. That’l probably drive rents up even higher in the short term, but it’s the right move.