Why have the Google Buses invaded San Francisco?

Nothing is ever as simple as it looks.

There is no easy answer to this question, but protests in front of buses are certainly not going to solve the problem because it’s a problem that goes beyond the boundaries of the City of San Francisco. While protests may have encouraged the City to work faster towards implementing (very minimal) fees, something that has been in the works since at least last year, I question why no restrictions on vehicle size for areas where double-decker coaches don’t safely fit have not been implemented. State regulations prohibit charging large fees on the shuttle operators, so anything higher than a regulatory program that recoups its own costs is probably out of the question without a citywide vote or additional study. The buses are not really THE problem, however- they are a symptom of much larger local and state government dysfunction, which is where peoples’ anger should really be directed.

Google, for one, would love to build housing near its campus in Mountain View. They have tried to get it permitted and it has been rejected, while at the same time the city has approved additional office space. In fact, the city of Mountain View expressly forbade housing in its citywide general plan for the area around the Bayshore Campus. This would have put large numbers of Google employees walking distance from work, while also providing a walkable neighborhood near a light rail station. Google has also started investing in affordable housing, including one project in Mountain View, but unfortunately it’s only 51 units. The truth is that suburban communities don’t want to build more housing, and Prop 13 gives existing owners little reason to care about increasing housing prices. In fact, it’s in homeowners best interest to keep housing prices high.

Additionally, many communities set limits for vehicular traffic that employers need to comply with as part of transportation management plans. Aside from being a recruiting tool, company shuttles are the primary way of complying with these regulations. Why not subsidize existing transit? For most people public transit to the peninsula is incredibly time-consuming, and it also lacks the capacity to take that many additional riders. Caltrain will be upgrading in the coming years with high speed rail funds, but that is still a ways off. Most trains are already at capacity (standing room only) at rush hour. There is simply not room for thousands more people right now, and most of the tech campuses are not close enough to Caltrain for people to walk without providing buses for the final leg anyway. Not to mention the time it takes to get to Caltrain within San Francisco on Muni, which is also straining under current ridership levels.

If employees want to live here, why did all the big tech companies not lease offices in San Francisco in the first place? Aside from the fact that a lot of their employees still live on the peninsula or in the South Bay, there is not enough office space in San Francisco to accommodate them. San Francisco currently has the lowest office vacancy rate in the United States and it doesn’t have room for 15,000 Google employees to relocate north. Office space construction was severely limited in the 1980s over concerns of Manhattanization, and this has only recently changed as development has been permitted south of Market Street downtown.

I’m not sure we’d be that much better off from a housing perspective if Facebook, Google and Apple were all located in downtown San Francisco, though it would remove the need for shuttle buses (Google’s downtown San Francisco office on the Embarcadero is already very popular with Google employees, most of whom bike or take transit to work). As we have seen, there has been a huge amount of anger levied at in-town tech companies setting up in the Mid-Market area (although a lot of that anger has been directed at an arguably unnecessary tax break that will cost the city millions). There is no easy solution to these problems, but a total lack of coordination between municipalities with different priorities is the crux of the problem. Maybe the protests should move to suburban communities that don’t want to allow rental housing construction?

an earlier version of this piece was originally posted 12/20/2013 on marksaurus.com

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