The debate over “Google buses” has involved a lot of whining and moralizing and defensiveness and undirected rage. So, here’s my attempt to use it to address a useful question: How can San Francisco and Silicon Valley communities get more commuters to use public transit, and therefore reduce demand for private shuttles?
Last week, Bay Area NPR affiliate KQED ran a commentary from Arthur Patterson, a Stanford employee who wonders why so many tech employees ride private shuttles from San Francisco to Silicon Valley, instead of taking Caltrain like he does. (Caltrain is the commuter rail line running south from San Francisco, and it’s the only rail transit service that runs from the city to Silicon Valley.)
Patterson finds the train to be an invigorating social experience, and he thinks others are missing out:
Ironically, passengers on the white buses are missing the bus on a rich opportunity to better know their neighbours outside of the campuses where they work. It’s as though these shuttle bus occupants have been given keys to the executive washroom, which may be exclusive, uncrowded and more luxurious, but is cut off from the diverse larger population, in this case, one that makes the Bay Area so vibrant and interesting.
But I think the answer to Patterson’s question is fairly obvious, as NextCity’s Stephen Smith notes: For most Silicon Valley tech workers who live in San Francisco, a Caltrain commute would be a three- or four-seat ride taking nearly two hours, and be much more time-consuming and annoying than either driving or taking a tech shuttle.
It doesn’t have to be that way. There’s at least one business cluster in the U.S. that has a culture of affluent professionals reverse commuting by train: Fairfield County, Connecticut, where many investment bank and hedge fund employees work in Greenwich and Stamford but live in Manhattan and take the Metro-North Railroad between. Reverse commuting on this route has become so common that Metro-North now charges peak fares in both directions during the weekday morning rush.
The difference between Connecticut and Silicon Valley is mostly about differences in planning: Where the rail lines go, how often the trains run, and where homes and offices are located. These differences make it much more appealing to take the train from Manhattan to Connecticut than from San Francisco to Mountain View.
If planning authorities in the Bay Area learned some things from the New York area, they might get more of these commuters off private shuttles (and out of private cars) and onto trains. They could also relieve some of the upward pressure on San Francisco rents and maybe defuse some of the social tensions around private tech buses and gentrification.
Here are three things the Bay Area can learn from Connecticut:
1. Unlike Caltrain, Metro-North is easy to access from where reverse commuters live.
As you can see from Stamen Design’s 2012 map, the private tech firm shuttles (which go where the employees live) mostly serve neighborhoods away from San Francisco Bay, like the Castro, Noe Valley, the Mission, Mission-Dolores, Russian Hill, Pacific Heights and the Marina. Caltrain doesn’t serve these areas; it has just three stops in San Francisco, all along the eastern bay shore, and it stops a mile short of downtown.
If you don’t live near Caltrain, it’s probably not easy to get to Caltrain. Most lines of the Muni metro subway don’t go to the Caltrain depot south of downtown, and those that do take a circuitous route around the bayfront. Mission residents can take the BART subway south to Millbrae and transfer to Caltrain there, but only one in four BART trains actually goes to Millbrae. (I called Patterson and he told me he carpools to Caltrain on most days from his home near Dolores Park; this won’t be a desirable option for most commuters.)
For most of these tech commuters, getting to Caltrain would be a 30-minutes-plus proposition; many would have to transfer on the way. That’s on top of the Caltrain ride itself (about 50 minutes to Mountain View) and getting from a Caltrain station in Silicon Valley to the office.
Compare that to Metro-North; it doesn’t have a lot of stops in Manhattan (just two) but access to Grand Central Terminal is excellent. Much of the east side of Manhattan is less than 15 minutes from Grand Central by transit; I live in Queens and I can be there in 20. A Silicon Valley tech worker looking to move near Caltrain would have limited options in San Francico (SoMa, Mission Bay, Potrero Hill and the Dogpatch, mostly) but a huge percentage of interesting Manhattan neighborhoods are convenient to Metro-North.
San Francisco is actually taking some steps to improve in this regard. The Central Subway project, due for completion in 2019, will somewhat improve access to the Caltrain terminal. If California High Speed Rail is ever built, that should extend Caltrain a mile north to terminate at Market Street and the Embarcadero, further improving connectivity with Muni. And the city has been encouraging residential construction along the bay, increasing the number of housing units close to Caltrain.
2. Unlike Caltrain, Metro-North goes to reverse commuters’ offices.
Google is two miles from the nearest Caltrain station, and Apple and Facebook are both four miles away. These situations are typical, and they mean riders have to switch to shuttle buses to get to their offices.
Compare this to Connecticut. Trip time on Metro-North from Grand Central to Greenwich or Stamford is comparable to Caltrain from San Francisco to Mountain View. But the core office districts in Stamford and Greenwich are compact, with many firms located walking distance from train stations. Where shuttles are required, travel distances are shorter; for example, this shuttle connecting outlying Stamford residences and office buildings with Metro North never actually gets more than a mile from the train station.
Changing this reality will require planning changes in Silicon Valley. You could have skyscrapers along the Caltrain line if local planning authorities would allow them to be built. Instead, office development is subject to suburban-style zoning rules that push offices into car-friendly parks far away from trains (and also make office rents really high.)
Basically, Mountain View could look a lot like Stamford if local governments would allow it to.
Density in Silicon Valley shouldn’t be limited to offices. Allowing more dense residential development would also take tech-shuttle (and rent) pressure off of San Francisco. Affleunt tech workers choose to live in San Francisco in part because of the city’s cultural amenities, but also in part because living in Silicon Valley isn’t exactly cheap either. An increase in housing units would put downward pressure on Silicon Valley housing costs and cause more tech workers at the margin to choose to live there over San Francisco.
3. Metro-North runs more frequently than Caltrain.
In general, off-peak service is hourly on Caltrain and half-hourly on Metro-North. On a typical weekday, there are 61 Metro-North departures from Grand Central to Greenwich. (Stamford gets 104, but that somewhat overstates the service level because many are local trains that terminate at Stamford minutes before an arriving express train.) The most-served Caltrain station, Palo Alto, gets 43 weekday arrivals from San Francisco.
That is, Metro-North does better at making people who work or live within walking distance feel like they have access to something that is a car substitute. But Caltrain is already making strides here; ridership has doubled in the last 10 years, since improvements that sped up trains. And there could be a virtuous cycle of further improvement.
The better the Bay Area does at getting homes and offices near Caltrain, the more fare revenue Caltrain will generate, and therefore the greater service frequency it will be able to support. Greater service frequency will increase the demand for homes and office space near Caltrain. That is, if problems (1) and (2) can be fixed, problem (3) should be easy to address too.
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