Monday, December 23, 2013

The Google Bus thing...

There's an old saying in real-estate: Drive until you qualify. The idea is you're supposed to start looking for housing close to work, and drive away from the office until you can afford to buy housing. Something has gone horribly, horribly wrong with that concept in San Francisco and Silicon Valley...or perhaps, it isn't so wrong: People are working in the tech companies in the Valley and choosing to live in San Francisco, 30+ miles away.

These well-paid employees are driving rents in San Francisco and even Oakland through the roof, and the companies are employing private shuttle service down the peninsula to the offices to make it more attractive. People are getting kicked out of their homes. A friend of mine shared this article about a bus that was held up by protesters today, and a window was smashed. It has links to other articles about similar incidents, and this is clearly escalating in a fashion that makes the Somerville Kill a Yuppie sentiment seem really minor. As far as I know, nobody has smashed windows on the private Alewife Shuttle that services my office park on 128 in suburban Boston.'ll get no contest from me on the idea that it's not right that the shuttles use the MUNI stops for free. You'll get no arguments that gentrification doesn't almost always have a huge downside or that the companies that do move their offices into downtown San Francisco don't create massive dead zones if they don't play nice with their neighbors. You certainly won't get me complaining about the unwashed masses like this guy did.

However, it is what it is: Silicon Valley is the center of the tech industry, which is exceptionally big business right now. It follows that that puts a lot of pressure on housing costs. It follows from there that people will be priced out of places they'd like to live, and perhaps even have been living. The bigger question is what should be done?

It seems to me that too much of the focus has been on how to get rid of These People and keep them and their private yuppie buses out of the city instead of trying to figure out how to get it to work. At the end of the day, the 'techies' (the term I keep seeing in the media for those of us Who Are Those People) are citizens that are just trying to do their jobs, live their lives, and do both in the best way possible. I don't get why the employees, instead of the employers and the involved municipalities (or the landlords), are taking any of the blame. I never thought I'd see the day where a very liberal population is waging war on mass transit, but that's what's happening here. For decades, we've lamented the death of our inner cities, and now that money is pouring into (some of) them, we don't like that.

Sure, I don't live in San Francisco. I live on the opposite coast, but really...even if they are the self-centered autistic robots the detractors are saying they are, it shouldn't really matter: cities are dynamic places that should be able to adjust to and accommodate all types of people, as long as the city itelf can adjust and grow.

San Francisco was famously overrun by the counterculture in the 1960s, pushing out a lot of people. New development happened elsewhere; life went on. The story of changing demographics in cities and the winners and losers is as old as cities. The problem always seems to be the worst when there is nowhere for people to grow to, which can only happen--aside from lags as it takes a lot more time to build than for economies to change--when natural growth is repressed.

If the influx of these nerdy rich white and Asian men who aren't really that into granola OR family life is a problem, it seems to me that the only solution here is to begin allowing denser development in the region and investing more in transit so that the city can grow and adjust. Even if there was more land to build sprawl on, these new residents don't want it. San Francisco itself is physically tiny and already very dense. It's smaller and denser than Boston! You're not going to cool housing demand without increasing housing supply. Why isn't that the conversation? Perhaps if the Valley was more like San Francisco, more people would want to live there instead of the doing the 30 mile hump down the peninsula every day to work. However, then the entrenched interests in the cul-du-sacs of the Valley would be upset instead.

Huge side-track about why I think tech workers and the suburbs are not great partners after the jump.

I had written this as well, and it ended up not fitting what I wrote above, but it's so long I didn't want to just throw it away...

It's quite well known at this point that our younger generations (of which I am [thankfully] still a member) are more interested in urban living than those that immediately preceded us. At the same time, many companies are interested in affordable real-estate, private campuses, and free parking. Therefore, the jobs remain in the suburbs. There are only a few solutions to this problem: Make the suburbs more attractive to the workers, make the city more attractive to the companies, or get the workers to their jobs as easily as possible.

Aside from all of the talk about people wanting more interesting surroundings or whatever reasons are given for the push back to cities, I think there is another old saying that I think factors into this heavily: Time is money. The Gen X and Y'ers, and especially those who are well-paid (and according to the media, not only are all tech people selfish and boring, we're filthy rich), have put an interesting spin on this that I think explains at least part of why the suburbs are just not an attractive option: They are horribly, horribly time-inefficient. That's at least part of what people actually mean when they say suburbs are "boring". To live in the suburbs is to spend a lot of time doing chores like driving, or cooking, or mowing the lawn, instead of doing your job or--better yet--something that you might actually do just for fun. City life cuts down on a lot of supposed wasted time, and furthermore, as Richard Florida and all of his talk about the creative-economy gets at, the chance encounters we have with others when we encounter more people in our daily lives, further drives innovation.

Sure, the eternal college dorming way of life is often (and somewhat fairly) looked at as childish. There are a lot of genuine concerns about how long people are delaying marriage and children. There are a lot of fair complaints about health and expenses regarding the constant going out to eat and drink that city people do. At the same time, when your job is to be a professional thinker, time spent doing that is valuable to you and your employer. Time spent not doing that is lost revenue.

You don't even need to be at your desk. Some of my best ideas come out when I'm walking, or talking to friends over a drink. My worst days are when I'm at my desk and I can't think because I'm stressed over some personal side-issue. Even worse than worst is sitting in traffic, behind the wheel.

To this end, tech companies are going way out of their way buying all kinds of game rooms and lounge furniture and beer carts and stand-up desks with no cube walls to keep people collaborating, even when that's not what they're setting out to do. Doesn't hurt that it keeps them near their desks, where they turn the ideas into whatever reality a computer actually is for. Great work spaces also don't hurt in the arms race to provide the best environment to attract the best talent in a field where it is famously said that a good programmer is 10X better than an OK one. Of course, the work/life balance issues we have in the always-on world of tech have plenty of problems but that's beside the point here.

Until tech companies move more offices into cities, and can do so without this sort of thing happening, a shuttle bus that turns that horrible time sink known as the commute into an opportunity to get something useful done seems like a great idea to me and a win-win for employee and employer.


  1. I think maybe it's worth rethinking the neo-classical economic dogma here. "Natural growth" of cities is an oxymoron, and in more ways than one. We have records of city planning going back as far as history. Hell, even the Indus River Valley civilization built on a grid. So there's nothing un-natural about planning and there's nothing natural about allowing willy-nilly building. If these things aren't decided democratically, they're decided autocratically. Mr. Market doesn't get to dictate everything.

    Besides, I'm willing to bet you could tear down half the city and add half-a-million more housing units in San Francisco tomorrow and prices wouldn't go down. The bulk of this is speculative gambling, not demand. The idea that markets are rational and based on supply and demand rather than speculation is somehow persistent even after the 2000 tech bubble and the 2008 housing bubble. Now here, at the expanding 2014 tech bubble numero dos, the solution is rapid development?

    I don't know. They're already building 5,000 new units anyways. And developments last a lot longer than bubbles. And what happens on the day the 401(k) zombies wake up and realize that there will never be enough facebook and twitter ads to make them profitable and worth the market capitalization?

    I mean, housing prices in the city went up 26% year-over-year in 2013. That's not demand. It can't be. That's reckless speculation. San Jose's the same way from what I read. USA Today had an article about house flipping in in the region last month or so. If I'm remembering right, the average profit from flipping last year was over $150,000.

    Part 2 -->

  2. <--Part 1

    And I don't think it's all about wanting an urban experience or commuting time. Speaking of which, there are lots of units for under $200k in Oakland and parts of East San Jose sitting up on Trulia that look just fine, and relatively new to a New Englander's eyes. It's just as quick of a drive, really. But they're not in Wholefoods-friendly neighborhoods.

    So both sides are guilty of this. If people who live there feel pushed out with nowhere to go, they're just saying there's nowhere lily-white to go. At the same rate, if demand in the area's so high, why's it just in the lily-white neighborhoods? I think the answer to that question is just another arrow pointing to speculation. This ain't like the Bakken Fields where there are legions of young men sleeping in an F-150 hoping for some sort of housing to be built. There's housing here. Even cheap housing. But people would rather bid up pricing to over $1,000,000 at the median in a couple specific spots and leave other ones right next door alone. This happens in every city, sure, but not on the scale of the Bay Area right now. The Bay Area's backwards. Just like Manhattan's becoming backwards. There, islands of cheap homes exist in a sea of expensive ones.

    So the way I see it, why shouldn't people who've lived in San Francisco a while get a say in whether they get priced out of renting in town or not? Why shouldn't they get a say in how much speculative building and development goes down in their city? I know you don't think that they shouldn't, Corey, but phrases like "natural growth" lead the more extremist among us to think that way. And I guess this was all a long rant based on a pet peeve of mine. So sorry about that.

    Just watch them. Some of the tech campuses are campus-esque, quite like you say. But lots of them also have been snapping up commercial space in cities. They just don't do it where the middle class are. Goggle's got a San Francisco location near the waterfront. Just like it has a Cambridge location and a lower Manhattan location. It also has a "Detroit" location that is plastic as hell and not actually in Detroit. Just don't hold your breath for tech to bother with anywhere - city or otherwise - with a median income less than $75k. They won't ever do it. And that might be the real problem here.

    1. Sure, urban planning is as old as cities and necessary, but it is often used not to manage growth but to categorically prevent it. I was pointed to this article from 1999 this morning

      I would 100% be with you on the speculation if it wasn't a very old and persistent problem that San Francisco has been one of the most expensive places to live in the US for a very long time, and never seems as interested in helping that as they should be. People should get a say on if they are priced out of their homes or not, but that needs to be balanced with an interest in absorbing larger growth. The NIMBYism involved involves real people's lives and real taxpayers, but this concept that once built, a neighborhood is crystallized as it was originally a really, really bad idea.

      I'm going to leave the accusations on the floor that people are pushing for the same neighborhoods over and over while others are ignored. There might be more to that - transit routes, etc. I'd have to take a deeper look.

    2. Yeah, it just seems to me that a lot of the current tension that builds up to the Google Bus fiasco comes from tech companies actually moving into San Francisco. Everything I've read was about people being angry they're getting evicted as companies move directly into the city. Landlords find excuses to evict to make more money off different tenants. Sometimes they even go residential to commercial.

      Meanwhile, Twitter gets a tax break to move in. So do lots of other companies. And google uses city bus stops for its private transit fleet. I think the gripe is that you give them a tax break to move in, they move in, and they don't hire anyone local. That's probably a nature-of-the-job thing. Regardless, they drive up rents like crazy, they use city services without paying, and long time residents get angry.

      When you step back and realize that the city is twisting arms for payments in lieu of taxes from non-profits, and then turning around and handing tax breaks to giant for-profits, you begin to realize that something's odd. It's happening all over the country. Providence is broke and it needs to twist arms and sell street parking to get money from schools and hospitals. But the state has $75 million to hand to a video game company. And if the city residents in any city don't feel they're benefitting from these types of transactions, then I'm not sure they should be forced to swallow them.

      A neighborhood doesn't have to be crystallized as it's originally developed. But existing residents don't have to just give up and move to the midwest because they can't make six or seven figures in their professions either. And schools and hospitals don't have to be arm-twisted for revenue because for-profits "need" tax breaks. I actually think it's a good fight and a good discussion to have. As companies and the people who follow them around as a labor force continue to sort geographically by class, this will continue to pop up as an issue.

      I played a concert in Somerville a couple of months ago. The guy working the door looked a caricature of a Boston-thug extra - scally cap and celtics jersey with gold chains. I was outside talking to him for a little bit when a big group of college kids walked by asking for directions. He just spit on the ground. Then he told me that he lives with his mother, and they lost the place they rented because the rent was upped due to college yuppies. Now he and his mother "was up the blue line in Malden."

      So it goes. But he wasn't too happy about it. And the college kids weren't too happy about him. And why either of them be?

  3. Corey, This post made me think of 1820s Lowell with the boarding houses lined up in sight of the textile mills. The commuting thing seems very old-school for future-school players. I have to believe the smart sector can figure out its employee housing needs long term. Underground villages and more high-rises where the real estate is too valuable for bedrooms in Silicon Valley. At the end of the day, even a 12 to 14 hour day in nerd nirvana-ville, people need to get off the shop floor. Another comment-maker here mentioned the decentralized work centers, which is one antidote to commuting. With all the money in the Apples and Googles, would it kill them financially to subsidize a progressive, green, free, open-source public transit system in their sphere's of influence, at least until the housing puzzle is solved?

    1. Paul - It wouldn't be in Google or Apple's best interest to provide public transit that I can see.

      Not only would this be against their core mission as a public company of increasing shareholder value, but allowing anybody on the buses would be a potential security risk. We don't ask the UML shuttle or the NPS trolley to step in where the LRTA is (frequently woefully) short...I don't think it's fair to ask it of Silicon Valley companies.

      As to high-rises near the work centers...that's my point. In Google's hometown at least, they're quite illegal:

    2. Decentralized work centers can be good, but there is a push to get as many people in physically the same place as possible again at least most of the week.

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    What are your thoughts on trying this in Lowell?