Durable Growth

How to interpret the Google bus protests


From a Google shuttle protest. Image by Steven Rhodes, on Flickr.

Private shuttle buses have recently become a Bay Area controversy.  The buses are usually described as Google buses, although that term is inaccurate because more than 30 companies operate shuttles between urban residential neighborhoods in San Francisco and Oakland and offices in the Silicon Valley.

Although the Google bus protests raise legitimate questions about the private use of public curb space and bus stops, many observers correctly describe the bus protests as the visible sign of a deeper concern about young and affluent professionals displacing older residents of more limited means

Several correspondents have suggested to me that the Google bus issue is a sign that urbanism is a flawed strategy.  In response, I can only suggest a remedial course in economics.

When the price of a resource, such as urban housing, is rising rapidly, the most reasonable marketplace conclusion is that demand is growing and supply is insufficient to match demand.  A key tenet of urbanism is increasing urban housing.  So, if one agrees our cities should moderate the prices of urban housing and allow for long-time residents to remain in their neighborhoods, urbanism is an appropriate path.  Indeed, it’s probably the only path.

So, the underlying cause of the turmoil in San Francisco and Oakland isn’t urbanism, it’s that the naysayers who for too long prevented good urbanist policies.

A great many people, among whom I humbly put myself somewhere in the back rows, have pointed for years to the looming trend of young adults moving back into cities.  We warned that institutional biases against urban housing must be reduced if a housing crunch was to be averted.  Those warnings were largely ignored.  Indeed, based on the comments from my correspondents, the warnings continue to be ignored and the underlying market reality misunderstood.

Given their strong heritage of urban residential life, it might be easy to assume that San Francisco and Oakland are good at urban housing approvals.  They’re not.  San Francisco Supervisor Scott Weiner, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, suggests that the housing crunch in the City is largely self-created.

Using an anecdotal story about a San Francisco project that was whittled down during extended review, Weiner notes that the City entitlement rules allow the process to drag on for years.  Many of the resulting compromises reduce unit counts, units that would lessened the marketplace price pressures.  He also notes that the environmental lawsuits under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) can often be used to further delay projects.

(For newer readers, I laud the environmental improvements that have occurred under CEQA.  But many of the balances that it implicitly makes and the opportunities it provides for judicial review are contrary to the environmental trade-offs required in urban settings.  CEQA was written for a drivable suburban world and its roots still show.)

To recap, getting to the Google bus protests took the following steps:

  • Following the prerogative of youth to mark a new path, young adults of this generation are increasingly interested in living in urban settings.  (My generation had rock-n-roll.  This generation has urban life.  Both are good.)
  • Observers saw the trend getting underway and warned that our cities needed to facilitate more urban housing.
  • In many places, those warnings were ignored and the urban housing supply didn’t grow quickly enough.
  • The young came downtown anyway, using the paychecks from the tech world to displace older residents.
  • Employers, in an environmentally laudable move, began providing buses to carry workers to tech business offices.
  • The displaced residents, seizing on the buses as a symbol of the change, began public protests over the buses.

It’s a very clean, simple story, with effect logically following cause.  And the only truly lamentable element was the disregard given to warning of the demographic sea change.  We should have done better.  And we need to do better starting now.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

2 comments to How to interpret the Google bus protests

  • gneiss

    Very nice summary. The other part of this story is how the peninsula cities have for the last 20 years as this trend has intensified utterly failed to create the kinds of communities that many of the young people who work for the large technology firms would like to live in.

    If the community planners in San Jose, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, and Santa Clara, had bucked the conventional wisdom and convinced their voters that they needed to create dense walkable centers with a typical urban street grid rather than the fully suburban plan that was adopted, they would now be reaping the rewards of housing all these professionals that earn good salaries who now live in SF.

    Instead, they simply took the easy path and followed the older locals who didn’t want to change the suburban ‘character’ of these communities. Now, they are suffering from a diminished tax base, heavy trafficked suburban arterials and loss of their young people, because the new generation doesn’t want to live in these kinds of communities anymore.

  • Gneiss, I agree completely. I live in the North Bay and the cities up here have been slow to recognize the opportunity to create walkable urbanist settings where young adults would like to live, bringing their paychecks with them. There are sprinklings of urbanism throughout the Bay Area, but walkable suburbia remains the default mode in most places.