Friday, April 12, 2013

Stagnation in Capitol of Innovation: Transit and Urbanism in the Silicon Valley

Pictured above is a map of private transit systems operated by Silicon Valley technology companies, which was created by the graphic design firm Stamen. These private transit systems shuttle tech workers from San Francisco down to the suburban campuses in Mountain View, Cupertino, Redwood City, and other cities in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

As a map geek, I love this map. But as a Silicon Valley urbanist it really troubles me. There are two undeniable problems that this map brings to light:

1. Why are Caltrain and other transit systems not meeting this very important transit need? The tech industry is the heart of the regional economy, and an important part of the national and global economies. Getting workers to these companies should be of utmost importance, and yet there is clearly a critical need that is not fulfilled by public transit. Frequencies on Caltrain are not great, and the regional transit network is a bit sparse, but the blame cannot solely be placed on the transit providers, who are doing the best that they can with slim resources. Part of the blame lies with the technology companies, who have failed to locate within walking distance of the Caltrain spine. Rather, they have located in sprawling campuses far from established transit lines. (Transit expert Jarrett Walker dives deeper into this subject at Human Transit).

2. Why do all of these workers insist on living in San Francisco? San Francisco is fantastic, but why do so many of these well-paid workers choose not to live closer to work, even when they can afford to do so? The weather in Silicon Valley is much better, and commuting (even on a shuttle with WiFi) is taxing. The reason: their needs and desires can't be met anywhere else. The old-fashioned American Dream of living in a ranch house on a cul-de-sac, driving everywhere, and shopping at the Wal-Mart is not their American dream. These workers insist on an amenity-rich, walkable, interesting, urban lifestyle, but they can only get it in San Francisco. Many Silicon Valley cities, built-out in suburban patterns and reluctant to stir up voter discontent by allowing change, have not allowed the creation of walkable and lively urban neighborhoods which can serve as a close-to-work alternative. 

Despite the technological wonders that are born here, our development patterns aren't much different than those on the outskirts of any Rustbelt city. Surely the most innovative region in the world can do better than this. The know-how for creating great walkable urbanism and great transit is out there, ready to be deployed anywhere that it is desired. 

The big campus makeovers at Apple, Google, and Facebook are interesting, but not true innovations; they are missed opportunities which will perpetuate our housing and transportation woes. Here are a few things that must be done for a world-class region to have a truly world-class built environment and transportation system:

1. Invest in Caltrain. Caltrain links downtown San Francisco with downtown San Jose, and runs through numerous downtowns along the way down the San Francisco Peninsula. These Peninsula downtowns, which grew up in the 19th century around their train stations, have walkable street grids and many have been spiffed up and have housing, jobs, and amenities. It could not be more perfectly situated, however, it has constantly struggled with funding. Unlike its cousin BART, Caltrain does not have a dedicated source of funding. Its funding comes from voluntary contributions from the cities along the route, and funding crises are common. The cities along the route and the corporate citizens of the Silicon Valley must find a way to invest in Caltrain that will create a sufficient and sustainable source of funding which can provide frequent service all day and all week. 

2. Intensify Housing in Peninsula Downtowns. The bulk of the Peninsula is suburban in nature. However, the great downtowns along the Caltrain line are urban in nature and they have a lot of capacity for new development. Cities should drive their growth into their downtowns and El Camino Real, a boulevard which which also links most of these downtowns together. While they'll never be as edgy and urbane as San Francisco, Peninsula downtowns, if packed with enough techie hipsters, could offer a great urban lifestyle, and better weather to boot. We need to get as many of those Silicon Valley employees living in Peninsula downtowns as is possible. This will satisfy the demands of the market and, if done tactfully, will avoid voter resentment. In fact, such an approach can be quite popular because there is a great desire in most communities for downtown revitalization, which would be aided tremendously by an influx of new downtown residents. 

3. Put New Activity Generators into Peninsula Downtowns. New concentrations of shopping,  entertainment, and employment must also be focused on Caltrain. For transit to work, things must be on the way. Granted, there are a lot of important campuses that are located far from Caltrain, and they will be in their present locations for a long, long time. That is okay, but when you find yourself in a hole the first thing that you should do is stop digging. Tech companies need to get away from the idea of being headquartered in 1960s campuses and return to the classic urban headquarters buildings of the 1920s and 1930s. In most places buildings up to six stories in height would be perfect, and in a few key downtowns taller buildings could work well if done properly.

4. Agressively and Earnestly Preserve Single-Family Residenitial Areas. The flip side of driving housing and employment into Peninsula downtowns is the preservation of healthy single-family neighborhoods. Peninsula downtowns and their El Camino Real connector have more than enough space to accommodate future growth, and there is no need for dense housing or employment to encroach into these areas. Also, most of the single-family neighborhoods are located farther from Caltrain and other amenities, and would thus be too dependent on car travel, which is the last thing that the area needs and the last thing that the tech workers that we're trying to lure away from San Francisco would be interested in. Finally, violating the sanctity of the single-family neighborhoods would spark the rage of voters, and would lock the region into its outdated development patterns for another generation. Change is possible, but it must be approached cunningly and sensitively. Voters must be assured that their neighborhoods will not be affected, and planning departments must faithfully hold the line.

Pictured below are just a few of the great Peninsula downtowns that offer fantastic opportunities for close-to-work urban living.

Downtown Redwood City

Downtown Mountain View
(Photo by Bruce Liedstrand)

Downtown Palo Alto

Downtown San Mateo

Downtown Burlingame
(Photo from

Allowing and encouraging tech workers to live closer to work in walkable urbanism that is served by great public transit would be better for productivity, better for the environment, and represents true innovation. Surely a region as wealthy and creative as the Silicon Valley can make it happen.

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