should inaccessible employers subsidize transit?

800px-BishopRanchBldg3 Lisa Margonelli has a nice short piece in the Atlantic today on the sustainable transport achievements of Bishop Ranch, an enormous business park in suburban San Ramon east of San Francisco. 

The park was developed from farmland by Masud Mehran's Sunset Development Corporation in 1978 on the belief that San Francisco real estate would soon become expensive and companies would need cheaper space for their administrative services. His grandson, Alexander Mehran, describes the transit program as "a necessity that developed into a whole different animal." When the park started, it was simply too far from anywhere. "We were getting crushed by people going to work in Walnut Creek and Dublin," where the BART stations are. As a result, the ranch bought a fleet of buses and worked with the city and county transit agencies to subsidize both bus routes and bus passes for workers. There are now 13 different bus routes running to the park, and the connections to BART and various local train and express bus services are coordinated. On its website, the Ranch now pitches its transit program as a competitive advantage.

The most important word in that paragraph, of course, is subsidize.  Suburban business parks are expensive, per customer, for transit to serve, so a suburban employer can't expect attractive or useful service simply by demanding it.

The second most important word is cheaper, which in the suburban context is sometimes an illusion.  Bishop Ranch exists because it was perceived as a cheaper location for business.  It is, but partly because land value follows access.  The cheapest site will usually be the one with the worst transportation problems, and if a business chooses the site solely on those grounds, they're transferring the hidden cost of transportation onto their employees, their customers, and the transit agency.  Employees can quit, customers can go elsewhere, and increasingly, transit agencies, too, are pushing back against serving these cheap-because-inaccessible sites, by suggesting that employers take responsibility for some of the cost burden created by their choice of location. 

Finally, it's worth noting that Bishop Ranch is a fairly intense business park, with many multi-story buildings.  Effectively it was a single-use new town of considerable density, so while the location was difficult for transit, transit agencies still had a ridership motive in serving it.  If it were being built today, I hope Bishop Ranch would be mixed-use, with some residences mixed in, and also located with greater care in relation to existing and potential transit corridors, on the "Be on the Way" principle.  Still, for being what it is, Bishop Ranch deserves a lot of credit for taking responsiblity for the transit consequences of its site, and investing in services to help overcome those barriers.

20 Responses to should inaccessible employers subsidize transit?

  1. Winston April 14, 2011 at 11:29 am #

    I used to live in San Ramon, where Bishop Ranch is located and the planning isn’t too terrible. Essentially the center of the city is made up by Bishop Ranch which is surrounded by a ring of retail which is in turn surrounded by a ring mostly apartments and townhouses and then single family homes. I always found it a convenient place to get around and actually biked to work there. That being said, most people who live in San Ramon work someplace else and the people who work there live elsewhere, so it isn’t as good as I make it sound.
    Jarret is right that Bishop ranch is very dense as suburban business parks go, being mostly made up of 4-6 story buildings, many with multi-level parking garages, however the city overall isn’t all that dense.
    When it was planned Bishop Ranch was on an excellent potential transit corridor – a disused rail ROW which stayed vacant and reserved for transit use for many years. It was even planned (in the line on a planning map stage) for a BART line. However this ROW was converted to a recreational bike trail and is no longer usable for transit. As it stands there are carpool lanes on I-680, which is adjacent to the park which will be getting dedicated ramps onto a road running through the center of the park (Norris Canyon road for those who are interested).

  2. david vartanoff April 14, 2011 at 11:38 am #

    Bishop Ranch was a perfect example of moving jobs from transit accessible offices in existing urban cores to auto centric farmland and in the bargain much whiter employment catchments. While there is adequate shuttle service to real transit, the location was chosen to facilitate commuting by car. This sort of project needs to be required either to be adjacent existing transit or to pay the per warm body cost of transit for every employee with parking restricted and taxed to encourage transit use.

  3. Winston April 14, 2011 at 11:38 am #

    Also, having read the article, describing San Ramon as an exurb seems odd to me. It has a population density of 3400 people/mi^2 and is part of the second ring of suburbs surrounding San Francisco. Usually when people are talking about exurbs of San Francisco they are talking about towns like Tracy or Brentwood which are another 30 miles out. However the vast semi-rural areas that typify East Coast exurbia don’t really exist in most of California.

  4. Winston April 14, 2011 at 12:09 pm #

    How are 40′ express buses in HOV lanes not “real transit?” If Bishop Ranch really has a 30% transit mode share then they’re doing better than many places with rail.

  5. Neil April 14, 2011 at 12:10 pm #

    “If it were being built today, I hope Bishop Ranch would be mixed-use, with some residences mixed in, and also located with greater care in relation to existing and potential transit corridors, on the “Be on the Way” principle.”
    I’d hope so too, but this new development planned for Metro Vancouver in beautiful British Columbia suggests many still see it differently:

  6. Zoltán April 14, 2011 at 3:49 pm #

    What’s really ironic is when the state is involved in the siting of things, and chooses to put them in ridiculous locations, despite the impact on the other branch of government funding transit. An example that I came to loathe was the Community College Baltimore County on top of a hill right at the edge of Baltimore.
    The bus that took me from Catonsville to the commuter rail at Halethorpe spent about six minutes turning off the road it was on, going up a winding road to the top of a hill, circling the campus, and coming back down again.
    Undoubtedly the bus has to go there, because otherwise it would deprive those without private transport of education, but it means that everyone going anywhere else has to waste six minutes not moving towards their destination.
    So what if the MTA (the transit agency) refused to go there? Then instead a different branch of government would have to pay for transit instead. Which I’d see as entirely fair, as it might force the education people to think twice about where to site new buildings. But it’s a shame that they couldn’t have thought of the transit people before they plonked a community college up there in the 1960s.

  7. Zoltán April 14, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

    (excuse my apparent fondness for using the word “instead”).

  8. Simon April 14, 2011 at 4:22 pm #

    Shouldn’t the question be “Should the state subsidise inaccessible employers?”
    And I’d answer “no”.

  9. Wad April 14, 2011 at 5:01 pm #

    I went to Bishop Ranch two years ago, and took transit to and from there. There was reasonably good express service, but the County Connection’s midday service was hourly — and empty.
    Bishop Ranch needs help with transit planning.
    This is one of the bus stops along Bollinger Canyon Road.
    As for its habitat, here is the punchline:

  10. The Overhead Wire April 14, 2011 at 6:16 pm #

    Bishop Ranch and places like it shouldn’t be apologized for. They should have been on the way to begin with. Sure it gets 30% share now, but how much share did Chevron get when its HQ was in downtown SF? How much VMT did they create moving out to the burbs and how much of an impact fee for that should they be paying?

  11. EJ April 15, 2011 at 8:08 am #

    The DC area is suffering this problem in spades with BRAC shifting DoD operations to the suburbs. Areas near new/expanding facilities are bracing for overwhelming traffic (because the default land-use paradigm has been auto-centric, and there are some good reasons for putting bases in remote locations).
    DoD of courses doesn’t want to pay for transportation improvements (whether they are highway or transit), so the local jurisidictions are in trouble.

  12. Annonymous April 15, 2011 at 8:11 pm #

    I took a look at their “transportation” link on their website. If you click “driving directions”, you can immediately see where the place is on a map and everything you need to go to get there is very concise and almost fits on the screen with no scrolling at all.
    With regards to transit, however, you get a list of transit agencies that serve the area, along with a verbal list of BART stops with shuttle service, with links providing schedules. There is no map anywhere, unless you go back to the page for driving directions.
    While people who live around the area and use BART a lot could probably make sense out of the directions and figure out how to get there, I can say, as someone who doesn’t live in the San Francisco area, that if I were driving there, the navigation would be really easy – just print out the “driving directions” page – done.
    Whereas, if I were taking transit there, I’d have to do a lot of digging through all the agencies listed and all the shuttle schedules to figure out what to do. If I needed to make the trip in the middle of the day, it would even more cumbersome, as I’d have to wade through the useless parade of buses that run only at the peak.
    I yearn for the day when we can figure out how to make transit directions as simple as car directions – a simple map highlighing the major routes, 4 verbal directions to get there from the north, south, east, and west, plus a zoomed-in map of the local area.

  13. Joseph Alacchi April 16, 2011 at 7:58 am #

    I disagree with the statement that inaccessible employers should subsidize transit. This is because it is the municipal and regional planning governments that approve the zoning for these inaccessible workplaces in the first place.
    Either way, a significant share of people will use transit if it convenient, regardless of how easy it is to drive simply because of the cost savings. So, if any job center or residential community is big enough, enough transit serive can be provided that all of a sudden transit becomes convenient and people use it.
    Transit ridership is really based on one thing and that is convenience both in terms of frequency and relative travel time. During rush hours, when the number of people travelling to and from Bishop Ranch is greatest, the critical number of people travelling is reached and enough ridership is generated to warrant all that service discussed in the article, which attracts riders warranting more service and so on and so forth. However, outside of rush hour, even though the number of people going in and out might only have declined by a factor of 5 for example, this is enough to make all that service unwarranted, which reduces transit ridership, making service less warranted, and so on.
    This fundamental law of transit ridership is the reason why the ratio of rush hour service levels to off-peak service levels is so much greater in the suburbs and in the industrial parks than in the cities.

  14. david vartanoff April 16, 2011 at 11:34 am #

    In answer to Winston, the HOV lanes are recent, when Chevron moved there 25 years ago transit access was slim to none. As others have noted, the previous Chevron offices were in SF directly adjacent BART, Muni, AC SamTrans and GG Transit.
    My point is that these edge city developments are just wrong the way they are done. At least BR has some 4-5 floor buildings. As a corollary example, when a unit of Transamerica Corp moved out of the TA pyramid to Pleasant Hill (a quick limo ride for the boss) many employees living in SF without cars either changed jobs or had to buy cars–no shuttle from BART to offices. While these maneuvers are encouraged by our system of gov’t entities constantly trying to attract commerce at the expense of each other the net result is greater VMT while stripping jobs from the urban cores. In turn this fuels the corporate game of demanding special tax deals (Twitter in SF as a recent example).
    Irony dept, SF is SO much more fun to live in than the sprawlburbs that reverse commuting has risen to equal inward commuting from the Peninsula/SV–witness the fleet of Google and others ferrying workers to the campus and back.

  15. Andrew April 17, 2011 at 1:15 am #

    This is a serious problem in the Toronto area. The main reason is that commercial real estate taxes in Toronto proper are outrageously high compared to the 905 suburbs. High commercial taxes basically cross-subsidize residential property taxes in Toronto (which are much lower than in the 905) which are kept artificially low due to political pressure from homeowners. The result is that many people commute out from Toronto to recently built business park areas in the 905 (almost all by car) clogging the highways at rush hour.

  16. Winston April 17, 2011 at 7:17 am #

    Honestly, transportation had nothing to do with Chevron’s motives for moving to San Ramon. Not only was real estate about half the cost as in San Francisco, but Chevron only has to pay $350/year in business taxes in San Ramon vs. 1.5% of your total payroll + $500. This amounts to a yearly savings of around $5 million/year in taxes.
    San Francisco just isn’t fun enough to justify the cost of operating a business there for many companies. Unless San Francisco can get its costs under control (and that doesn’t mean looting the Hetch Hetchy system to subsidize city operations like they have been doing for the past 30 years) it is going to become more and more of an amusement park and bedroom community for places that can.

  17. Jarrett at April 17, 2011 at 11:19 am #

    You write: "Honestly, transportation had nothing to do with Chevron's
    motives for moving to San Ramon. Not only was real estate about half
    the cost as in San Francisco, but Chevron only has to pay $350/year in
    business taxes in San Ramon vs. 1.5% of your total payroll + $500."
    Both of these factors are heavily impacted by transportation! Poor
    transportation options are one of the main reasons for lower land
    value, and the cost of running intensive transit is one of the reasons
    San Francisco taxes are higher! So you can't say that transportation
    had nothing to do with it … Transportation is interwoven with
    almost every location decision made by anyone …

  18. david vartanoff April 17, 2011 at 1:31 pm #

    Thank you Jarrett for making the connection clear.
    @ Winston, you have very nicely presented the anti urban view of the secessionist sprawlburbs. Why pay for the society they moved away from? After all THOSE people aren’t “us”. Chevron’s attitude towards communities it does business in is well described here
    Courtesy of the loss leader tax structure we pave over prime quality agricultural land while decreasing the economic strength of our urban cores. It will be pleasant to watch the abandonment of these office parks when no one can afford to drive to them.

  19. Winston April 18, 2011 at 7:47 am #

    It is true that transportation is part of the massive tax burden that San Franciscans face. Consider that San Ramon spends a total of $1382 per resident per year + $1165 at the county level while San Francisco which has a unified City/County government spends $7625 per resident per year. This is because San Ramon and Contra Costa county have a much less ambitious government. It is unclear to me how much benefit that the citizens of San Franciscans get from paying 3 times the local taxes (as spending and taxes are directly linked). Essentially choosing between San Ramon and San Francisco is choosing between a high level of taxes and services and a low one.
    Beyond lower taxes, a big reason that the suburbs in the bay area have grown is that even if you make the decision that SF is worth the cost you can’t build there. This is also a problem in the more urban parts of the inner east bay (try adding 1 million square feet of office to Berkeley) and in the more urban parts of Contra Costa (Walnut Creek, for example has banned new office development for over a decade).
    The more I understand transportation, the more I realize it is about making choices about urban form and about design details. The fact is that Bishop Ranch is very unusual in having such high transit use (probably because it is pretty densely concentrated and because all the transit running to it has to come along I-680 meaning that you only have to have 2 routes to it instead of having routes coming to many directions). This is not the case for the Hascienda business park in Dublin and Pleasanton, which has less transit use despite having a BART station in the middle of the park.

  20. Daniel Howard April 19, 2011 at 6:07 pm #

    I worked at Bishop Ranch for a couple of years mid-decade. I worked in a small company and most employees who could worked remote. I was required to show up each day and had a huge office on the fifth floor looking out on to rolling hills all to myself. It felt like I was the last person alive on the planet up there.
    The transit service was nice if you stuck to their limited schedule. Since the buses ran as free shuttles from the BART stations and I had chosen to leave near the Walnut Creek station, my commute was free. I tried biking it a few times but waiting for a pedestrian signal across the numerous high-speed roads made that option kind of depressing as well.
    In that sprawling environment you had to drive to lunch.