Elite Projection

Why Write About Elon Musk?

Two crucial bits of news about Elon Musk:

Aaron Gordon at Jalopnik lays on the irony so I can stay above the fray:

Yes, for those keeping score, in a mere two years we’ve gone from a futuristic vision of electric skates zooming around a variety of vehicles in a network of underground tunnels to—and I cannot stress this enough—a very small, paved tunnel that can fit one (1) car.

The video’s marketing conceit is that the car in the tunnel beats a car trying to go the same distance on roads. You’ll never believe this, but the car that has a dedicated right of way wins. Congratulations to The Boring Company for proving dedicated rights of way are important for speedy transportation, something transportation planners figured out roughly two centuries ago. I’m afraid for how many tunnels they’ll have to dig before they likewise acknowledge the validity of induced demand.

In other words, as I wrote three years ago, Musk may be brilliant at physics but he often doesn’t seem to understand geometry, or at least not without doing expensive experiments to rediscover it.

Why even write about Elon Musk again?  When Elon Musk insulted me on Twitter over a year ago, I had a brief rush of media fame, including interviews on the BBC and Fox Business.  Maybe I’m just addicted to that.  Evidence against this theory:  I’ve written little about Musk for over a year since that brief moment of fame.  One of my worst nightmares is that I die before doing anything else that gets that much attention, so that Elon Musk’s insult dominates my obituaries.

No, the real utility of Elon Musk is that he presents himself as an extreme example of elite projection.  I defined that term, here, as “the belief, among relatively fortunate and influential people, that what those people find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole.”

When he was first promoting his mysteriously cheap tunnels, he talked about how much he hated traffic personally.  So he invented a tunnel that might get him and a few other billionaires out of traffic, but whose capacity was so low that it couldn’t possibly be relevant to the volume of travel in a big city.  As always inefficiency is inequality.  Only an efficient solution (in terms of both space and money) can be made available to everyone.

So don’t confuse elite projection with elitism. The problem with elite projection isn’t that it’s an elite point of view.  The problem is that it doesn’t work.

Why have I devoted my career to fixed public transit, rail and bus?  Because unlike Musk’s tunnels, or streetcars that are slower than walking, or “Ubering your transit system,” or fantasies of universal microtransit, fixed transit scales.  When it’s allowed to succeed, it’s a supremely efficient use of both money and space.  Bus service, especially, is cheap enough that you can have a lot of it, everywhere, if you decide you care about liberating lots of people to move around your city.  And if you want a city that’s equitable and sustainable remember: if it doesn’t scale, it doesn’t matter.

So no, I’m not interested in Elon Musk for his own sake.  But ideas are more exciting when we put faces and stories to them.  So if Elon Musk wants to be the face of elite projection, I’m grateful for his rhetorical help.  Should we call the phenomenon Muskism.  Muskismo?

Microtransit: What I Think We Know

I’ve been thinking out loud about microtransit for a week now, and have processed lots of great comments.  But if you comment, don’t just respond to this post.  Go to the detailed posts that really lay out the argument:  Is microtransit an actual idea?  Does that matter?  And most importantly: Is microtransit capable of being a sensible investment that can be justified from widely accepted goals of public transit?

To sum up, here’s what I think we know.  As always, I’m open to enlightenment by anyone who reads these posts and wants to engage my argument. I’m not contrarian for its own sake. My job is simply to help transit agencies make clear decisions whose consequences they understand.

The context for this thinking is pre-automation, so labor cost is a dominant issue.  The question is whether transit agencies should subsidize microtransit, which implies that microtransit is in direct competition for funds with other possible transit agency investments. Thus, the question is about the public interest and benefits to the taxpayer.

Microtransit May Be a Slogan, Not an Idea

As I explored here, microtransit seems to consist of:

  • flexible “on-demand” routing, an idea that transit agencies have known about, and experimented with, for decades.
  • subsidies of privately provided services by a transit agency, which has been happening for decades under a range of contracting arrangements.
  • the use of apps for hailing, navigation, and payment.

Only the last of these is new, but there’s reason to doubt that the apps, by themselves, create a radically new business model. (Evidence that they do could include Uber being more profitable than non-cartel taxis were, controlling for labor costs.)  In any case, the statement “transit agencies should consider microtransit” can be translated as:  “Transit agencies should use apps to improve the efficiency and customer experience of their flex-route services.” Put that way, it’s uncontroversial and hardly justifies all the hype.

Watch the Ratio of Drivers to Passengers

In transit, before automation, operating cost is mostly labor.  Even if you race to the bottom on labor costs, as Uber has done, you won’t save more than 50% off of transit’s big bus operating cost.  You still need one driver for every vehicle.  That’s why passenger transport services, unlike Amazon, don’t become much more efficient as they get bigger.

That means efficiency in transit is the ratio of passengers to drivers.  Microtransit, by definition, is a low-capacity service, carrying small numbers of people at a time.  This is, by definition, a way to serve very few people at very high cost, compared to fixed routes.

And as soon as we talk about transit agencies funding microtransit, we are saying that they should do this instead of adding fixed route services that are proven to attract vastly more riders and serve them vastly more efficiently (see table in this post.).

Do Not Confuse Customer Experience with Financial Viability

A common rookie investing mistake is to buy a company’s stock solely because you love its product. Successful ventures don’t just provide a good product or customer experience. They do it in a way that’s financially viable. In the private sector that’s measured in profit. In the public sector the equivalent idea is some kind of cost/benefit or “bang for buck” ratio.  Microtransit’s performance on those measures is generally worse than terrible, just as the performance of flexible-route services has always been.  Talking about microtransit’s superior “customer experience” doesn’t change that fact.

For example, a recent Eno Foundation report promoting microtransit cited two pilots that achieved less than 1 (one) passenger trip per vehicle service hour.  A decent fixed route bus does 20-100 and most terrible fixed routes do at least 10.  The most upbeat data Eno’s report could find was a microtransit pilot in Newark, California that achieves 3 passengers/hour, but this is down from 7 passengers/hour on the fixed route it replaced.  The transit agency lost 20% of the old route’s ridership when it made this change.  And that is the most hopeful data point that microtransit boosters can cite.

Microtransit’s Poor Performance is a Mathematical Fact, not Question of Technology, Social Science, or Marketing

Transit agencies not only have decades of experience with low-performing flexible route experiments.  There’s also a purely geometric argument for why fixed routes perform so much better in almost all cases.  It’s about the way the customer’s walk to a fixed route stop allows the bus to operate on a straighter path that’s more likely to be useful to more people.  The correlation between fixed route performance and the straightness of the route is very strong.  Microtransit is meandering by definition, as it has to roam a large area and pick up people who are not in any kind of linear path. Technology never changes geometry.

Microtransit is Not a Way to Increase Ridership Overall

Because of its low productivity, transit agency funding of microtransit arises from a coverage goal, which is the opposite of a ridership goal.  Coverage means “predictably low ridership service run for a non-ridership reason,” typically access to places where the built environment makes high-ridership service impossible.  The microtransit boosters assume that agencies must run lots of coverage service but this is actually an issue that should be debated; many agencies I’ve worked with have shifted their priorities the other way.

This also means it is incoherent to cite a desire for higher total ridership, or disappointment with declining ridership, as a reason to invest in microtransit.  If you want higher ridership, you invest in services that are physically capable of carrying lots of riders and have a proven ability to attract them when run at sufficient quality, like big-bus fixed routes.  Microtransit is about taking both funds and political attention away from the services that are actually relevant to ridership at a large scale.

I Cannot Reconcile Microtransit with Economic Equality or Environmental Justice Goals

On average, microtransit seems to trigger an upward redistribution of the benefits of public subsidy. This is a Very Bad Thing for the public sector.  It is not hard to make some low-income or social service advocates like a microtransit idea from the customer perspective, and see it as liberating for their clients, but if it isn’t financially viable at a large scale, it won’t matter to the vast majority of disadvantaged people.

If a transit agency invests in a microtransit service hour for 3 people instead of a fixed route service hour for 30 people, solely to give those 3 people a better “customer experience,” we must ask “why are these 3 people so special?”  Why shouldn’t they pay the full cost of their superior customer experience, rather than expecting the taxpayer to subsidize it?  More on this line of thought here.

Unlike private businesses, U.S. transit agencies operate under intense scrutiny about equity outcomes. Civil rights and environmental justice tests are much more extensive for transit agencies than to the private sector, largely because they are conditions of Federal funding that these agencies rely on.  We have not begun to see the blowback against microtransit from environmental justice and civil rights perspectives, but if fixed routes are neglected to fund microtransit investments, the math is potentially there to justify it.

The Popularity of Microtransit Has Explanations Unrelated to its Value

The microtransit movement, like so many fads that have blown over transit agencies during my 25-year career, appears to be an example of elite projection, the tendency of fortunate people to assume that whatever they personally like will be good for society as a whole.  An urban elite has seen their lives transformed by ride-hailing services, and understandably wants to believe that this transformation can be brought to transit too.  This helps to explain why so much talk of microtransit is so dreamy, so obviously stated in the tone of a sales pitch rather than an analysis.  To think clearly in this context, you need to lean into the wind, being skeptical but not cynical about ideas that obviously serve someone’s commercial interest.

The Talk about Microtransit May Be Doing Harm

Fixed routes are spectacularly cost-effective investments compared to almost any flex-route option.  They even do better in cases (as in Newark, California above) where the geography is very unfavorable to fixed route success.  The reasons for this are geometric, as described above, so technology won’t change them.

Recent declines in bus ridership are triggering all kinds of triumphalist claims from people who want to sweep fixed routes away, or at least shift resources away from them as the microtransit movement proposes.  Much of this chatter is intended to push transit experts out of the discussion by implying that their expertise is obsolete.  The rigidity of fixed routes, the chatter suggests, arises from rigid minds.

But the neglect of fixed routes, encouraged at the highest levels, is the real source of transit’s declining relevance.  My firm works in cities all over the US, and most of them have appallingly low levels of fixed route service compared to potential demand. In most American cities, the quantity of service is growing far slower than population, which means that on average, the availability and usefulness of transit is getting worse.  Most cities, in short, are forcing low-income people to buy cars by making that the only way to have a life, even in places where fixed route service could succeed.  

In this reality, should transit agencies really focus on ways to move tiny numbers of people more expensively, to deliver them a special “customer experience”, as the microtransit idea proposes?  Clearly that’s not the path to ridership.

Meanwhile, cities that are forcefully recommitting to fixed routes are bucking the trend of falling ridership, and these show a clear path.  Ridership is up in Seattle, despite all the countervailing trends, because of an unusually high commitment to quality service and to protecting fixed routes from congestion — a commitment shared by the transit agency and the City of Seattle.  Houston continues to do far better than its Texas peers, partly due to the 2015 network redesign that expanded the bus network’s usefulness.

We know how to increase ridership. It’s by offering useful, civilized, and cost-effective mobility to large numbers of people, not obsessing about the customer experience of a few.  And while ridership is not the only goal of transit, it’s hard to get to microtransit from any of transit’s other common goals either.

If You’re Going to Comment …

I would love to see comments engaging my argument.  I’m not especially interested in comments that ignore my argument, or change the subject, or give me dreamy visions of a future where laws of math have been repealed,  or lecture me about how I represent tired old thinking. If you’re going to challenge me on a point where I’ve linked to another article, follow that link and read that article, because the meat of that argument may be there.

Thanks for your help making me smarter about this.  I advise a lot of transit agencies, and I want to best for them and the cities they serve.



The Financial Times Interview of Me

Izabella Kaminsky at the Financial Times Alphaville blog did an interview with me two weeks ago that was meant to be a podcast. We covered a lot of ground, including microtransit, Uber, Elon Musk, Big Data, and elite projection.

The audio didn’t work for the podcast, so they just printed the transcript.  (Sometimes it makes you register for free.)

I find it agonizing to read in print, because things that make sense in speech look terrible on the page, stripped of all the inflections and pauses that give spoken text its meaning.

Lots of people seem to be enjoying it, though.  And if a desire to laugh at my run-on sentences will make you read it, that’s on balance a good thing. It’s here.

The Fantasy of “Service to Your Door” in Dense Cities

Customers love our new invention!  You have to start listening to the customer!  How often have you heard this line as though it ended any argument?  I certainly hear it all the time as an explanation of why “service to your door” will sweep away large parts of the fixed route transit industry.

The answer is:  People want all kinds of things that they can’t all have, because those things just too expensive per customer to provide.  Wealthier people can have them, but the tastes that wealthy people can afford are a terrible guide to what will work for everyone.

A great example is “service to your door,” when applied to dense cities.  There is a different issue when applied to suburbs, to which I’ll return in another post.

As far as we can tell, neither Uber nor its competitors can make a profit, even though they focus heavily on dense cities where the geography is most favorable to them.  Startups have lots of good arguments for why we should wait a while for them to be profitable, but Uber is running out of them.  We are not waiting for Uber to scale up; it is already huge.  We are not waiting for it to become more labor-efficient; it has already squeezed labor so hard that it can’t retain drivers.  We are not waiting for more efficiency in communications; the app already works fine.  What are we waiting for?

As Len Sherman argued in Fortune recently, the real answer is simpler.  Urban transportation is just not a profitable business.  Transit isn’t, and taxis and taxi-like services usually aren’t either.

But transit is supremely efficient at one essential thing: it uses scarce urban space efficiently.  By contrast, “service to your door” is becoming a new way to strangle our cities with congestion. Congestion is a spatial problem; it will still be there in a coming age of automation.

So yes, everybody would like to have service to their door.  But the true price of that, in dense cities, is likely to be something that only relatively wealthy people can afford.  Pre-automation, labor is an irreducible cost.  Post-automation, in dense cities, there will still be the problem of space. Uber and Lyft are already increasing traffic in dense cities that don’t have room for it. If they suddenly become cheaper, the resulting induced demand would be the death-knell for the functioning of cities.

To its credit, Uber understands that only road pricing will solve this problem even in the post-automation world.  This, of course, would push the price of their service back up, and thus out of range for many people.  But that would indeed be the true price.  Which is why the “service to your door” fad must not be allowed to undermine fixed route transit systems that can work for everyone because they use space so efficiently.  (Post-automation, too, we should also think of autonomous taxis competing with autonomous buses, which would be vastly more frequent than buses today.)

Advertising glorifies the tastes of the wealthy, not just to sell to them but to help less wealthy people form unrealistic tastes. “Service to your door” is yet another example of that kind of marketing.  And whenever we are told to design things around technologies that only the fortunate can afford, we’re being asked to make a mistake called elite projection.  Cities do not work for anyone unless they makes room for transportation that works for everyone. So they must be designed around what works for everyone.  They must also be designed around solutions that are financially sustainable, which “service to your door” — when properly priced to account for its inefficient use of street space — is probably not.

But is “service to your door” relevant to suburban needs, or to the distinctly suburban “first mile last mile” problem? I’ll cover that in an imminent post.

Elon Musk Responds!

I confess, I’ve sometimes been hard on Elon Musk. When he talks about how he’s going to change the facts of geometry, I point out that no technology has ever done that. And I’ve commented on other things he’s said that express cluelessness about how cities work.  Musk is doing some great things, but he is also using his megaphone to advance the idea that our cities will be great if we can just drive faster through them.  Most of his own home town, Los Angeles, was designed on that very principle, and look how that turned out.

Recently, I wrote a very careful piece on elite projection — the universal problem of very fortunate people designing the world around their private needs and tastes.  (Read the piece before you make a judgmental comment based on that summary!) Since then, Musk has really been helping me out.  He keeps uttering more and more lurid quotes that are perfect examples of elite projection. Even the tech boosters of Fast Company noticed that his Los Angeles tunnel project seems engineered for his personal commute.  And he is always saying things like this:

[Public transit is] a pain in the ass,” he continued. “That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want.”

Well, the company of “random strangers” is what a city is, and since a city is a lot of people in not much space, there isn’t room for everyone’s car.  So I said the obvious:

To which the great man replied:

… which, at the moment, has over 17000 likes, 2500 retweets, and a diverse thread of responses, including a lot of cool urbanist and tech people defending me. It’s all very funny to me, and I hope it is to you.

The Dangers of Elite Projection

(Leer en español aquí.)


Elite projection is the belief, among relatively fortunate and influential people, that what those people find convenient or attractive is good for the society as a whole.  Once you learn to recognize this simple mistake, you see it everywhere.  It is perhaps the single most comprehensive barrier to prosperous, just, and liberating cities.

This is not a call to bash elites.  I am making no claim about the proper distribution of wealth and opportunity, or about anyone’s entitlement to influence. But I am pointing out a mistake that elites are constantly at risk of making.  The mistake is to forget that elites are always a minority, and that planning a city or transport network around the preferences of a minority routinely yields an outcome that doesn’t work for the majority.  Even the elite minority won’t like the result in the end.

Long ago, when I was presenting a proposed transit plan to the Board of Directors of a suburban transit agency in California, one board member — representing the wealthiest city in the area — leaned forward, cleared his throat, and said:

Now, Mister Walker.  If we adopt this plan of yours, will that make me leave my BMW in the driveway?

The answer, of course, is no.  But to suggest that this question is a valid test of a transit plan is an extreme example of elite projection.  As a multi-millionaire, this man belongs to a tiny minority, so it makes no sense to design a transit system around his personal tastes.  Successful transit is mass transit, and there is no mass to be achieved by pursuing him as a customer.  Perhaps he could be attracted by a service to his door featuring on-board wine bar and massage service, but few other people would consider that good value for their more limited dollars.  Let the for-profit sector give him that luxury, and ensure he pays for its impacts.

Now and then, of course, investment that benefits elites justifies itself as serving the common good.  Expediting the lives of business executives, for example, will supposedly attract investment to your community.  A specialized transit project will supposedly stimulate upscale housing development that will add to the tax base, even if you could never afford to live there. I am not seeking to open debate on those claims.  To the extent that these arguments were right, elite projection would not be the right term.  Most elite projection, however, makes no such claims.  It’s simply an unconscious habit of assuming that your tastes are a good guide to what everyone will value.

In challenging elite projection, I am being utterly unreasonable. I am calling upon elites to meet a superhuman standard.  Almost everyone refers to their own experience when discussing policy.  Who doesn’t want their experience to be acknowledged? But in a society where elites have disproportionate power, the superhuman task of resisting elite projection must be their work.  And since I’m one of these elites — not at all in wealth but certainly in education and other kinds of good fortune — it’s sometimes my work as well.  Like all attempts to be better people, it’s utterly exhausting and we’ll never get it right. That means the critique of elite projection can’t just take the form of rage. It also has to be empathic and forgiving.

Still, elite projection is perhaps the primary barrier to the efficient, just, and liberating city.  The city has this special feature: It functions for anyone only if it functions for almost everyone.  You can say this about society in general, but only in the city is this fact so brutally obvious as to be unavoidable.

Traffic congestion, to take the obvious example, is the result of everyone’s choices in response to everyone’s situation.  Even the elites are mostly stuck in it. No satisfying solution has been found to protect elites from this problem, and it’s not for want of trying.  The only real solution to congestion is to solve it for everyone, and to do that you have to look at it from everyone’s perspective, not just from the fortunate perspective.

The ongoing disparagement of bus service in urban America has elite projection at its foundation.  Large fixed-route buses are the only form of transit that can quickly scale to an entire city while using scarce urban space with extreme efficiency.   Yet many urban elites assume (subtly or overtly) that bus service doesn’t matter because it’s not useful to them personally.

During my 25-year career I’ve watched fortunate urban leaders — mostly very well-intentioned — search endlessly for a transit idea that will allow them to neglect buses.  One could point to some American streetcars-stuck-in-traffic, “redevelopment tools” which sometimes had no discernible transportation value   There are the adorable ferries with tiny markets, and the overspecialized airport trains.  Now, the same mistake powers the endless vague promises of tech disruption in transit, especially the mathematically absurd notion that transit that comes to your door when you call it will scale to the entire population of a dense city.  (Serious experts have largely abandoned this claim, but it is out there in the discourse, undermining support for transit that actually works.)

None of these ideas made any geometric sense as a way to liberate everyone in a dense city, but they appealed to elite tastes, dazzled public attention, and therefore helped to defer investment in the transit that vast numbers of urban people would find useful and liberating. This neglect causes transit to deteriorate, yielding outcomes that further justify the neglect.

Again, we can’t challenge elite projection in others until we forgive it in ourselves.  Almost everyone reading this is part of some kind of elite.  But the more powerful you are, the more urgent this work is.  We must all ask ourselves: “Would this idea work for me if I were in a typical citizen’s situation, instead of my fortunate situation?”  Because if not, it won’t work for the city, and in the end that means it won’t even work for you.



Keys to Great Airport Transit

Toronto’s new high-fare, elite train between downtown and the airport is a failure in ridership terms, so it’s a good moment to talk about transit to the airport in general.

This critique by Cherise Burda of Ryerson University, one of the Toronto line’s few regular riders, pretty much sums up why the Toronto Union Pearson Express is doing so poorly:  Fares too high (CAD $27.50 one way) for a line that just doesn’t connect the airport to enough places.

Do you think that specialized airport trains are the key to high transit mode share to an airport?  Think again.   What matters is not just the service to downtown, but the whole transit network and the airport’s position in it.  Where can you get to on that network, and how soon?  (A true assessment of this issue would have included bus services too, of course.)  London’s Heathrow, for example, has a high-fare express train very much like Toronto’s, but it also has a slower train that makes more stops for a lower fare, and a subway line that makes even more stops and serves even more places.  Those lines connect to more services, and are therefore more useful to far more people.

Basic math:  1000 airport employees using an airport service every day are more ridership than 100,000 air travelers using it, on average, maybe a couple of times a year.

This is the simple reason that airport transit politics are so frustrating.  Everyone wants to believe in transit to the airport, because they might ride it a few times a year.  But to create a great airport train (or bus) for air travelers, you have to make it useful to airport employees too  That generally means a service that’s an integral part of the regional transit network, not a specialized airport train.

The other key issue is that most airports are cul-de-sacs.  It’s hard for a line to continue beyond the airport unless it’s underground, and this is another huge limitation on an airport service’s ability to serve a sufficiently diverse market.  If you can afford it, aspire to be like Sydney, whose rapid transit system tunnels under the airport so that it can continue beyond it without branching. And if you’re a rare airport like Seattle’s, where surface transit can stop at the terminal but continue onward, so much the better.

So again, here are the keys to great transit to the airport, for travelers and employees:

  • Total travel time matters, not just in-vehicle time.  Airports are citadels of impatience.  Travel time matters hugely, but travel time is not just in-vehicle time (the time you’ll see advertised) but total time including waiting.  That’s why the advantage of making few stops is wildly exaggerated. To accurately measure real travel time, add the in-vehicle travel time to half the waiting time, where the latter is governed by frequency. You may find that a more frequent train that stops more often (and is therefore useful to more people) comes out ahead even for the downtown-to-airport traveler.
  • Combine air travelers and airport employees on the same train/bus, and appeal to an economically diverse range of air travelers, not just the elite.  This is a case of the general principle that transit thrives on the diversity of trips for which it’s useful, not on specialization.  If elites want a nicer train, give them first class cars at higher fares, but not a separate train just for them.  (And as always, elite services are a good role for the for-profit sector.)  As always, the more people of all kinds you can get on a train or bus, the more frequently you can afford to run it, which means less waiting, and the lower the fare you need to charge.
  • Connect the airport to lots of places, not just downtown, by providing a total network.  It’s the total transit system at the airport, not just the airport-downtown express line, that determines who can get there, and how quickly.  And the total network requires connections — another reason to care about frequency.
  • Don’t interfere with the growth of other services.  Airport terminals are still not huge destinations by citywide standards, so don’t sacrifice other major markets to serve them.  Toronto’s airport train, for example, not only carries few people but creates issues for higher-ridership services with which it shares track. Another common problem is the branch into the airport that cuts frequency and capacity on a mainline, even though the mainline’s demand is much higher than the airport’s (San Francisco, Vancouver).
  • If you can afford it, go via the airport instead of terminating there.   Most airports are large-scale cul-de-sacs, and like every cul-de-sac, they say: “I want only as much transit service as I can justify all by myself.”  So if you can tunnel under the airport and serve it on the way to other places, as in Sydney, you will often end up with much better service for all your airport users, employees and travelers alike.



the silicon valley shuttles, revealed

Is this kind of network the future of transit?


San Francisco Silicon Valley Shuttles

This map by Stamen Design shows the paths of the various Silicon Valley bus services that flood San Francisco each morning and evening peak.  (Linewidth is proportional to frequency.)  All these lines running around San Francisco extend south off the map, duplicating each other for more than 30 miles until they diverge to serve different employers in Silicon Valley. The colors indicate which employer.  In general, these private buses are open only to the employees of the company in question.

These buses carry some of world’s smartest geeks between the manicured suburban headquarters of Google, Apple, Facebook, Yahoo, EBay and Electronic Arts and the diverse, interesting, crowded, messy city that these geeks insist on living in — a distance of 30-40 miles.

(Here is a great page showing the process Stamen went through to get to this map.  As you’d expect from a design firm, it’s officially a work of art, called The City from the Valley.)

There is a public transit option in the same corridor, the Caltrain commuter rail line, but it can’t begin to compete with these buses for speed, directness, and certainly the number of transfers required.

How should we feel about these privately operated services, which are effectively employee benefits at these companies?

Here is Alexis Madrigal’s response, in the Atlantic:

 My favorite data design firm, Stamen, released a map showing all the private buses that run from San Francisco to Silicon Valley, the elite’s mass transit. Work in one of those places, and you have a wonderful travel experience. Everyone else gets the bus or an underfunded Caltrain. One way for our country’s elites. The car and a crowded highway for everybody else.

“The elite’s mass transit” versus “underfunded Caltrain.”  Is this really a class divide, with all the perils that class-based thinking implies?   These buses have to drive to San Francisco because the geeks on board aren’t willing to buy a big house in the suburbs of Silicon Valley.  They want to live in a city, where they step over homeless people and deal with crowds but also have access to all that a city offers. So they’re an unusual elite.

If you love inner-city living so much that you’re willing to commute almost two hours a day, then I expect you’re someone who’s happy with the basic proposition of city life.  That means that you’re used to being in close proximity to strangers, so I’d guess you’d be a willing passenger on a public transit system if that transit system were useful.

So the real story here is not the upscale demands of “elites” but the story of “underfunded Caltrain” and and more generally the way that infrequent, slow and poorly connected transit systems are forcing these big employers to run so much expensive service of their own.

The inadequacy of transit between San Francisco and Silicon Valley lies in several things.  First, neither the employers nor most San Francisco homes are anywhere near the Caltrain commuter rail line, so using that line requires multiple transfers — often two at the San Francisco end.  Second, the line is infrequent, designed for speed rather than frequency, which means that using shuttles between business parks and rail stations always involves the slight anxiety of the bus being late and missing the train.

Politically, the problem with this commute is that it crosses two county lines, and in California, where almost all transport decision-making happens at county-level agencies, a multi-county transit problem is orders of magnitude harder to solve.  There is little doubt that if Caltrain were all in one County — maybe one the size of Los Angeles County — it would be a vastly better service by now: more frequent, probably electrified, probably extended to make better connections in San Francisco.   But split between three counties it has always seemed peripheral to many county-level decision makers, so when its needs have conflicted with another pet project, Caltrain has been consistently shoved aside.

Most recently, Caltrain’s future has been made dependent on the California High Speed Rail Project, which will help improve and extend Caltrain only in the context of needing to share its track.  It does appear that Caltrain will finally be extended to a downtown San Francisco terminal where most of the city will be one transfer away instead of two.  Caltrain may also become a little faster if, as contemplated, some minor stations are closed.  But Caltrain will probably never be frequent given the new constraints of track sharing.


But why should people have to commute such distances at all?  In this case, it happened because a whole mass of companies decided that they all had to have vast corporate campuses that are too big to be in walking distance to anything.  The critical mass of Silicon Valley congealed in the high-car age, as early icons like Hewlett and Packard outgrew their garage.  Stanford University has always sat in Silicon Valley’s midst like a queen bee, happy to seem the indispensable center of the burbling mass of innovation.  Since then every new breakthrough firm, from Google to Facebook, has felt they had to be there.

But now, that critical mass is in the wrong place for the needs of the next generation.  A few of the area’s suburbs are trying to build downtowns that will give a bit of the urban vibe that younger geeks seem to value, but many of these suburbs are dominated by people who want nothing to change. So it comes down to how the next generation of internet employers choose  think about how to attract top employees.  Twitter made a courageous choice, moving its headquarters right into San Francisco, but Apple is digging itself deeper, building an even larger and more car-dependent fortress in its corner of the Valley.

Finally, this joke is on the lords of Silicon Valley itself.  The industry that liberated millions from the tyranny of distance remains mired in its own desperately car-dependent world of corporate campuses, where being too-far-to-walk from a Caltrain station — and from anything else of interest — is almost a point of pride.  But meanwhile, top employees are rejecting the lifestyle that that location implies.

Geeks whose brilliance lightens the weight of our lives have bodies that must be hauled 70 or more miles every day, at a colossal waste of energy and time.  Is this really the future?