Is this kind of network the future of transit?
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?
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?