How to interpret the Google bus protests

The Google bus protests are the inevitable result of an unwillingness to grasp the approaching demographic wave and to embrace urbanism.

Urban housing in New York City
Urban housing in New York City

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)

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 three dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at Where Do We Go from Here. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and VibrantBayArea.

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Josh Roza January 16, 2014 at 11:47 AM
That is a pretty clean way of looking at it. I imagine you are leaving out the fact that most of the 20-30 somethings involved in the protests are the same as the WTO protesting folks where these large corporations have simply passed them by. The core tenant of the 99% is that no one should be able to make it without everybody making it. They see Google as another personification of the corporate overlord coming in and claiming or outright using public space for its own good, while flaunting it at those who lack the same access. Let's face it, if you were waiting at a bus stop for a MUNI bus that's already 25 minutes late, smells like a bum, filled with people who you would rather not be pressed against for the next 35 minutes in rush hour traffic and then pulling up like a gleaming limousine is the "Google Bus" with its working heating and air conditioning, padded seats, lack of gang members, stench, Graffiti, and fricken WiFi and you saw this day in day out, you'd flip out too. This is just one more situation where wealthy companies or people flaunt before those who don't have it - and by pulling up at a MUNI or VTA stop, it is specifically to rub it in the face of those who have to take substandard living conditions. So Google should pay immensely for the right to use MUNI and VTA stops so monies can flow to those systems to improve conditions, or they should work with private lot owners to develop their own stops, but simply leveraging existing stop "cause they are there" really isn't fair or appropriate. And let's not cry for Google just yet, with over $8 BILLION in PROFIT every 90 DAYS, what $3-4 million per year?
Wire January 17, 2014 at 04:54 PM
Don't forget their private jet operating on a government air field, using government fuel, not paying their fare share of corporate taxes. As San Jose Airport has limits when one can fly in and out one would have to buy fuel.
Wire January 17, 2014 at 05:09 PM
Back in 1970 my boss was trying to set up a van to pick up his employees, as the farthest one out would drive the van. The only problem he couldn't promises the eight hour day. Maybe living in Tokyo would work for Dave. Checking on their urbaism he would love to visit, and report back. I'm sure they speak better English. Look this up Dave: Evangelical Urbanism: A Review of the Downtown Project's Vegas Revival


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