Report: Google buses reflect region in need of traffic, housing solutions | February 8, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 8, 2013

Report: Google buses reflect region in need of traffic, housing solutions

Bay Area's 101 municipal governments ill-equipped to tackle looming regional crises

by Chris Kenrick

Google buses rolling up and down U.S. Highway 101 symbolize the new Silicon Valley — and are potent reminders that regional solutions are needed if the Bay Area is to stay economically vibrant, a new report states.

A tech worker living in San Francisco requires four separate transit systems to get to a job along state Route 237 — a damning indictment of the Bay Area's "antiquated" patchwork of 27 separate systems that is unfit to do the job, said Silicon Valley Community Foundation CEO Emmett Carson.

"If you live on one of those lines that has a Google bus your house is worth more because the public transportation system is antiquated in its logic for serving this regional reality," Carson said.

"Silicon Valley" should be redefined to include San Francisco, he said.

Carson's comments came Tuesday, Feb. 5, with the release of the 2013 Silicon Valley Index, a yearly collection of economic and social indicators jointly presented by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation in Mountain View and the nonprofit Joint Venture Silicon Valley in San Jose.

While hailing upbeat economic news on technology job growth, it included a harsh critique of the fitness of the Bay Area's 101 separate municipal governments to manage looming crises in traffic congestion, housing affordability and climate change.

"Some of the biggest threats to the Bay Area's long-term economic competitiveness are challenges best addressed through stronger or more effective regional governance," noted the report, prepared by urban planner Egon Terplan of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association.

"Failing to address these regional problems means risking the Bay Area's standing globally. Places like Singapore, Shanghai, Vancouver and Sao Paolo are not just cities but city-regions that are acting and working regionally."

Each weekday, Bay Area residents make 17 million auto trips and 1.4 million trips on public transit, the report said.

Fragmented transit systems result in one of the highest "regional costs per rider" compared to other metropolitan areas — 95 cents here, compared to 49 cents in New York City, 53 cents in Washington, D.C., 58 cents in Chicago and Philadelphia and 64 cents in Los Angeles.

Of the regions compared, only Seattle came out higher, at $1.03 per rider.

Moreover, Bay Area transit operators face a projected combined $17 billion capital deficit and $8 billion operating deficit by 2035, the report said.

A half-century ago, Bay Area regional cooperation resulted in saving the bay from becoming landfill, preserving open space in the hills and creating BART.

But current regional entities such as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission have limited authority because of fears they will make decisions against the interest of local governments.

For example, Menlo Park and Pleasanton have been taken to court for not fulfilling commitments under the state-mandated "Regional Housing Needs Allocation," the report noted.

"Home rule gives each community the right to say no — or yes. But the lack of effective regional governance around housing means we get too few homes overall ... and homes have little relationship to job centers.

"We get 'drive until you qualify (for a mortgage)' and mega-commutes for those seeking affordably priced homes. And we get boom-and-bust residential prices that drag down whole communities when the cycle shifts."

Palo Alto has nearly 2.5 jobs per employed resident compared to San Jose's 0.85 jobs, the report said.

"Yet both cities are part of the same labor market and essentially one housing market.

With local governments reaping more benefit from job growth than housing production, "the fiscal outcome of the location of jobs relative to homes is quite stark."

A bar chart in the report, drawn from data from the California Board of Equalization and the U.S. Census Bureau, showed Palo Alto towering over other cities in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties in total revenue per capita.

"The winner-take-all approach to local tax revenues results in fiscal and service disparity among cities. It also undermines regional or sub-regional cooperation and can lead to inefficient land-use outcomes," the report said.

It called for strengthening existing regional agencies or creating new ones — such as Portland's Metro or a tax-sharing scheme used in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn. — to tackle the challenges.

"To achieve any of these options will require turning more of our local residents into Bay Area citizens who recognize our shared fate and interest," the report concluded.

"Regionalism is not 'all or nothing' and can involve incremental changes. But only keeping what we have and assuming it will serve us for the future is no longer a viable option.

"Our needs are more interconnected now. Our governance should reflect that."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 8, 2013 at 7:50 pm

We definitely need to get one transit authority for the Bay Area with one scheduling system and one ticket (not the pseudo clipper we have at present). One commute should be one trip on one ticket and the different modes of transit should connect - buses arrive before the train and wait until the train unloads before moving on. The stations must be the end of route not midroute.

Well done, Google, for making noise about this.

Like this comment
Posted by livability
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 8, 2013 at 11:51 pm

The other way to look at this is why do Google workers want to live 50 miles away in San Francisco? Most of these people are immigrants (from other parts of the country or from other countries) so they could choose to live closer to work if they wanted to. Not so long ago, Mountain View and Palo Alto were very desirable places to live if you worked at companies like Google (or before that Sun and SGI at Google's current location).

Over the last 10 or 20 years, San Francisco's diversity and livability have grown exponentially while Palo Alto and Mountain View have really stagnated with downtown areas that fall sleep soon after dark and not much else to do after work. San Francisco has really pushed at making their whole city walkable and bikeable and accessible via public transit and now dozens of different neighborhoods seem alive and vibrant and fun places to live. Markets and restaurants are right around the corner from most homes and jobs all around town are easily accessible by bicycle or transit.

Meanwhile, Palo Alto is giving up on its neighborhoods with business districts all around town being shut down and replaced by condo complexes (e.g., the Edgewood Plaza or Alma Plaza). Most Palo Alto residents now have to drive to do anything since shops are getting father and farther away. The shops that remain in town are less and less diverse, so you still have to drive out of town if you want something a little out of the ordinary. This is the boring car-centric lifestyle that young people don't want and the reason that they are all moving to San Francisco.

Can Palo Alto ever become a real livable city again or is it just aspiring to be a suburban bedroom community? Zuckerberg started up Facebook in Palo Alto because he thought this was a hip place to live. Maybe it was back then, but I bet if he were to start over today, he would build his company in San Francisco.

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Posted by BART mistake
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 9, 2013 at 10:06 am

San Mateo County sccrewed up in the 70's when they declined a paltry half cent tax to be included in BART. Imagine a single transit system that rings the Bay.

SF to SFO, down to SJ, up thru Fremont to Oakland and out into the east bay.

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Posted by livability
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 10, 2013 at 4:25 pm

San Mateo bailed on BART in 1961. In hindsight, it is easy to blame your grandparents for that decision, but that argument is not productive going forward. The problem for our generation is how do we go forward from what we have now.

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Posted by Not all the credit
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 11, 2013 at 7:23 pm

Not all the credit belongs to Google. There are other companies that provide buses to Silicon Valley from SF and the Central Valley. at one point, HP and Intel provided charter flights for executives living in the Central Valley and the North Coast. In the nineties, one of these company bus lines was busted for providing wine and cheese to people on the way home...the open container law had been violated. A couple of the drivers were placed in a traffic school I was attending. This is not really a Google invention, nor is it a new thing.

Apparently, for many years Santa Clara County has required that large companies who employ lots of people here to provide alternate transportation to alleviate traffic they would otherwise cause.