Wednesday, April 13, 2016

When moving to a high density urban area increases commuting distance

[preemptive apologies if I get something wrong in the following. I don't know much about the Bay Area and this kind of writing in the dark always makes me nervous]

I am, in many ways, the target audience for the utopian urbanists.. I mostly fit the demographic and I very much understand the appeal. If I were to list the things I liked best about life in LA -- the diversity, the culture, the food, the chance meetings with interesting people -- it would sound very much something from an urbanist op-ed.

In some ways, understanding the appeal makes me a bit more skeptical. Lots of smart people have jumped on this bandwagon, but almost all of them are even more in the target audience than I am, and when you combine that kind of strong appeal with a simple, elegant narrative and once the constant reinforcement of conventional wisdom starts kicking in, remarkably smart people can start missing surprisingly obvious counterexamples.

Take the frequently made argument that any addition of residential units to any area like San Francisco is good for everyone even if only the wealthy can afford the new units. More supply should translate to lower prices overall while increasing population density around job-rich areas will reduce commuting distance and strain on transportation infrastructure.

There's a beautiful simplicity to this argument, but much of that simplicity comes from some not-so-robust assumptions and aggregations.

Why do people move to cities? High paying jobs are often mentioned, but that only pins you down to a general area (and in an age of telecommuting, maybe not even that). Even for those without a car, most medium and large cities have options for commuting to nearby communities with cheaper housing. Since most people don't seem to object to reasonable commutes, other factors must come into play.

The appeal of cities compared with suburbs, small towns and the country can depend on a number of personality traits that can be difficult to predict such as tolerance to crowds and noise, but there are strong demographic indicators such as being well-off, young, single or childless. At the risk of stating the obvious, those indicators are remarkably easy to find in Silicon Valley.

That brings us to the sometimes controversial Google shuttle buses:
In late 2013, San Francisco Bay Area activists with Heart of the City began protesting the use of shuttle buses by Google and other tech companies to ferry employees from their homes in San Francisco and Oakland to corporate campuses in Silicon Valley, about 40 miles away.

It is helpful at this point to check the map (courtesy of Google):

To answer the musical question "do you know the way to San Jose?," The answer is: Yes, just headed down the 101 a few miles. You can't miss it.

This is relevant because, not only is San Jose closer to Google headquarters in San Francisco is, it is also far less expensive. Not to put too fine a point on it, these people are spending an hour or two a day sitting in a bus traveling 30 or 40 miles so that they can spend thousands of dollars a year more on rent.

Essentially, these Google employees are treating San Francisco as a suburb, and while this is something of an extreme case it is not all that unusual. Lots of large companies these days build sprawling campuses on the outskirts of urban areas.

This raises all the standard troubling questions about suburban living: everything from city culture to environmental impact to public health. It also raises some equally disturbing new ones. City living is disproportionately attractive to people who have money, particularly disposable incomes. If you are counting on market forces to set things right, what happens when people who want to live in the city can consistently outbid those who need to.?

P.S. For a bit of context on Silicon Valley suburban campuses, check out this NYT article.

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