Wednesday, January 15, 2014

How to Interpret the Google Bus Protests

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 (


  1. what you fail to mention, Dave, is that the humongous Google salaries allow these younger people to out bid other potential residents thus raising the cost of housing and forcing middle income folks into smaller and smaller residences....of course there is anger at being displaced by a giant check book and then flaunting it with a private bus service...

    1. Actually, I did mention "using the paychecks from the tech world". Besides, the folks earned those checks by having high proficiency in skills that are highly valued at present, which is how the marketplace works. Can we really argue that they shouldn't be allowed to spend money on the things, such as location, that matter most to them? Wouldn't that be anti-free market and contrary to many of the freedoms we espouse?

      No, it was our job to see the coming wave and to prepare for it. And we failed.

      Also, I don't consider riding a bus to work to be "flaunting" anything. Flaunting would be putting thirty new Ferraris on the road instead of a bus, further congesting the freeways,