Silicon Valley Commutes Are Hell. Time for Companies to Fix That
By Aarian Marshall
24 April 2017
Photo courtesy Getty Images
The northern bit of San Jose, California isn’t walkable Paris, but compared to where most tech companies settle in the Bay Area, it’s a whirling metropolis. And it’s where, in 2015, Samsung Semiconductor stuck its Silicon Valley headquarters, in a shiny, 10-story building surrounded by sidewalks. The kind of spot regular people stroll by, and can even pop into the shaved ice shop and cafes at its base.
It’s an unusual setup for the corner of California that mastered the uninspiring, closed-to-the-public office park, and where companies like Apple—whose “spaceship” campus will dedicate more square footage to parking than offices—are perfecting the art.
It may also prove vital: Silicon Valley has amassed perhaps the greatest collection of human capital and talent in history. But it’s driving those workers insane by subjecting them to terrible commutes.
People in San Jose hit 144 hours worth of delays in 2016. Three-fourths of Bay Area workers commute to work solo in personal cars, a convenient habit that’s generating much of that congestion, not to mention punishing the atmosphere. Those employees don’t have much in the way of choices: Just 28 percent of the Bay Area’s recent office development lies within a half-mile of a regional transit stop.
Private companies need to be part of the solution to grating commutes, and they need to get on board fast. That’s the key takeaway from SPUR’s newest report on the future of the corporate campus, based on interviews, working groups, and conversations with startups, governments, developers, and agencies in the Bay Area.
Startups have a few big priorities when choosing their office spaces, like being close to talented workers, protecting their products and code from prying eyes, and keeping wide, open floor plans that encourage collaboration.The 20th century office park got its start in the Northeast, but it’s been tweaked to fit exactly these Bay Area needs.
“There have been much more modest ambitions for building in the Silicon Valley, where [research parks] tend to be interchangeable,” said Chair and Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning Louise Mozingo, who worked on the SPUR report. “These places could be easily occupied. If your innovation got replaced, that’s fine. You rolled up shop and figured out the next thing to do.”
But research parks tend to be hard to reach by anything but a private car. Even the shuttle buses that ferry around the employees of some bigger companies sit in the crush of commuting delays.
But there are only so many downtown office spaces, and you can’t fully blame tech. The Bay Area is a patterned patchwork of municipalities, zoning regulations, and ordinances. A fiercely local approach to governance makes building denser developments, or even coordinating minor investments in transit, a knotty endeavor.
However, cities like Emeryville and San Jose, as well as nearby Contra Costa County, have associations where private sector thinking can mingle with public sector agencies to create, for example, a shuttle service to connect workers to public transit. These institutions can help tech publicly buy into the future, a phrase that sounds weird until you realize that startups, even the big ones, organize in units of months or years. Cities, by contrast, plan 10 or 20 years out. Building downtown, status-securing skyscrapers, pushing lawmakers toward policies that favor density, and investing dollars in public transit take time.
“If you can figure it out in the Bay Area, where there are more resources in terms of intellectual and real capital, then it can get applied elsewhere where they might not have quite as much but have the same problems,” said Professor Mozingo.