Maps

The Google Bus Didn't Cause San Francisco to Become Super Expensive, But It May Be Accelerating the Process

A visual study.

Image
Chris Walker

The shuttle buses that ferry tech workers from San Francisco to Silicon Valley are accused of causing all kinds of secondary ills: They encourage people to live far from their workplaces. Those people move into neighborhoods where they otherwise might not live, driving up local rents. Then as neighborhoods evolve to cater to relatively wealthy young professionals, others are squeezed out.

It's possible, though, to think about this process a little more critically, to consider actual data. Last week, we wrote about some research from graduate students at Berkeley who tried to study how these shuttles influence employees' decisions on where to live and how to commute (bottom line: tech shuttles probably do take cars off the road, but they also contribute to the region's imbalance between jobs and housing).

Chris Walker, a data journalist now based in Mumbai (he's responsible for some other great data visualizations), has been thinking about the blurry cause-and-effect here, too: Can we actually say that these tech shuttles are driving neighborhood change?

"That's the easy conclusion to jump to," Walker says. "And I think that's what a lot of people would want to jump to: that these shuttles came first, and then all of a sudden these neighborhoods gentrified and became really unaffordable. But the story is obviously a lot more complicated than that."

Walker lived in San Francisco from 2007 to 2011, and – as anyone who lived there then probably recalls – many of the neighborhoods now clogged with private shuttles seemed to be growing more expensive then, too. So what does recent data from the city say? Walker tried to explore this with a couple of interesting maps built with open data from City Hall. Some of them rely on business registration data from the city to visualize the density of new restaurants, bars and salons registered with the city between 2011 and 2013 (in theory, these are the kinds of new businesses that would chase after clusters of wealthier consumers).

This is the map of recently registered restaurants and cafes, shown by orange-ish dots, with gray markers highlighting private shuttle stops (as they were identified and mapped in 2012 by Stamen):

In another map using city property assessment rolls, Walker plots all of the properties in town that appreciated by more than 70 percent between 2011 and 2013 (out of 196,782 taxable properties in the city, 6,389 met this description). Here, each of those properties is marked by a single dot:

The areas with densely clustered properties appear the brightest, as you can see in this zoomed-in view of the area around The Mission.

Walker isn't claiming here to have put his finger on a great indictment of the Google Bus. But this property-assessment map in particular raises another issue: it's clear that the entire city is becoming less affordable, even those places where tech workers can't live within walking distance of their commuter shuttles. "I think it’s an important thing to point out," Walker says. Still, rising property values – at least by this metric – are particularly prevalent in the neighborhoods served by these buses.

Here is Walker's take: "The shuttles are accelerating the process of gentrification that was already happening. There is a feedback loop. The tech workers are attracted to neighborhoods that are nice, but by moving there en masse, they are feeding into these affluent clusters in the city and making them even more unattainable for the median earner, or for people who are struggling."

That theory is likely closer to the truth. Inconveniently, it supports neither the simple claim that tech shuttles are the cause of all this change, nor the blanket defense that San Francisco can only stand to benefit from an influx of the people who ride them.

All images courtesy of Chris Walker.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.