Placing offices close to public transit is one of the best ways to get drivers off the road

In the San Francisco Bay Area, there are three main downtowns: San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose. And while these are still civic and even cultural centers, they’ve been losing jobs for years. The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) is trying to find ways to lure those jobs back. Much of the issue pulling jobs out of the centers of these cities has to do with transportation, and access to public transit.

SPUR’s Regional Planning Director, Egon Terplan, is working on a new report detailing why jobs have left and how to get them back, and he answered some questions about the challenges facing the Bay Area.

How has the geography of workplaces shifted in the Bay Area?

Over recent decades, job density in the Bay Area has declined as much new growth has gone into office parks and corporate campuses away from the region's transit system. These jobs are usually one to three miles from transit, a distance that means virtually everyone drives to work.

For example, throughout much of Silicon Valley, Caltrain (the commuter rail system) runs through historic downtowns adjacent to single family residential neighborhoods. The hundreds of thousands of high value technology jobs are often a mile or more to the east, a distance that would work on a bike, though could require traversing car-friendly streets (some without sidewalks) as well as crossing over a highway.

At the same time, some firms today increasingly want to be in urban settings -- while others wish to recreate some of the perceived amenities of cities. This is leading to two simultaneous current trends -- the growth of major firms in cities and the bringing of city amenities like cafes to the corporate campus. So while the suburban campus is a mainstay of the Bay Area geography, there is an opportunity to re-imagine these campuses as mixed-use settings focused on work as well as to better connect them to the surrounding communities. With appropriate densities, connecting to surrounding neighborhoods could involve new transit direct to the nearest rail station.

You note that jobs have declined in the region's traditional downtowns of San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland. What's behind that trend?

The declines are on a relative scale, where most growth has been elsewhere. In recent decades, San Francisco has suffered from the overall decline in financial services employment though is seeing important growth in technology social media and other technology-related firms today. But all three down towns are quite different. Oakland has lost portions of their major firms to suburban communities like Pleasanton further east. San Jose is not the job center even for itself (the job center of San Jose is North San Jose, a different district of office parks north of downtown).

What needs to change -- regulations, policies, incentives, miracles -- to bring new jobs into these downtowns?

In a region where driving remains inexpensive and too few are willing to take transit, the downtowns will remain at a competitive disadvantage. To change this requires three important changes.

First, driving must be more appropriately priced. This will mean tolls on the highways to help fund both road maintenance and transit on the same corridor. It could also mean a regional gas fee. Second, transit must become more competitive relative to driving. This happens when transit operators begin to allocate more of their service towards competitive markets (which would increase ridership) as well as by better controlling operating cost increases that gobble up new resources for service.

Third, we need to change the tax incentive structure to make downtowns and other dense places more competitive for investment. One option would be to revise California's infamous Proposition 13 by splitting commercial property from residential property. As commercial property taxes increased to market prices, the state (or region) could use a portion of the revenue to reinvest in dense job centers and downtowns as well as establish tax credits against the increased valuations. The key goal is to change the auto-centric landscape in a way that affects commuters, property owners, and employers making location decisions.

One of the assertions you make is that the smart growth movement has ironically been a part of the job sprawl problem because it focuses on putting housing near transit. You suggest that it's really jobs that should be close to transit. Why?

It is not that the smart growth movement has been part of the job sprawl problem. It's that they made a mistake by ignoring job sprawl for too long. Fortunately, this is slowly changing. Jobs and housing should both be near transit. But if there are limited parcels near a rail station and you really want to get people onto transit, it is more important to preserve key parcels for jobs because commuting to work is where the vast majority of all transit ridership happens (something like 60 percent nationally).

And to get commuters to ride transit, their job has to be much closer to the transit stop than their home. Commuters are more willing to walk or travel a distance from home to an initial transit stop than to walk or transfer at the destination end. This is borne out by examples of TOD housing where the commute patterns are essentially the same as standard suburban housing in nearby communities without adjacent transit. In addition, jobs are denser than housing so they more easily create conditions for competitive transit. Finally, since people change jobs more often than their home, it is important that there are enough jobs generally in transit locations. Otherwise, such job shifts could result in many commuters shifting from transit to driving.

You also recommend eliminating parking minimum requirements and setting maximums. Could you talk a little about why this is a different approach and why it might be better than the current one?

Many local communities have outdated parking requirements that require developers to build a minimum amount of parking regardless of whether or not so much parking is needed. Not only does the excess parking harm urban design and walkability, but it also provides a major incentive to drive. Many may think the right approach is to require paid parking (since many studies show that the price of parking has a big impact on driving rates).

The simple fact is that when there is no transit, people have to drive. So for most workers, charging for parking is simply a tax on driving. And it would be more appropriate to change the price of driving directly through vehicle license fees, gas or highway tolls. Additionally, charging for parking is difficult to administer. Companies and developers would either have to reconfigure their parking lots to have an attendant and gate or begin collecting fees from employees (and of course manage an enforcement process). Much easier would be to eliminate the excess parking and work with employers’ transportation demand management programs like shuttles, carsharing and dedicated rides.

Your report calls for getting more than half of workers to their jobs without driving. Is that a realistic goal? How could it be achieved? And when?

Getting half of workers to their jobs without driving is an aspirational goal that we think is attainable over time with the right adjustments. Here's how: First, we need a few investments (like bus rapid transit on Geary boulevard) to get current drivers onto transit for already low-driving job centers like downtown San Francisco. Second, we need to price driving. Third, we need to shift more jobs to transit-served settings. This last one is a much more long-term action. But we are in the midst of the Sustainable Communities Strategy, a planning process with a nearly 30-year window. It's worth considering how much has changed in the past 30 years.

Photo credit: Reuters

The full report, The Urban Future of Work [PDF], is now available from SPUR.

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