David Orban/Flickr

Drive every day? Move closer to work?

At the end of an emotional, marathon meeting on Tuesday night in San Francisco, the city's Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors unanimously approved an 18-month pilot project that will permit private shuttles run by Silicon Valley tech firms to use public bus stops for a fee. In theory, this agreement benefits both parties: Companies like Google and Apple are able to recruit talented tech workers who don't want to live in Mountain View with free transportation from their San Francisco homes. San Francisco, in turn, doesn't have to deal with all of these people trying to commute every morning by private car.

The shuttle service supposedly takes cars off the road. More than one tech worker got up at the meeting Tuesday to make this point about sustainability. This thinking, though, assumes that most of these Silicon Valley employees would drive to work from San Francisco without these shuttles, rather than move out of the city and closer to work. If the latter is true, then these private shuttles could contribute to a regional imbalance in jobs and housing.

It's impossible to fully assess this counter-factual: What would happen in San Francisco if the Google Bus (and other private services like it) didn't exist?

We can, though, at least ask some of the people who ride them. Two graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley's Department of City and Regional Planning have actually done this. Danielle Dai and David Weinzimmer wanted to know how the shuttles influence the decisions of Silicon Valley workers on where to live and how to get to work.

There are about 200 of these private shuttle stops in San Francisco. Dai and Weinzimmer focused on nine of the the more heavily trafficked ones, each served by more than one tech firm. By their own travel-time comparison, it would take most of these people about 30 percent longer to commute to Silicon Valley firms like Apple, Facebook, and Google by public transit than private shuttle (this assumes the tech firms would provide a last-mile shuttle from Caltrain stations down the Peninsula). So it's easy to see why workers love the service.

Dai and Weinzimmer distributed flyers for an online research survey to nearly a thousand commuters at these stops and ultimately got usable responses from 130 (there was a $50 incentive to participate). Asked what they would do if the shuttle service were discontinued, 48 percent of these people said they would drive to work alone. Only 18 percent said that they would take Caltrain, and 15 percent said they'd carpool. 10 percent said they'd leave the job. As Dai and Weinzimmer write:

These findings support the positive impacts of shuttles on environmental and congestion reduction goals, since they are reducing solo driving in a congested freeway corridor. However, they also suggest that the shuttles are reducing use of public transit. If the survey results can be generalized to the estimated 7,000 daily San Francisco-Silicon Valley shuttle riders, 20%, or about 1,400 daily riders, are lost to transit because of the shuttles.

Dai and Weinzimmer also asked if the riders would move closer to work if the shuttles were discontinued, and 40 percent said they would. This implies that the shuttles directly impact where many of these people decide to live, enabling them to locate farther from the office than they otherwise might. Since taking their current tech job, 22 percent of these shuttle riders had actually moved within the Bay Area to somewhere farther from their workplace. And everyone who moved into the Bay Area from outside of the region was aware of the shuttle service while they were choosing their home.

Many of these same people said they valued living in a walkable neighborhood, and living near a shuttle stop was the fifth-most popular variable they gave for deciding where to live (that's after proximity to entertainment and transit, and living in an urban neighborhood). Actual proximity to work was much farther down the list.

Dai and Weinzimmer conclude with a mixed assessment: Yes, these shuttles take cars off the road.

However, it is also important to recognize that the shuttles may exacerbate jobs-housing imbalances by enabling people to live farther away from where they work and allowing Silicon Valley cities to avoid dealing with the consequences of their underproduction of high amenity urban neighborhoods.

Top image courtesy of Flickr user David Orban.

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