What is a city?

Traditionally, cities are complex physical and social structures that attract high concentration of development. It is a place where various resources can be found in close proximity to each other. Such density of people and resources encourages new networks and ideas to be formed, which makes a city a fertile ground for innovation. For this reason, cities often attract waves of people to live, work, and play. However, what happens when a city experiences the reverse?

No, I’m not talking about urban blight. I’m talking about something a bit different: a daily cycle of talent in and out of the city. In order to attract talented professionals, Google, Facebook, Apple, and other big tech companies in the Bay Area have private buses that shuttle their employees from San Francisco to the South Bay where their companies are located. Rather than having their employees commute everyday by car, these companies provide free shuttles to facilitate an hour long commute everyday to/from work. In 2012 Stamen Designs mapped out this network of private shuttles in San Francisco. This art project reveals a complex system of routes where large private shuttles cycle back and forth hundreds of times per day to shuttle tens of thousands of professionals out of SF.

Many people have expressed their discontent with companies like Google, because they do not have to pay for the city infrastructures in San Francisco even though they use the city’s bus stops and roads. Additionally, this huge influx of professionals are driving up housing prices. It is becoming increasingly more difficult to live in San Francisco if you make anything less than the average engineer’s salary. These are all real issues that deserve further investigation. However, rather than just being a financial issue, these private shuttles have created a whole host of other questions related to the regional dynamics of the Bay Area and questions related to broader environmental questions.

  1. Every morning shuttles that look like private tour buses carry people (and talent) out of the city, and in the evening, they return to the city for sleep, food, and entertainment. The San Francisco Bay Guardian coined San Francisco as a growing “bedroom community.” What exactly is a bedroom community? How does this change a city, especially the second largest city in the nation? Additionally, how does this change the surrounding area where the companies are located?
  2. How does this kind of commute affect city development, planning, and design in San Francisco and in the cities in the South Bay? What kinds of social dynamics does such a commute foster? How will this affect the way San Francisco and the South Bay will develop?
  3. How does this change what kind of work is available in the San Francisco? Who is working in the San Francisco?
  4. Rents in San Francisco are ranked the highest in the country at the moment. Who can afford the pay to live in the city? Supposedly, the rents are set to match the six figure salary that many hi-tech professionals make. How does the expensive price tag to live in San Francisco affect people who don’t necessary work in the hi-tech industry? How will this affect the city’s neighbor, Oakland?
  5. How does the tech environment in San Francisco compare to the South Bay? How does this current situation affect innovation in San Francisco?
  6. These companies have touted that their shuttles helps alleviate traffic congestion and are more environmentally friendly than having their employees drive their own cars. However, how will these shuttles really affect the environment in the long run? Less harm done doesn’t mean no harm is done. What does sustainability mean in this specific case? Is this kind of commute really sustainable? What about the lifestyles of these professionals? Are such lifestyles sustainable?
  7. Finally, what are these commuters’ sense of place and belonging? Some people may wonder why I am asking this question when the average commute time to work for Americans is around 25 minutes. Given that commuting from SF to the South Bay is almost 2 times the average commute time, there shouldn’t be much difference, right? This is a very interesting question that deserves further exploration; a comparative analysis would be able to provide some insights into this question.

I am going to stop here, because the list can go on for quite a few pages. The list above are just some questions that deserve further exploration when stakeholders discuss these private shuttles and the impacts they have on the communities in the Bay Area. This is not just a financial issue. Moreover, this is not just a San Francisco issue. These private shuttles affect many communities in the Bay Area financially, socially, and environmentally.

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