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Tech Titans: Community Citizens?

The Bay Area's Transportation Potential and the Role Tech Companies Can Play

By Nithin Coca
public transit San Francisco

It's clear that the Bay Area needs a transportation revolution. You've probably experienced our challenges – whether it's crowded, standing-room-only BART and Caltrain, the worsening traffic jams across the region, or the lack of integration that makes it difficult, or prohibitively expensive, to move from one of the region's 27 transit systems to another.

There are a lot of current proposals regarding our regional transportation mess, but they're not enough. Tech companies can play a roll in helping enable progress toward a better, more mobile and, importantly, more sustainable Bay Area.

Limited proposals

Here's the bad news – current transportation iniatives are, suffice to say, lacking. While cities like Taipei, London and even Los Angeles are in the process of adding many miles and multiple lines of new mass-transit infrastructure, the Bay Area has in the pipeline two small spur Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) expansions to the suburbs, and a billion-dollar plus, mile-long subway that will do little to alleviate the downtown transit crunch. The Transbay Terminal is currently being built – far over budget – in San Francisco, but it won't add any rail capacity to the city, as its much-awaited Caltrain extension to downtown San Francisco is now pegged to cost $3 billion and may not even start construction until sometime in the next decade.

There are some bright spots – Bay Area Bikshare is planning to expand tenfold in the coming year, from 700 bikes scattered across downtown San Francisco and near a couple of Peninsula Caltrain stations, to throughout San Francisco and the East Bay.

“The Bay Area is prime for us,” said Kansas Waugh with Motivate, who runs bikeshare systems across the United States, during a public seminar. “This is an area that bikeshare will work – it's dense, walkable and transit-connected.”

Moreover, transportation network companies, most notably Uber and Lyft, have begun expanding their carpool systems Uberpool and Lyft Line, with massive success. Both companies are also now realizing that their systems work in tandem, not in competition, with public transportation.

“We don't think we should be the mode choice for every trip,” said Tommy Hayes, Lyft's transportation policy manager. “We are stronger when we work with other transportation options.” Hayes added that 20 percent of Lyft rides in the Bay Area end near a Caltrain or BART stop.

Still, there is a major challenge that is being solved, so far, by piecemeal solutions, especially when you look at the Bay Area as a region. Bikes and Uber won't solve traffic, overcrowding and congestion. We need bigger, bolder solutions that reflect the new reality of how the region is integrated.

“Somebody will live in Mountain View and commute to San Francisco, and they're crossing city lines, county lines ... The reality is that we move across all these political boundaries and restrictions in our daily life – the planning and transport network is based on these little, discreet political entities,” said Gerry Tierney, an urban mobility expert at Perkins + Will’s San Francisco office.

Beyond tech shuttles

It is that lack of planning that has led to the infamous, controversial tech shuttles, which fill a gap in mass-transit options between the big tech campuses in Silicon Valley and residents living in San Francisco and more distant parts of the Bay Area

Companies are doing more. Facebook has said it will put in $1 million to fund a Caltrain extension to the Dumbarton bridge, which would put a station closer to its headquarters in Menlo Park. Google is working with Mountain View to build more housing, including low-income housing, around its Mountain View campus. And LinkedIn has said it will implement a plan to reduce single-occupancy vehicles at its headquarters, pushing more of its employees to either take transit or carpool to work.

The problem is that these plans are great in isolation, but they're focused on either employees or just the surrounding community. They are not yet integrated with wider Bay Area transit challenges, or wider communities that are feeling the impact of the region's rapid, tech-led growth.

What we need is more support for big plans. San Francisco's subway plan, a second transbay tube or Envision Silicon Valley. Companies should be working with Clipper as it designs version 2.0, which, SPUR, a Bay Area nonprofit pushing for better, more integrated transport, hopes will include regional transit passes like those which exists in cities all around the world. A million dollars from Facebook and some housing is not enough. Companies can play a far more active role.

A model could be what happened recently in Boston, when, as part of its new headquarters project, New Balance invested $15 million in building a new commuter rail station. This station provided benefits for the entire community and is helping Boston build a better transportation system -- and it's a model that could be replicated by Bay Area companies.

In fact, Rod Diridon Sr., with the Mineta Transportation Institute, sees hope in current action – and the potential for more a la New Balance.

“Most of the large companies are offering leadership through the community, and through the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, but they could invest a little bit of their own capital in transit,” Diridon said.

Uber and Lyft, if they truly believe that their future lies in working with mass transit, should also work with cities to develop better transportation systems. To do anything else would be, quite honestly, hypocritical.

The climate factor

There is another angle, of course: climate. Right now, global leaders are gathering in Paris for the UNFCCC COP21, which many hope will lead to a historic climate agreement. Sustainable transportation is a key facet of any carbon-neutral future, and the Bay Area, as a hub for global technologies, could – and should – be a leader for a country that has fallen far behind the rest of the world in this field.

“It is the crippling issue,” Diridon said. “We've been underfunding our transport infrastructure since '50s and '60s. There is not enough money to maintain current transport systems, and we're now No. 28 in the world on transport infrastructure.”

There a lot of people to blame for this – oil companies that shifted us to automobile-centric design, lack of integration, and years of unstable, unreliable national transportation investment. But as we aim to move forward toward a more sustainable world, we need a better way to move around that's not only more efficient economically, but more efficient for the environment as well.

“Climate change is a crisis – one way to solve it it is electric-powered transport. Cars, and mass transport, high-speed rail, light rail and a better BART,” Diridon concluded.

According to Alex Mackenzie Torres, CMO of SF-based public transit app Moovit, all of these systems need to work well together, through better, integrated technology.

“We believe that the future of transportation technology lies in a multimodal model: When users have access to more and more forms of transportation in a city, they’re able to get around their neighborhoods in more convenient ways, shorten their time spent waiting for a bus that’s delayed, and spend more time doing the things they love,” Torres said.

Image credit: Jim Maurer/Flickr

Nithin Coca headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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