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One Thing Silicon Valley Can’t Seem to Fix (nytimes.com)
71 points by gk1 on July 8, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 101 comments



The common complaint among the politicians is that tech companies are skinflint. The bad laws are maintained (Marin County just exempted itself from dense housing laws for the next 10 years[0]) because the people who care about urbanism are not the people who give the many local campaign donations.

One major problem is, until recently, there has been no noticeable movement in local government[1] to create good urban policies. I suggest joining the YIMBY Party.[2]

[0] http://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/article/Marin-bill-SB106-...

[1] http://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/07/07/housing-cris...

[2] http://www.sfyimby.org


I think Marin County is an example of self-sorting. People who want to live there do want to live in suburban developments. I don't think a YIMBY Party would have as good of a chance of capturing much of the vote. (Additionally, the streets are not built on a grid and there is poor public transit investment.) I think we have plenty of areas we can densify in San Francisco and the East Bay which would want it with sufficient promotion of the YIMBY Party.


  Marin County just exempted itself from dense housing laws
Counties have no such power. Such NIMBYism is implemented at the state level courtesy of CA's longstanding one-party rule


Nitpicking. It was added to a budget trailer bill by the representative from Marin County, and accepted in return for his support of the new gas tax or something. Politics are ugly.


But that goes nowhere without 20 other Democrats (statewide) voting in favor.


Why is that a bad law? Not everyone wants to live in a concrete jungle. Nature is good for your health.


> concrete jungle

This is the sort of hyperbole that blocks reasonable policies


Devil's advocate. If SF actually wanted to meet the demand for housing it would be a concrete jungle. No value judgment, there are just a ton of people that want to move there. But since we know that SF isn't going to do that to preserve the character of the city the amount of available housing is basically arbitrary. So you could build more housing, but since no matter what prices are still going to be high and most people are still going to be left out the only reason to really do it is if it benefits the city and/or current residents.


One man’s concrete jungle is another man’s walkable and extremely lively community.

Also, many people have pointed out, we don’t need to go full Manhattan to satisfy current demand. We can do it with mid-rise construction, that still leaves lots of open spaces and views of the sky.

To do that, we have to recognize that “character” is not just the outside of the building, increasingly a playground for the rich, but the life that goes on inside them.


Exactly. Six stories is about right, imho.


Yes, that's why there's a distinction made between "suburban" and "metropolitan" areas.


Car culture forms a positive feedback loop and perpetuates itself just like many other things. Everyone has a car. So you build a lot of parking and don't worry if campus is miles away and not connected to transit. So everyone has to have a car. And so on.

As long as it's the predominant style and no one minds the costs it'll go on indefinitely. From other areas of the country (Washington DC, Los Angeles) it can be really bad for a really long time...people will complain but they won't change.

This being such an American cultural thing too, the pain threshold is very high.

Most people take jobs despite bad commutes and inaccessibility without a car. So people are actively voting their priorities and this isn't one of them. Bad for time, money, and environment, but hey life is busy, most everyone has other fish to fry.


Effective public transit can kill the auto feedback loop. The problem is BART fell into (poorly managed) maintenance-only mode for too long. Now they're trying to maintain and incrementally expand the system in disparate directions, which doesn't leverage economies of scale. Plus the bay has to deal with multiple inefficient overlapping agencies managing transit.

Tech companies should be actively lobbying for pro-density/pro-transit political candidates and vocally encouraging constituent employees to campaign/vote at all levels - a high-density highly connected Bay Area would save the companies millions in salary alone.

* Job density near Sunnyvale: http://imgur.com/a/C0Xl9 (via https://www.slideshare.net/alevin/sunnyvale-peery-park-prese...)

* Bart stations: https://www.bart.gov/stations

* Hypothetical "BART 2050" map: https://cdn-images-1.medium.com/max/1600/1*f5wofXsD8WNqPOZSU... (proposed, planned, and under-construction projects via https://futuretravel.today/bay-area-2050-the-bart-metro-map-... - good read)

2050 is an unacceptably long timeline - especially if the biggest issues are purely politics and bureaucracy. The engineering side is not a bottleneck and the political system can be fixed if we just helped the existing pro-density/pro-transit groups get elected.


Part of the problem is that pro-transit usually is synonymous with "pro-transit subsidy". That's not a sustainable system. With expensive prices on systems like the BART, even this subsidy is going disproportionately to certain tax brackets and not others. There are certainly for profit public transit operators with higher uptime, higher QOS, better safety record, and dramatically lower prices, one wonders what the hell is wrong with BART.


And hopefully they will finally finish those empty apartment buildings in Downtown Sunnyvale soon. http://www.mercurynews.com/2016/10/13/sunnyvale-downtown-to-...


That's a pretty misanthropic, and frankly, uninformed view. People know their interests.

The tradeoff is transportation versus land. You want to stop paying rent, but can't afford to buy your own place so you decide to buy farther out and spend more time traveling.

We got a middle class in this country due to the Automobile and the suburbs, which let people get out from under the thumb of the landlord and buy their own land. Cars -- and transportation more generally -- is a produced good. Land is not a produced good. For all the complaints about sprawl, an economy in which we substitute produced goods for non-produced goods that are inherited from wealthy families is a better economy.

Now you can argue that we should be using more electric vehicles, or fixed track vehicles, and all of that is worthy of discussion. But you cannot argue against sprawl. We continue to spread out as a society so that each person buys their own plot of land instead of paying endless rent to the landlords who monopolize the land in the city center. We continue to try to improve transportation and communication so that those who own key locations cannot extract the same rents from us as they used to. This is a virtuous feedback loop, and those wanting everyone to live as renters in large urban centers don't understand that this creates a permanent rentier class of landlords with unlimited power of taxation, and a permanent underclass of tenants who don't get to keep the gains of their increasing productivity. That's how you get serfs. That's why landlords have always opposed transportation innovation, whether it be opposition to the creation/subsidy of roads or of rail.

It is also why we have a history of diffusion. The built up areas of cities house fewer people per square meter of land than they did 100 years ago, and there it's also fewer than 100 years before that, etc. Sprawl has been happening since Roman Times, and landlords have been screaming against it for all of history.


> You want to stop paying rent, but can't afford to buy your own place so you decide to buy farther out and spend more time traveling.

This is the foundation your argument rests upon, but it's flawed: it assumes that urban property prices will always be high relative to the price of suburban housing due to the cheaper cost of low-rise construction.

This is not inevitable because the proper economic comparison (especially in context) is the out-of-pocket cost in cash not only of housing but also of transportation. If suburban housing is cheaper than urban housing, but suburban transportation is so much more expensive than urban transportation that the combined cost of suburban housing plus transportation is higher than the combined cost of urban housing plus transportation, then it no longer makes microeconomic sense to move to the suburbs.

In point of context, the real cost of suburban transportation is indeed much higher than the real cost of urban transportation. Suburban road infrastructure in America is falling apart because initial construction was subsidized by state and federal governments on the assumption that localities could pay for long-term maintenance, but most localities don't have that kind of budget and would need to raise local taxes by tens of thousands of dollars per household in order to afford proper maintenance (let alone expansions). High-density urban public transit, on the other hand, has high up-front costs for initial development, but can much more easily have its long-term maintenance costs covered by its large user base.

TL:DR - you're wrong because the real cost of suburban lifestyles has been distorted through government policy to make suburban lifecycles artificially cheap, and correcting these distortions would make clear that sprawl is unsustainable.


> This is the foundation your argument rests upon, but it's flawed: it assumes that urban property prices will always be high relative to the price of suburban housing due to the cheaper cost of low-rise construction.

LOL, I am saying the exact opposite! Look, this is econ 101 stuff -- I am describing a trade-off between transportation and construction technologies. Like any trade off, price will be at the indifference level between the two. So of course the price differential between living in the city center and a farther location will be the indifference point of cost of travel + price at new location vs price at old location. You and I agree.

Now, look carefully at this equation:

cost of travel + price at new location = price at old

What happens when the cost of travel decreases, say due to some innovation in travel, or even due to a subsidy given to transportation? Does the suburb become more expensive or does the city become cheaper? Well, a bit of both, but mostly the city becomes much cheaper because there is a lot more land in the suburbs than in the cities.

Alternately, look at what happens when transportation becomes more expensive. Does the suburb become cheaper or does the city center become more expensive? The city center becomes more expensive, because again there is a lot more land in the suburb.

So what you have described in "refuting" my point is exactly the argument I have been making. That there is a trade off.

Now, in this trade off, we have a situation in which so called advocates of housing have been condemning subsidies to transportation and in fact have been calling for reductions in transportation and taxes on transportation. They feel that the roads, automobile and the suburbs are a mistake and we should all be living in tall apartments in the city, with say nature preserves outside the city and no suburbs. My argument is that this causes the city center to be much more expensive, and so landlords benefit. This also hurts economic mobility.

The second argument is that we have constrained areas like SV that are suffering from too expensive housing, and as a result we should again tax transportation more and subsidize housing more, etc. This is crazy. One nice thing about transportation, and why it should be subsidized, is that when you subsidize it you get more of it. It's a standard economic produced good. But when you subsidize land, you don't get more land, the land becomes more expensive. Look at Prop 13. It was a windfall for incumbent property owners but everyone who bought after Prop 13 came into effect had to pay for the benefit in the form of higher house prices, as the subsidy was capitalized into the current price. In the same way, the mortgage interest deduction doesn't help current owners, it helps the previous owners who bought when the law wasn't in effect, but for current buyers those benefits are already capitalized into the price. In other words, subsidies to property owners don't increase the supply of housing services consumed but subsidies to transportation do increase the supply of transportation services consumed.

So if you are going to subsidize one thing to alleviate the housing crunch, subsidize transportation. Build a faster BART. Build more freeways. Give people vouchers for fuel. That is by far the most effective way to allow more people to work in Silicon Valley. It is unfortunately not politically correct, because the innumerate "smart growth" people think that we're going to tear down all of our single family homes and replace them with three story homes, thus tripling land density, and that this is the most efficient way of increasing housing available to centers like silicon valley.


That is an overly simplistic view of land ownership. In reality, nobody is an island. Much of the value of your land is provided by the presence of nearby people.

The landlords in the city center get a lot of benefit from their investment in the area, but in a functional environment they are limited by competition and regulation, i.e., neighbors building more densely and taxes that rise with land values. In effect, you should pay rent to the city for the benefit that it provides to you. Silicon Valley suffers from the limited mobility and perverse incentives from a bad 1978 tax law. http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2016/09/22/california_s_...

Even outside California, American sprawl does not pay adequate rents. It was subsidized by tax benefits and federal matching funds for building to federal standards. In the long run, the suburbs need to either contract, going back to septic tanks and expensive bespoke utilities, or expand into full-fledged cities.

https://www.strongtowns.org/the-growth-ponzi-scheme/

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/6/22/greatest-hits-...

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/1/9/the-real-reason...

https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/1/16/reinventing-th...


I'm not sure what point you are responding to. I never said that man was an island. The idea that landlords "invest" in city centers by capturing rents is quite funny. They certainly aren't investing by earning income, nor is the quality of the housing stock very high. And of course Prop 13 ensures that landowners pay little in the way of taxes. So what exactly are these investments in exchange for people turning over 1/3 of their income to them?

The truisms that Silicon Valley is limited by land aren't really relevant to any point being made by anyone in this discussion. The question is not whether land is a constraint, but what the best ways are of dealing with the constraint. So far, the consensus has been to recruit more land into use because improving transportation technologies gives us a more efficient way to recruit land rather than building taller buildings. This is true for a number of reasons -- e.g. look at the gains in efficiency in travel over the last 100 years versus the gains in efficiency in construction. Look at basic geography -- the ability to decrease transportation costs by 1/2 allows for a quadrupling of the available land that can be recruited. Or look at basic physics -- a 50% reduction in the cost of building an additional floor still requires tearing down the existing building before making it taller, as you can't just add another floor to an existing skyline like you can add another zone to an existing city. You need a stronger foundation before you can add a new floor.

Anyways, you're not going to get anywhere with strawman arguments or by regurgitating talking points. Density has been declining all over the world in areas with or without zoning laws, because transportation has been advancing much faster than construction. This is a fundamental tradeoff that determines whether a region gets more or less dense.


Landlords invest in city centers by buying land and then developing it. If they rent it out, then they need to spend money to maintain it. Or they can sell the land to new landlords. Whoever owns the land takes on the risk that it might decrease in value, such as during the time of Cold War subsidies of white flight,[0] or during the time of NAFTA destruction of inefficient manufacturing.

Again, you are using island mentality, that it doesn’t matter where the land is as long as you can drive there. In reality, location matters tremendously because infrastructure doesn’t scale that much. The San Francisco Bay Area now has the most ridiculous commutes in the country,[1] yet a couple Bay Area suburbs have gone bankrupt recently (in accordance with the other links that I posted in this thread). Increasing density is not just about maintaining greenbelts,[2] but it is also about creating more financially sustainable patterns of living.

Also, I find your idea of destroying everything to build more to be very odd. Surely, in physical terms, it should be quite possible to tear down a 2-story single-family home and replace it with a 4-unit, 3–5-story multi-family home. And in a functional market, you can clear out a 3-unit building to build a 5-unit building, because everybody would be able to find another place that they can afford. Developers don’t all have to be mega-developers with skyline-altering skyscrapers.[3]

But Prop 13 has perverse incentives against that, too: Creating a taller building will trigger a tax reassessment and increase your property tax rate; not to mention all the stupid costs of zoning and the approval process. Currently, only the mega-developers have the resources to build successfully. Thus, the rules that were intended to improve social equity have instead increased inequality.

[0] https://www.treehugger.com/urban-design/why-sprawl-was-cause...

[1] http://www.mercurynews.com/2016/11/02/job-boom-intensifies-t...

[2] http://www.sfhac.org

[3] https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/6/12/the-power-of-g...


Thank you. This is a point that usually gets missed on HN: car culture creates massive amounts of housing supply. It's hard enough to build at pace with urbanization. The contention for urban housing would be truly hopeless without the suburbs. Restricting a city's housing supply to what bicycles and buses could reasonably serve is equivalent to killing several hundred residential skyscrapers.

Nevertheless, this isn't the middle ages, it's not that important to own land. Condos in high-rises work too.

The current policy of low height limits is a lucrative handout to landlords: it keeps their competition small, just like restricting transportation does.


I'd also add that the best source on all things related to land policy is the Lincoln Institute. This is a great study about declining densities (even in the age of condos)

http://www.lincolninst.edu/publications/working-papers/persi...

This is why land really does remain crucial. I'm not sure why everyone thinks that tall condos means we aren't reliant on land. Tall condos have accomplished basically nothing, and our cities now are much less dense than they were even in the middle ages.


Unfortunately you can't blame this on zoning laws, because if you compare areas with and without strict zoning laws, you don't see much difference in this regard. E.g. San Francisco, for most of it's history, didn't have strict zoning laws. Yet, like most cities, you pretty much never tear down a whole neighborhood of two story buildings to replace them with 4 story buildings. Once an area is built up, it's built up. Whatever height/density there is tends to stay there. The way cities grow is by growing out -- recruiting new land -- and also via infill. Existing structures just aren't torn down that often. It happens, in the sense that houses are condemned and sometimes replaced with something bigger. But we don't see it happening at a fast rate, whether there are laws against it or not.

Zoning laws are relevant at the margin -- when you add to the city, are you adding 2 story buildings or 4 story buildings. But once the neighborhood is built, that's the neighborhood for the next 100 years, whether there are strict zoning laws there or not. Assume no zoning laws at all. You as a contractor will need to contact all the individual owners and negotiate some deal with them to tear down a perfectly good property and replace it with something a bit taller. How likely is that to pencil out? You might be able to tear down one building, but not the whole neighborhood. The neighborhood will stay the way it is.

There is also another issue at play, which is that once the first tall building is built, the land values go up in the other buildings around it. Land is one of those things where you don't need to actually build the housing in order for the landowner to benefit financially. The developer, after tearing down the first building will have to pay much more to buy out the second. And even more to buy out the third. Very quickly, the arbitrage profits that would drive a market solution disappear, so you don't get market solutions that support tearing down existing buildings on a mass scale. Historically, cities were changed like this after fires or earthquakes, but not in response to market forces. All those people who think that the reason Palo Alto is full of single family homes is just zoning, and if we were to get rid of zoning, Palo Alto would be filled with sky scrapers are in for a big disappointment. Market forces don't work very well here. Regardless of what happens with Zoning, Palo Alto will remain pretty much the same for a very long time, barring a massive fire. Even Nero had to start a fire, and he wasn't constrained by zoning.


I wouldn’t say San Francisco is exactly lacking in zoning (http://sf-planning.org/zoning-map), and whatever it lacks in specific law, it makes up with the most horrendous process imaginable. (http://sf.streetsblog.org/2017/03/30/yimby-asks-how-do-we-ge...)


From the second link:

"Much of the planning code needs to be tossed out. “Keep the seismic codes,” said Pinkston, and get rid of everything else. "

That strategy gets you more Ghost Ship warehouses.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2016_Oakland_warehouse_fire


I think she was exaggerating, slightly. In reality, we have a lot of laws that, on the face, have some purpose, but are being used in terrible ways. Even the fire code, frequently, is used to make places less safe.[0]

For the most egregious example, the California Environmental Quality Act was supposed to preserve the good parts of the environment, but the overwhelming majority of the times that it is used, and the overwhelming cost of complying with it, is against development inside cities where there is no pristine nature to protect.[1]

[0] https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/3/28/how-fire-chief...

[1] http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/opinion/commentary/sd-ut...


Regarding your last point, do you think a land value tax[1] might be able to mitigate some of the issues you raise?

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_value_tax


How do condos fit into your model of what "we" want?


Condos are great, but not really relevant in the big scheme of things. They may be relevant in the future, but so far, the technological gains in the area of building construction have lagged the technological gains in the area of transportation and communication.

Alternately, you can ask why does density keep declining even though we have the technology to build taller buildings? E.g. the skyline keeps going up but people/square meter in built up areas keep declining? Why is that? One reason is that building up is really inefficient. It costs a lot more in terms of $/sqft as you add another story, and those extra $ have to paid by the lower stories as well. They aren't just paid by the top floors. So even though tall buildings tend to capture our imagination, we don't really build a lot of tall buildings as a percentage of all buildings built. It's too expensive. Another reason is that space per person keeps increasing. We like to build our houses about 6% bigger each year. That number dwarfs any gains in density from taller buildings. E.g. in the past, you'd have 400 people living in a 4 story building and now you have 300 people living in an 8 story building. The building has gotten taller but density has decreased and the need for spreading out hasn't changed.


Sprawl simply is not an answer for most people. There is a limit to the commute anyone will tolerate, and people don't want to live in some cookie cutter house in the middle of nowhere. It's hard to build real livable towns quickly.

American cities hesitate to raise construction limits until the problem gets really bad - selfish homeowners will voted against rezoning because they profit from the rising demand that prices others out of the area. It's extremely rare for a city to let supply freely follow demand.

> Alternately, you can ask why does density keep declining even though we have the technology to build taller buildings? E.g. the skyline keeps going up but people/square meter in built up areas keep declining?

Source?


But even in the US, there are other options.

I'm in the Google NYC office, which occupies most of a building that's a full city block and 15 stories high (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/111_Eighth_Avenue) and that sits on top of a major subway station. We also have floors in a few of the neighboring buildings (Chelsea Market, etc.).

It seems to work really well. The density means that it's not that physically far to go to meet with another team, and that you hear what's going on with completely unrelated divisions.

I'm a little surprised that Silicon Valley overall has stuck with these relatively low-rise, sprawling campuses.


Manhattan is the one place in the US where urbanism is allowed, and even then, there's a pretty strong instinct towards preserving the parts of it built at lower density.

Building Manhattan-like environments even a few miles over in Brooklyn is vehemently opposed, though not very successfully.


San Francisco would have 1.6 million people at Brooklyn's density. Fears of Manhattanization are a distraction. What San Francisco needs are vast tracts of 5 and 6-story apartment buildings where single-family homes now sit.


Most of San Francisco's single family homes are further from the city (in public transit minutes) than Oakland and Berkeley.

The public transit service from single family homes to downtown is already overcrowded and way too frequent (there is an extreme congestion problem among buses and trains themselves, before considering private cars). I'm skeptical that Muni could even maintain current levels of crowding with so many more riders.

I'm certain that Muni service to these areas would not get any faster. So the result of this would be to have vast numbers of people wasting vast amounts of time.

We're much more likely to get a livable city with a few dozen to a few hundred skyscrapers in and around each downtown (SF, Oakland, etc). People living in them could walk or bike to work reasonably quickly.

Vast tracts of 5-6 story buildings would only work if we could blanket them in subway coverage, and even BRT is pushing the upper limit of our capabilities as a human civilization these days.


Sure! I take it as a given that such a city requires strong transit options.


  Google NYC office, which occupies most of a building that's a full city block and 15 stories high
But all corporate use, with no residences? How does that not aggravate, rather than help, a neighborhood housing shortage?


Yep, all corporate use. Subway works pretty well to get people there. And honestly, I'm pretty pessimistic about just building enough housing capacity to be comfortable. There's been a ton of residential building in NYC, but it's all been "luxury" 1-bedroom and studios. The incentives just aren't there to build "family condo" units, at least in Manhattan.


> I'm a little surprised that Silicon Valley overall has stuck with these relatively low-rise, sprawling campuses.

One word: Earthquakes.


Wrong word: Zoning


Didn't stop Japan, though.


The article does point out that the vast number of parking spaces at these offices is dictated by zoning requirements, and the remote locations away from transit are mostly a result of NIMBYism.


Haven't a bunch of companies relocated from Silicon Valley to SF specifically because employees preferred to live in SF and not commute for hours? I think people are "voting" for that as a priority, to the extent they can.


I left Silicon Valley and went back to my home country because I couldn't stand suburbia, and couldn't stand the idea of commuting from SF either. I now make 1/3 as much money, but live a comfortable lifestyle and commute to work in 25 minutes of public transit.


Some employees do. While making it totally untenable for many others. Which may be fine depending upon the demographic you're targeting.


> While making it totally untenable for many others.

Howso?


If you want a large house, a backyard, or good public schools living in SF can be tough.


That is what BART is for though, yea? I have friends with nice houses and driveways and all that in Berkeley and it is only a few stops into the city.


Or a car. Some people like living a car-centric lifestyle, and it's no fun in SF.


One of the things you're paying rent for is the vast amount of nature sites within a few hours' driving. Living in SF and never using a car is a huge waste, though if you go infrequently enough it can make more sense to rent as needed.


No, it's mainly because the best parts of Silicon Valley ran out of space. If historical norms had been followed, Palantir would have moved away from Palo Alto a long time ago.


Yep! It's the cycle of auto dependency.

Shown in this diagram: http://imgur.com/a/beqcY

Tough to break out of without a serious investments in transportation alternatives such as bike lanes and public transit.


I really don't know why everyone thinks that the way to break out of the car cycle is transportation alternatives. If your city was planned around cars then everything else is going to be inferior. Public transit is costs more in time than a car does in gas and you have to plan your schedule around when they run and where they go. Bikes are only good over short distances but those aren't representative of common trips in a car oriented city -- many destinations are 25 minutes away by car which is not feasible to reach by bike.

If you want people to give up their cars then you have to plan dense. All day-to-day needs need to be within walking distance and tight regulation to prevent incumbent owners from taking advantage of citizens with fewer options. Weekly needs need to be within biking distance and small electric vehicles need to be made available for the elderly, disabled, tired, or lazy to get to them on their schedule. Rare needs need to be available remotely, by delivery, or reachable by public transportation for the patient or hired car for the impatient.


There is no guarantee that Silicon Valley will be the center of tech innovation in America forever. There are a couple of economic trends that put California at a disadvantage in the near future.

1.) You can build a great product with fewer Engineers than ever before. A single highly skilled engineer can run a company that reaches millions of customers.

2.) California's Prop 13[0] hinders new entrants to California by so much that it becomes uneconomical for new talent to locate there.

3.) You need less capital to run an online business than 5-10 years ago. If you know how to manage your own servers it is pretty cheap to run a website. (even with high availability constraints)

4.) Open source software and online education have improved greatly in the last 5 years. Anyone can truly learn anything given time and motivation.

I think it is highly likely that newer successful technology companies become more evenly distributed across the country due to these factors.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Proposition_13_(197...


Devils advocate time :)

1) This leads to increased competition like the one we have seen with multiple companies competing in the same growing market. The one(s) with venture backing can often muscle out companies with a more compelling product, which will maintain the importance of being proximal to capital (i.e. SV). An example of this is Balanced Payments vs Stripe, imo.

2) My parents moved to SV in the 70's and were shocked at how expensive apartments were and how high the cost of living was (they moved from the Northeast). I had a converstation with my dad about prohibitive housing costs here in 2005. It's not readily apparent to me if things really will ever come to a true breaking point. (also population dynamics wise, many baby boomers are going to perish within the next 20 years)

3) Related to #1, when many teams can build competing products for cheap, what will separate them will frequently be their sales and marketing muscle. This in turn is often backed by capital in a short-term-unsustainable manner than drives out competition.

4) Building is often the easy part, other than the small number of truly exceptional viral consumer products.

Having written all this, I don't really disagree with any of your points, though I think that you exhibit egalitarian idealism often found in hacker types :)


The way to build a new business complex (like the saucer) is to build apartment towers next to it. Or a transit station next to it. Otherwise, the traffic going to the saucer will be tremendous.

Long ago when I worked at Boeing, so many people would leave at the same time that it would take 15 minutes just to exit the parking lot. This was despite Boeing staggering the shift ends to alleviate it. People would run to their cars in a desperate attempt to get ahead of the wave.


Ok that sounds awful (running to your car to beat the traffic). However, so does living in an apartment on the corporate campus.


I always try to live as close to work as possible so living in an apartment on a corporate campus actually sounds pretty appealing to me but can you expand on why you think it sounds awful? I'm not dismissing your view, I just want to know if there are negatives about it that I haven't considered.


My coworkers might gossip about the number of prostitutes I hire to visit my apartment.

I would have to explain at the water cooler that I only hire the prostitutes to indulge strange sexual fetishes and I won't be spreading STDs because you can't get STDs from the strange things I do.


Because if I worked for say Apple and lived on the Apple campus I would feel like my life revolved around Apple. There is more to life than work, and I feel like having your own home away from work is a part of that.


"In 2015, for example, the amount of time San Franciscans spent commuting amounted to more than $5.3 million in lost productivity, a 55 percent increase over 2011."

Editing, even at the New York Times, is becoming a lost art. I'm sure there are many high net worth individual San Franciscans who personally lose $5.3 million in productivity commuting each year. Even $5.3 billion would seem low to me. Clicking on the link over the "more than $5.3 million" phrase does lead one to a very beautiful report that contains the above quote, but I would not say that makes it true. Maybe we are heading to a Wikipedia like world where quoting something published makes a fact a valid reference rather than if it is true or not.

Quick estimate:

400000 people * 50 weeks/year * 5 days/week * 1 hour/day * 25 dollars/hour = $2.5 billion/year


Zoning laws need to reverse. They need to mandate a maximum number of parking spaces be 60% of head count in 2020, then reduce 5% every 5 years until the maximum is 40% of headcount.

I really don't see any other way. You just have to force it.


A suburban office with insufficient parking sounds like a great talent repellant. I pity the poor souls who would have to work there (taking shitty bus service or cycling unreasonable distances), but no vaguely competent software engineer would be among them.


A business that fails to innovate goes out of business. These kind of zoning restrictions would hit all the businesses equally, and force them to improve their work from home policies (isn't that what software engineers want anyway?) and establish more organized/efficient ride sharing.

Besides, the new zoning restrictions would only apply to new campuses being built. And we already have cities like Palo Alto debating whether they even want more jobs in their city, and rightfully so. There are other places to build your campus. Silicon Valley needs housing, not offices.


Best company perk ever: you get to take public transportation because despite being the size of many large shopping malls combined and being located in suburbia, we made few enough parking spots that you'll never get to park here.


I think the title is a bit more clickbaity than HN really deserves. Perhaps "Isolated Campuses: One Thing Silicon Valley Can't Seem to Fix"?


Apple was forced by local law to have the amount of parking the campus has. Steve did not want it and did not want the ugly above ground garage. Maybe if the cities involved approved high desntiy housing and more effect public transport then things would get better. I live 50km from my office and it can take 2+ hours. On the other hand last week I started my morning meeting in Tokyo, then had a meeting in Osaka, dinner with friends in Nagoya and back to my hotel in Tokyo for bed.


  Steve did not want it and did not want the ugly above ground garage. 
So he chose to build in the midst of a mostly residential area far from any mass transit (even bus service is minimal, with one line going up Wolfe and another along Homestead) and with one freeway that is already a parking lot during rush hours. Winning!


Right. So he should have done what? Moved the campus someplace how far from his employee base?

Please let me know where in the Bay Area there is enough land for an Apple size campus and working mass transit?

My last startup - we send out a survey of where everyone lived before we moved. Guess what, screwed everywhere for all locations. Ending up paying each employee for Bart/Caltrain pass. Did not cover more then 30%.

The system of transit is the issue and the government and politics around it. Unless you are FB or Google that pays for private buses. That works so well for the haves vs have nots. It just makes it worse.

In the USA public transit is a joke for 99% of the country and is likely not to change. We are a car nation.


There were large, sparse commercial parcels between 101 and the Bay with light rail right there. Heck, the Sunnyvale Lockheed campus along Mathilda and Java used to employ 20,000 by itself. That's one example.

At the time the spaceship site was chosen, there was a LOT of vacant commercial space along the Central/Caltrain corridor, mostly single-story on large parcels (with huge parking areas). Much is still mostly vacant -- ride Caltrain on a weekday and watch the empty lots roll by.

North Santa Clara is even more sparse, with access to two freeways. A new development is being discussed for the former dump site North of Levi's stadium. But it doesn't have a Cupertino address like Jobs apparently wanted.


So at a previous startup we looked at offices in the area you talked about. They sucked. Also the public transportation was a joke. For me at the time Caltrain to Mt. View then slow VTA to a stop that was 1 mile from the 3 offices location we looked at. 2 hours train time and limited hours on service compared to a real system in a large city.

As to access to freeways I can drop off in Cupertino pretty simply from 280/85/101/17 so it is really a central path. De Anza hits both the 85 and 280. If anything it is simpler then the Santa Clara parking lot of the 101 to XYZ expressway or 101 to 237 to get to the far side. Their all parking lots.


Neither 101 nor 17 goes through Cupertino or even near its borders.

I can't even parse your second paragraph.

As for "easy drop-off" from 280, remember Wolfe is quite busy before the Spaceship even opens at all, let alone staffs up fully.

Then, what?

Everybody packs Homestead from De Anza Blvd through all residential neighborhoods? Or onto Homestead from the Lawrence Expressway end, which is already busy thanks to the new, huge Kaiser medical center there? (Not to mention that access to Lawrence from 280 is via surface streets, not direct-linkage ramps).


I fear America's car dependent infrastructure will be its greatest folly. It is disappointing. If Silicon Valley can't get this right, what chance the does the rest of America have?


I think the great success of Silicon Valley was that government didn’t know how to regulate it, so by default was pretty hands-off. Except for promoting the welfare of laborers in general, like how non-compete clauses are illegal.

Governments have been regulating the built environment with zoning for 100 years, so that part is not as successful.


Perhaps from a large company's point of view, parking lots are land held in reserve that they could build on later? (Building parking garages if needed.)


If they own the land, what prevents them from just putting trees there instead of a parking lot? Surely the cities don't forbid trees.


They often require parking spaces, though.


Guys... Bell Labs is designed to look like a football. Not a mystery, nor should it be part of this article as 'weird'.


Why are cars a problem? The US hit "peak car" a few years ago. The US population is leveling off. Millennials aren't buying cars in a big way. Electric cars are gaining market share and dropping in price. Self-driving cars are getting close. The US already has a mostly adequate highway system. What's broken?


The “peak car” was a temporary dip associated with the Great Recession and crippling student loan payments. Since the recovery, once they get a good job, almost every millennial I know has a car. Even my brother, who advocates for dense car-free communities, owns and uses a car. It has become a real pain, here where there aren’t enough parking spaces for all those cars.

Electric cars don’t eliminate the central maladies of private car ownership. Self-driving cars are an excuse to justify maintaining unhealthy built environments, and like the Hyperloop I don’t trust in it until it is actually usable. The highway system is clogged and cannot be expanded in the destinations where people need to go. There are many things that are broken.

http://www.autonews.com/article/20170227/RETAIL/302279963/th...

https://www.citylab.com/life/2011/10/suburban-sprawl-ponzi-s...


Our highway system might reasonably be considered less "mostly adequate" and more "grossly hypertrophic". I don't think it is at all unreasonable to want to see us move away from the consequences of the cars-first-at-all-costs culture we've had for a few generations now. Much land of value will find more worthy use in so doing, and much less precious human life be wasted.


Cars are freedom. Build more freeways, and use tolls to pay for them.


That viewpoint simply baffles me.

As a European who is in the Bay Area for a few weeks, I find the roads in the Bay Area to be really, really depressing. I also find them harder to use than the European variants:

* the Bay Area freeways don't seem to have consistent rules about when a lane is going to appear or disappear or peel off from the main freeway (so I constantly end up in the wrong lane; please, please correct me if I'm wrong!);

* the very frequent merge/exits mean that there's not really a taboo on undertaking, which doubles the amount of awareness I need to maintain (as well as "everyone overtaking me", I also need to track "everyone undertaking me" too, which isn't true in the UK).

The rule "stick to the rightmost lane which lets you maintain the speed you want to maintain" simply doesn't work for me because that lane regularly peels off to become a different road, and it's less effective anyway given that everyone undertakes all the time. On motorways in the UK, it's rarer for lanes to split off from the main road, and it's signalled much further in advance so you reliably have time to change lanes comfortably when you get caught in the wrong one.

I infinitely prefer public transport where it exists; if that means taking a taxi for the last short bit of the ride, so be it. Personal preference, but I just can't fathom how anyone could prefer cars over a well-run public transport system. (Of course, there are times when you just need a car or a van - hauling personal freight, for instance. But the vast, vast majority of traffic doesn't fall into that category: in the UK, over the past four years or so, I've needed a car about five times in total.)


> That viewpoint simply baffles me...I just can't fathom how anyone could prefer cars over a well-run public transport system.

The obvious answer is that most cities in the US, maybe just most cities, don't have a "well-run" PTS. I don't think it's an ideological refusal to use the PTS just because it's a PTS.

Cars are a lot faster than the bus outside of rush hour, and I value my free time. Cars are a lot faster than the bus during rush hour if you have to transfer even just a single time. The bus comes extremely infrequently in the middle of the night. Plus, like your hauling personal freight example, there are things like hiking that you could do pretty frequently and for which Uber or a car rental aren't feasible. And the buses here are off schedule enough that you can't rely on getting anywhere on time, especially if it's raining.

If buses came twice as often, I would easily pay double the current 100$/month bus pass rate and ditch my car.


Same - I actually state my preference for public transit over driving in my résumé, and Baltimore's system is surprisingly good - not on the same scale of comprehensiveness as NYC's, but then we're a much smaller town, too. I don't understand the car preference either; although for years I did consulting work that involved site visits, and racking up 200 miles a day in the car was not uncommon, even at the time I regarded that more as a penance than a privilege. Latterly I feel that I've done just about a lifetime's worth of driving, and any further is a waste of time tolerable only in the rare case when no other alternative can be found.

"Undertaking"? This is not a term with which I'm familiar; based on context, it seems to mean dropping back to change lanes behind a car, by contrast with "overtaking", to accelerate and pass in order to change lanes ahead. Is that a correct understanding?


"Undertaking" might be a UK-specific term, I don't know; it means "overtaking but on an inside lane relative to you, rather than an outside lane".


Oh! We just call that "passing on the right", and it's frowned upon here as well; some municipalities even have it on the books as a moving violation, but everyone does it anyway.


Driving saves me 20min each way vs public transit, even in heavy traffic. And I get to sit! And the seats are comfortable and adjustable and have lumbar support. And I have music and climate control. And I don't have to stand or walk in -30C or 40C weather of which we get both.

It can't be surprising to you why I prefer driving even over a relatively good public transit system like the one in Toronto.


Clearly you're better at driving than me - it takes all my concentration and is very mentally taxing, so I can't afford music in that kind of environment. If everyone did things like obeying the speed limit, and overtaking only on the left, and allowing even a couple of metres more space between cars, it would become orders of magnitude easier. Similarly, the road markings here seem to be quite a bit less clear than in the UK - in terms of how much warning distance you get before something happens (the difference is enough to outweigh the fact that the speed limits in CA are lower), and even just in terms of contrast between the markings and the surrounding environment (e.g. on smaller roads, I've seen lanes marked by uniform light-brown studs in the road, rather than bright white paint). Self-driving cars can't come soon enough! But yeah, if you enjoy driving and/or are good at it, I'm sure driving is fine.

Personal climate control is an unequivocal win for cars, yes.


  don't seem to have consistent rules about when a lane is going to appear or disappear
Lane creation/destruction is almost always limited to the rightmost lanes. The only non-carpool exception I can think of is the added lane on Central Expressway westbound, approaching Sunnyvale.


Is there a way to predict the rightmost lanes? Currently I just sit in one of the middle lanes because I can almost guarantee those ones aren't going to vanish, but that means I violate "slower traffic on the right" because I stick to the speed limit.


I agree with the following quote:

A technological advance that appears not to threaten freedom often turns out to threaten it very seriously later on. For example, consider motorized transport. A walking man formerly could go where he pleased, go at his own pace without observing any traffic regulations, and was independent of technological support-systems. When motor vehicles were introduced they appeared to increase man’s freedom. They took no freedom away from the walking man, no one had to have an automobile if he didn’t want one, and anyone who did choose to buy an automobile could travel much faster and farther than a walking man. But the introduction of motorized transport soon changed society in such a way as to restrict greatly man’s freedom of locomotion. When automobiles became numerous, it became necessary to regulate their use extensively. In a car, especially in densely populated areas, one cannot just go where one likes at one’s own pace one’s movement is governed by the flow of traffic and by various traffic laws. One is tied down by various obligations: license requirements, driver test, renewing registration, insurance, maintenance required for safety, monthly payments on purchase price. Moreover, the use of motorized transport is no longer optional. Since the introduction of motorized transport the arrangement of our cities has changed in such a way that the majority of people no longer live within walking distance of their place of employment, shopping areas and recreational opportunities, so that they HAVE TO depend on the automobile for transportation. Or else they must use public transportation, in which case they have even less control over their own movement than when driving a car. Even the walker’s freedom is now greatly restricted. In the city he continually has to stop to wait for traffic lights that are designed mainly to serve auto traffic. In the country, motor traffic makes it dangerous and unpleasant to walk along the highway. (Note this important point that we have just illustrated with the case of motorized transport: When a new item of technology is introduced as an option that an individual can accept or not as he chooses, it does not necessarily REMAIN optional. In many cases the new technology changes society in such a way that people eventually find themselves FORCED to use it.)


I started writing a reply to this, but it got out of hand and before I knew it, I was wrestling with an essay: https://aaron-m.com/2017/07/09/on-kaczynski

(Hardly the first time that's happened to me on Hacker News! But now I have a proper place to put them.)


Yeah, I used to think that way. I grew up in the suburbs of the concrete jungle that is Houston, Texas. It now has a 26 lane highway running west of the city.

The problem is that building more roads doesn't help. Expanding major arteries encourages people to move further out, which makes it worse.

Additionally, we've used up all the easy and inexpensive places to build roads.

Northern Virginia is actually doing a decent job of encouraging high-density housing in mixed-use environments with access to mass transit. It seems odd that S.V. is so backwards in this way.


> Cars are freedom

I've never understood this. How is being locked into an oft debt-financed mass-manufactured vehicle, whose maintenance is dependant on parts manufacturers and the petrochemical industry, and whose use gives police the right to pull you over for anything, an icon of freedom?


> locked into an oft debt-financed mass-manufactured vehicle

You can buy a used vehicle for a few thousand dollars.

> whose maintenance is dependant on parts manufacturers and the petrochemical industry

No different than maintenance of any other consumer good.

> whose use gives police the right to pull you over for anything

Police can already stop you for any reason.

What cars give you is the ability to go anywhere, at any time, on your own schedule, without consulting with anyone or anything. Might not be your definition of freedom but surely it's understandable.


Cars are freedom, not self-reliance. They represent the pinnacle of a vast international ecosystem of design, engineering, resource extraction, labor, finance, etc. No doubt about that. They represent two of the most important accomplishments of human civilization: decoupling of transportation from physical exertion, and decoupling of human comfort from the weather. As an "engineer," it gives me the warm-fuzzies just thinking about that, in the same way it does that we put a man on the moon.

"Cars are freedom" has little to do with their use in commuting to work, though that's probably the vast majority of their actual use. There's some cognitive dissonance here: the gridlocked commute to the 9-5 at the cube farm could not be more strongly opposed to the "cars are freedom" symbolism.

It's the fact that you can go anywhere, not just where your body's own power will take you, not just where central planners have seen fit to draw routes. It's the fact that you can do so at any time, not just when central planners see fit to schedule service, during the hours they think people ought to be out and about, or with enough advance notice to get an affordable ticket (i.e. air travel).

It's about the weekend jaunt to national park across the state, the cross country road trip, or even the more mundane grocery run after work, the spontaneity of it, not having to plan or spend massive amounts of physical exertion. Sure, you can get that with a walkable neighborhood too, but it's always going to be more limited.


The world before cars was completely awful. Especially in rural areas where the majority of the population lived. It wasn't uncommon for people to live their entire lives only ever travelling a few miles from their home. Most people were forced to obtain goods from country stores. These had a very small selection of items and set monopoly prices with ridiculous markups. They also required haggling over everything and let their customers go into great debt with them. These went away with the car because people could travel much greater distances to competing stores. The car massively improved the standard of living.

Cities weren't much better. Streets were completely covered in horse shit. Horses were also much more expensive and difficult to maintain than cars. The car made that kind of freedom of transportation affordable to average people.

Sure there were trains. But you still have to travel too and from the train station which wasn't convenient. And the train is a monopoly as well.


I don't think there are likely to be many here who would argue that automotive transport offers no benefits. But going all in on it, the way the US has since World War II, incurs its own manifold disadvantages. Identifying those disadvantages, and looking for means of ameliorating and eliminating them without losing the benefits of greater mobility for people and cargo, isn't the same as saying that we should just turn back the clock to a time when only trains went faster than horses.


Tolls? Why would i pay for tolls when i am already paying taxes to supposedly fund such things. There is only so much freeway you can build. People would still want to live in places eith good school etc, and you cant fix that problem with more highways.


Silicon Valley built a ton of freeways, and it's basically impossible to build any more of them. It's far, far, far cheaper to electrify Caltrain and build level boarding, plus a BRT up El Camino.




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