Anyone who has recently driven on any portion of Highway 101 between San Jose and San Francisco knows that our roads are increasingly crowded, largely because of the enormous number of people working for Silicon Valley tech companies.
Apple, Google, Facebook and Cisco account for about 80,000 local workers, according to Silicon Valley Business Journal, and that doesn’t count the thousands more people who work at Microsoft, Tesla, Linked-In, Oracle and other large companies plus the many local startups. And, with a significant number of tech workers choosing to live in San Francisco and the South Bay, traffic flows in both directions.
Plus, the Bay Area’s staggering home prices have forced many workers, especially those who don’t earn six-figure salaries, to live in outlying communities as far away as Modesto where 7.3 percent of workers travel at least 3 hours a day to get to and from work – many to Silicon Valley. Stockton is even higher at 10 percent, according to a 2019 Apartment List study.
Tech companies trying to help
If you’re a local resident caught up in traffic, I can understand why you’d be blaming tech companies. But before you condemn them as the arch enemy of your commute, consider what they are at least trying to do to alleviate the problem. For one thing, those omnipresent double-decker buses operated by tech companies do take a lot of cars off the road, even though they provoke ire and protest from San Franciscans, angry about them blocking traffic and encouraging high-paid tech workers to bid up housing prices.
Also, some tech companies, including Facebook, are building housing close to their campuses. That takes cars off the highway but, except for a few cases such as Facebook’s limited number of below market apartments for community members in the Belle Haven part of Menlo Park, the growth in tech workers seeking housing in Silicon Valley has had a negative effect on many lower income residents. My daughter teaches at Beechwood School, which is adjacent to one of Facebook’s Menlo Park complexes, and tells me that many of the low income families served by the school have had to move away. She and her fellow teachers also struggle to be able to afford local housing. I’ve also heard from several relatively high-paid Google and Facebook employees that even they are having a hard time finding affordable rental units and find it impossible to buy a house in the area.
Using tech to get cars off the road
Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is working to get some human driven cars off the road just as it’s working to put fully self-driving cars on the road.
A year ago, Wayze, the navigation app owned by Google, launched its Wayze Carpool app which tries to pair riders and drivers with a nearly identical commute. The app enables riders to compensate the driver for gas and tolls and, because there will be at least two people per car, it enables drivers to use high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes for a potentially faster commute (I say potentially because sometimes those HOV lanes are even more crowded thanks in part to all the electric vehicles that get to use them even if there’s only one person in the car).
The Wayze Carpool app is not for professional drivers, but Uber and Lyft also have a carpooling service of sorts where two or more people can share a ride with a professional driver. The cost is, of course, higher because drivers need to be paid for their time and costs and both Uber and Lyft take their cuts. The Wayze service will eventually add a service charge but that charge is currently waived.
Waymo, which like Wayze is part of Alphabet, has the potential to affect traffic as well, though it remains to be seen whether it helps or hurts.
Waymo already operates a limited robo-taxi service in and around Phoenix, and so far, the cars have had safety drivers sitting behind the wheel. But customers in the Phoenix area recently received an email saying “Completely driverless Waymo cars are on the way.” It said that “If you get matched with a fully driverless car, you’ll see a notification in your Waymo app that confirms that the car won’t have a trained driver up front.” The company added that “if you need assistance during any part of your trip, you can contact a rider support agent through the help button or in your app.” Lyft and Uber are also working on self-driving cars along with Tesla and other companies.
If self-driving cars are mostly used to transport one passenger at a time, they will do nothing to relieve traffic. If used as shared rides – perhaps van services – then they could help. But if they wind up being inexpensive for single rides, they could compete with public transportation as Uber and Lyft do today. On several occasions, I’ve used ride hailing in New York and San Francisco because the cost wasn’t that much higher than BART, Muni or New York subways and buses.
One advantage to ride hailing and robo-taxis is that they don’t have to park, so even though they may not alleviate traffic, they do cut down the need for parking spaces.
There are, of course, other solutions, including bringing BART to more parts of the Peninsula and South Bay, improving Caltrain service, encouraging more use of bikes and e-scooters, and developing affordable and convenient bus and van services for workers in smaller companies that don’t offer their own bus services like some of the big companies.
Some day, perhaps one of our tech companies will figure out how to build a teleportation device, but until then, many will be stuck in gridlock.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit internet safety organization that receives financial support from both Google and Facebook.
Published at Fri, 11 Oct 2019 10:00:18 +0000