Those Google Buses

In my San Francisco neighborhood Google buses don’t look very much like symbols of gentrification. They look suspiciously like buses. This is the way to understand them, as vehicles that say a lot about us and our future.

Some of the ire against corporate buses is not misplaced. Bay Area residents can only gape as techy arrivistes step aboard comfortable transit that appears often…and takes them where they want to go. Imagine.

And “imagine” is what we need to do. How can our Bay Area modernize to move people conveniently, effectively and affordably? After all, we have done it before. Our two iconic bridges went up at the height of the Depression. Postwar freeways were the envy of the world. BART was the first subway built in the US in more than half a century.

Today Bay Area highways are at the breaking point. Traffic is the second worst in the nation. With the regional economy in a sustained boom, corporate buses offer a short-term fix. Major employers cannot get their workforce to the job any other way. Still, the likes of Google, Apple and Genentech do not want to be in the bus business. Their buses broadcast the essential inadequacy of Bay Area infrastructure. They should remind us that companies can move elsewhere, that booms don’t have to happen here.

We are in the midst of a national infrastructure crisis, even in the Bay Area. The region’s economy has outpaced investments in transportation. We need to invest more. After decades of conservative, anti-urban politics, this is a difficult idea to sell.

Yet sell it, we must. Fortunately, there are potential buyers, some with deep pockets. Wouldn’t local companies like to see their transportation budgets better spent?

They certainly did in London. Firms like Lloyd’s and Barclay’s contributed $7 billion toward the 73-mile Crossrail, opening in 2019. Why? The line will connect City finance firms with the airport. Would similar funding work here?

Maybe. Amidst liberal urban politics this may also be a difficult sell. Economic and class resentments are dividing us. Still, business travelers subsidize much of airline costs. Business transit riders can do the same.

As for Google buses…they’re a problem that points to a solution. We need broader based investments in transportation for everyone.

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