Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Riding the Google bus

Photo from Noe Valley SF

From the Feb. 7 London Review of Books by Rebecca Solnit:
 
The buses roll up to San Francisco’s bus stops in the morning and evening, but they are unmarked, or nearly so, and not for the public. They have no signs or have discreet acronyms on the front windshield, and because they also have no rear doors they ingest and disgorge their passengers slowly, while the brightly lit funky orange public buses wait behind them. The luxury coach passengers ride for free and many take out their laptops and begin their work day on board; there is of course wifi. Most of them are gleaming white, with dark-tinted windows, like limousines, and some days I think of them as the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us...
 
My brother says that the first time he saw one unload its riders he thought they were German tourists---neatly dressed, uncool, a little out of place, blinking in the light as they emerged from their pod. The tech workers, many of them new to the region, are mostly white or Asian male nerds in their twenties and thirties; you often hear that to be over fifty in that world is to be a fossil, and the two founders of Google (currently tied for 13th richest person on earth) are not yet forty...
 
The Google Bus means so many things. It means that the minions of the non-petroleum company most bent on world domination can live in San Francisco but work in Silicon Valley without going through a hair-raising commute by car---I overheard someone note recently that the buses shortened her daily commute to 3.5 hours from 4.5. It means that unlike gigantic employers in other times and places, the corporations of Silicon Valley aren’t much interested in improving public transport, and in fact the many corporations providing private transport are undermining the financial basis for the commuter train. It means that San Francisco, capital of the west from the Gold Rush to some point in the 20th century when Los Angeles overshadowed it, is now a bedroom community for the tech capital of the world at the other end of the peninsula...
 
Fifty years ago, this was the ‘valley of heart’s delight’, one of the biggest orchard-growing regions in the world. It wasn’t to everyone’s delight: Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers movement started in San Jose, because the people who actually picked all those plums and apricots worked long hours for abysmal wages, but the sight and smell of the 125,000 acres of orchard in bloom was supposed to be spectacular.
 
Where orchards grew Apple stands. The work hours are still extreme but now the wages are colossal---you hear tech workers complaining about not having time to spend their money. They eat out often, though, because their work schedules don’t include a lot of time for shopping and cooking, and San Francisco’s restaurants are booming. Cafés, which proliferated in the 1980s as places to mingle and idle, are now workstations for freelancers, and many of the sleeker locales are routinely populated by silent ranks staring at their Apple-product screens, as though an office had suddenly been stripped of its cubicles. The more than 1700 tech firms in San Francisco officially employ 44,000 people, and a lot more are independent contractors doing piecework: not everyone rides the bus down south. Young people routinely make six-figure salaries, not necessarily beginning with a 1, and they have enormous clout in the housing market (the drivers of the Google Bus, on the other hand, make between $17 and $30 an hour).
 
I weathered the dot-com boom of the late 1990s as an observer, but I sold my apartment to a Google engineer last year and ventured out into both the rental market (for the short term) and home buying market (for the long term) with confidence that my long standing in this city and respectable finances would open a path. That confidence got crushed fast. It turned out that the competition for any apartment in San Francisco was so intense that you had to respond to the listings---all on San Francisco-based Craigslist of course, the classifieds website that whittled away newspaper ad revenue nationally---within a few hours of their posting to receive a reply from the landlord or agency. The listings for both rentals and homes for sale often mentioned their proximity to the Google or Apple bus stops...
 
Read the rest here.
 
A letter to the LRB in response to Solnit's piece:
 
As a San Franciscan who has worked a couple of years now at Google, riding the ominous white shuttle to Mountain View, I was naturally piqued by Rebecca Solnit’s Diary. Solnit doesn’t like the way I dress: it makes me look like a German. I understand the power of tribal identification---as an engineer, I have to fight not to be irritated by business people in business dress---but it’s an emotion more than an argument, and (obviously) illiberal. Nobody likes their own place to be overrun by others, but as Solnit seems to acknowledge, such overrunning is not about to stop, especially in cities.
 
I wonder what positive change she would propose. I’m sure we’re agreed that evictions and economic segregation are bad (and not only for their direct victims). But how specifically should San Francisco, or the Bay Area, or Google act to make things better---and what counts as better? Should Google, Apple, Genentech etc, as she seems to imply, extend public transportation so that it serves everyone on the peninsula? Even leaving aside the politics, the cost would be extravagant for a group of private firms that employ perhaps fifty thousand of the seven million people in the region.
 
Two things that I think would help are a reduction in income inequality and a redevelopment of all areas of California (and the US) in the direction of the urban values championed by Jane Jacobs and others. Can we talk?
 
Vance Maverick
San Francisco

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