Why They Still Are “Willing to Relocate to San Francisco”

For techies who have lived in or moved from San Francisco, this recent meme struck a nerve.

William Blake’s most famous poem “The Tyger”

Why is it in 2016, we must be willing to relocate to San Francisco?

This meme results from the most repeated request by recruiters and tech startups, even startups that haven’t even located to the city itself. The comical reaction is, you can have a fantastic job, but only if you relocate. Of course it doesn’t actually mean relocate to San Francisco proper, rather to companies located in the SF Bay Area. Most of the tech companies are actually centered in the South Bay which for the typical American is like commuting to the far ends of suburbia.

You might live here in SOMA, but your startup or company is not very likely to be anywhere remotely near the City.
You might live here in SOMA, but your startup or company is not very likely to be anywhere remotely near the City.

Why is it in 2016, when the internet promised telecommuting and decentralized work that the tech industry is fervently concentrating America’s intellectual capital into a suburban peninsula on the Pacific prone to devastating earthquakes.

This live-work geographic disparity is not new to planning, but it represents much of the frustration Bay Area planners face. We have pioneered instant global communication for every human on Earth and yet the talent who create, maintain, and innovative this technology are required to be in a precise location, in a building, usually seated, from morning until early evening. We call this area Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Palo Alto.

Most planners expect people to decide where they live based on their work. This is a basic tenet of sector and concentric zone theories.

The talent don’t have much choice of where to live, they are confined to options a narrow shoreline on the east side of a peninsula land-locked by mountains on the west and a shallow bay on the east. They can venture south into endless cul-de-sacs shaped from former marshlands, called San Jose. East across the bay to the limited rugged terrain along Diablo Range. But most choose to live north along a high-capacity transportation line called Caltrain that connects to a regional transportation system called BART. Private transit (company shuttles) provide the rest.

They move north because the peninsula is capped by a sprawlingly dense urban habitat called San Francisco. Defying the steep geography left by former sea levels and tectonic activity, we have carved rectilinear blocks into the hillsides and reclaimed the beaches.

We know the peninsula head is most desirable to live in because it offers breathtaking views of the Marin headlands and the Pacific Ocean. But most importantly it has concentrated architecture, housing and commerce into a human-scaled environment that produces variety and vibrancy — favored by Jane Jacobs.

Google campus. It's a nice place... for suburbia.
Google campus. It’s a nice place… for suburbia.

We know the southern shoreline of the peninsula is desirable for tech companies because it historically birthed computing innovations in sprawling low-cost campuses. But most importantly it has concentrated intellectual institutions and venture capital into a self-propagating complex of physical and social networks, which David M. Levinson coined as “plexus.”

Planners contend with this desire and interchange between San Francisco and South Bay for the foreseeable future. Strangely, towns within an 1 hour of both fray at the edges, unable to capture this desire for many reasons such as demographics and transportation. Bay Area regional planning has come to an impasse over these issues.

And so they continue to ask if you are still willing to relocate to San Francisco. As a techie I have a laugh and then look on in contemplation.

Author’s Note: I would still move back to San Francisco.

A Planner’s Personal Statement

I believe every planner needs to periodically do self-assessments in regards to their approach and reasons for pursuing the profession.  As a “non-traditional” planner myself in the tech field, I find it ever important to ground and focus oneself in the tech industry’s sharknado of change.  I recently found my graduate school application essay buried in my document folders.

My pursuit (of planning)… critically addresses livability issues in the present and future and brings opportunities for creative solutions to society’s needs. Geography and civic-service have been essential qualities of mine since childhood.

– An idealistic me.

Pretty standard mission statement for a 20-something.  I’ve actually come to dislike the term “livability” because it has been rather abused by community development departments across the country.  Everything relates to making things livable–no need to point to it. Many livability issues are merely conflicts between opposing parties.  And with greater emphasis on climate change, the term now seems more equated with survivability than mere inconvenience.

I grew up on roads that were faux-rural but actually serving a suburban region of 350,000 people.

I can’t put my finger on what I’d replace it with, maybe a general term like “urban issues.” What is still emphasized for me, is the who and when of planning.  Make it better for people now and for tomorrow.  How can I use my hands to fix those wicked problems.  The way I’ll go about it is to seek creative solutions.   Young planners constantly complain that the current bureaucracy of planning is not serving the people effectively nor timely.  We have to work around this, and be persistent about the changes we want to see.

The rest of my essay is pretty basic, but I noticed an interesting sentence that related to my high school years:

Concepts of human relationships with nature entered my ethos and the desire to address these relationships grew stronger.

I attended an environmental studies magnet school which drilled on the relationship between humans and their environment.  To me, the term nature relates to more than birds and bees, but to complicated ecosystems on our planet, which include our human inventions.   Our technology is creating new layers of movement and interaction in cities.  There’s hybridization, friction, and sometimes new seamlessness.  I think I can affirm that my personal statement is to continue helping humans cope and better utilize their surroundings.

San Francisco Crosswalks

You immediately realize living in San Francisco how the pedestrian is valued above all modes of transportation. Not only is the city adept at taking down freeways and making parking impossible, it enjoys pitting pedestrians against at-grade Muni trains and streetcars. Watching enormous Google buses agonizingly wait to turn against hordes of pedestrians is another fun sight. But a particular piece of infrastructure that has always caught my eye has been crosswalk markings. Public Works calls them “decorative crosswalks” and they pop up all over the city, some designed by community vote. We can attribute today’s streetscapes to Gavin Newsom’s push for Great Streets.

The crosswalks are certainly beautiful, but let’s be real this isn’t Italy with terrazzo and marble. American crosswalks are enhanced as a vestige of the safe routes movement and the public works maintenance mantra ensures the lowest-cost method is used. This interesting DOT survey of crosswalk markings indicates thermoplastic is the preferred method with a whopping lifespan of 7 years. I personally would prefer to see more material-based crosswalks with brick or formed concrete with contrasting colors. I’d love to see someone try a Kasota stone crossing.

Alas, San Francisco roads are heavily used by big buses daily, and add-in that post-earthquake, such materials would present more hazardous conditions than asphalt. So onto the parade of crosswalks.

Market and 9th

Market and 9th. This is the prototypical crosswalk marking, with simple 2 feet wide white stripes on either end of the walkway.  Most places in the city, this stuff is just paint and badly faded.   While simple and utilitarian, it provides merely a marker for vehicles to stop, but very poorly seen.  They’re prevalent Downtown.  This looks alright for Market since market uses colored concrete but elsewhere it’s plain asphalt and the bars look dated.


Guerrero and 24th Street.  I would call these yellow stripes crosswalk 1.1-beta release.  This style of walk became prevalent in the ’90s as a result of safe routes, because it screams to drivers: walkway, don’t hit anyone.  Most major intersections have them.  The vertical lines are easily identifiable, but for a pedestrian, the feeling of being inside these paths is disorienting because the eye is drawn to follow the lines.  It’s sort of like playing frogger on yellow lily pads.   Also the design lacks a prominent stop bar and the hollow spacing suggest ambiguity (like maybe somewhere here there will be people moving about).  This means drivers typically stop sort of where they think the walk begins.   This design is typically combined with the white stripes, creating a Warhol-esque playground.


Noe and Church. This is a Great Streets evolution of painted crosswalks.  Here they’re sealing thermoplastic to create a brick pattern upon newly laid asphalt.  It’s fun and whimsical!  The color choice of red is a little bizarre to my eyes, since science has proven red isn’t actually a really good color for stopping.   But the Noe businesses wanted it.   I’ve crossed these plenty of times as car and person, and the inverted brick colors feel like Tron.   Also the stop bar is a good four feet, creating a weird separate pseudo-crossing.   It doesn’t help that this four-way stop intersection is such a cluster.


Castro and 18th.  The internet was a rave last year when these rainbow walks debuted.   These actually seem the most successful of all decorative walks in the city.  The design and spacing promote the intersection as a destination, not simply a place to get from A to B.   It’s art, it’s bold, it’s not a compromise, this is what Great Streets really is about.  Also the stop bar is perfectly spaced for clear and concise instructions.   Nothing screams “people live and move through here” than this.

Carless Cities and City Isolation

Manarola, Cinque Terre

A friend of mine suggested to look into Cinque Terre, a car inaccessible city on Italy’s western coast.  The hillside village consists of terraced homes created over the centuries on rugged terrain overlooking the Ligurian Sea.  There are no roads leading there, only a train brings you close enough.  For Americans, it’s strange today to think of modern humans settling in the middle of nowhere, but in reality most of America began as grids laid out next to agricultural train stops.  Some of these towns prospered only because of railroads ferrying the locals to work in industrial centers, and vacationers back on the weekends. When I think of current housing preferences, I wonder why isolated cities no longer work for Americans.  We are strange creatures, for we seemingly despise close proximity and yet yearn for community.  All bets are placed in the old downtowns of boom and bust, and yet people move in droves to Garreau’s edge city.  You can’t live in the city neighborhoods, but you must choose the far-flung suburb with the best schools.

Red Wing, Minnesota

In my head, Barb from Minnesota waxes and wanes about Red Wing and it’s beautiful (rust-belt) downtown overlooking the Mississippi.  The hilly streets of picturesque homes sit tidy and neat.  But practicality trumps these notions of town living.  How close is the nearest Target (outside of town), where’s the shopping mall (a Minnesota pastime), can I get to the Twin Cities in less than an hour (good luck).   Overtime, isolation is also a problem, and many small town friends will admit the charm of living in a beautiful place where everyone knows your name and business wears quickly.

Isolated living in low-resource low-asset cities may seem perfect for retirees and high-income households where they can mastermind their own lives.  Middle America isn’t going to rely on this lifestyle pattern in order to have a fulfilling life.  Access to amenities and its car-dependent infrastructure both rejects urban living and country living.

The carless city can’t happen under the current planning and societal paradigm.  Even Masdar City scaled back its ambitious PRT.   The best model we have are university cities which emphasize highly connected pedestrian-bicycle activity centers, periphery parking, and transit linkages.  The Iowa Cities and Ithacas of America’s hinterland provides a lens into carless isolation.  For major cities, we eagerly wait European tests in Paris and Stockholm and domestically the Open Streets Project to see if carlessness will take hold.

Ride Sharing and the Future Urban Fabric

SF Chinatown, a place that really shouldn't have cars.
SF Chinatown, a place that really shouldn’t have cars.

I felt this TechCrunch article “Ride Sharing Will Give Us Back Our Cities” jumped the gun for me on issues of land use equity.  Planners have to be skeptical about how technology will change the landscape.  Our own foray into technology, the freeway, created an unforeseen sprawl landscape and car-centric culture.   Currently, the decoupling of home, work, and play is making it difficult to predict successful fixed-route transit.   Ride sharing as a permanent altering of transportation habits and infrastructure?  Let’s think about it.

Our cities, our cars?

The article is a bit confusing, because it advocates that residents give up their cars and then states those residents must adopt car-share.  This quandary reflects the assumptions made:

  • People still need cars, just cars that are not their own.
    • This is a highly loaded topic with geographical and racial implications.  TechCrunch’s audience, white, smart and well-to-do, needs to ditch their spoils, but then who are the ones offering their cars as tribute to the carless?  The cited studies suggest merely mode shift to other people’s cars, not giving up ownership.  It seems to me that we’re merely shifting car usage to another group of people, the rideshare chaffeurs.
  • Concentrating on helping urban residents.
    • Minneapolis I-94 during rush hour, most likely not city drivers.
      Minneapolis I-94 during rush hour, most likely not city drivers.
      Traffic is primarily an intercity (suburban to urban), not intracity problem.  Too many people in large machines wish to move between two somewhat distant locations and are funneled into one corridor.  It is not the same to state that 50,000 residents in the nearby suburb can easily give up their cars. Existing “urban” residents (likely the author means those living in pre-war city blocks) are probably not the ones causing headaches for state transportation planners.
  • Cars as intracity (neighborhood to neighborhood) problem.

    • The hidden assumption is that car-use is inherently an inner city problem, that of a driver going from the Sunset District to SOMA, or Columbia Heights to McPherson Square, or Highland Park to the U of M.  Inefficiencies are abound when city residents literally drive the route of a bus or rail line.  These people can avoid freeways, people in Menlo Park, Manassas, and Maple Grove will not.  We’ve gotten urbanites onboard rideshare, but we still have increasing number of cars on city streets.
  • The urban fabric will change.
    • The article suggests when people travel, they visit pedestrian-friendly places.  About 40 million people each visit Las Vegas and Los Angeles annually, both of which are hardly Jane Jacob’s favorite places.  New York gets 56 million.  Tourism is not a good gauge of transportation-land use policy.  Public Works departments are reinventing roads for the people they serve, not for visitors.
  • Millennials want experiences, not things.
    • This millennial is planning his awesome experience at the Northern Spark art party, but he secretly wishes he had things too.
      This millennial is planning his awesome experience at the Northern Spark art party, but he secretly wishes he had things too.
      I’m a millennial, this is not true, and the surveyors agree. Millennials would love to own their car and own their house.  They just can’t.  Things also enable experiences, like spontaneously driving your car on a road trip and not worrying about when to return it.  Millennials want detachment from responsibility, and car-share is like driving your parent’s car.  Lastly, why is this unique to millennials, shouldn’t everyone in a healthy city want great experiences in life.

City Policy vs Startup Hacking

The article does get it right in declaring the problem at hand:

Considering the inefficient use of the personal automobile, its exorbitant cost, the sheer volume of urban land devoted to serving that inefficient use and the material efficiencies achieved through ride-sharing and ride-hailing services, we just might have a chance to radically redesign our cities. If the 20th century was devoted to building the infrastructure to service the personal automobile, then perhaps the 21st century will be devoted to undoing most of it.

Fulton Street road diet.
Fulton Street road diet.

Public Works officials have already begun road diets for its “inclusive” mode design (see Fresno, CA, Louisville, KY).  It’s design is intentionally to slow vehicle traffic.  With AirBnb having defeated a major city’s ordinance, how will ride-share startups respond to future infrastructure policies (see Los Angeles’ Highland Park).

The article suggest road diets could be an outcome of ridesharing.  Arguably road diets have actually emerged from Vision Zero to eliminate pedestrian-vehicle deaths. How will rideshare companies respond when parking/stopping lanes are removed along money-making corridors, or when travel times are slowed across important thoroughfares which could affect their algorithms.  Local startup Split caters to this point of friction and curates required pick-up and drop-off locations near addresses.

Glen Park's BART streetscape redesign eliminated a coveted stopping lane in favor of an extended pedestrian waiting area.
Glen Park’s BART streetscape redesign eliminated a coveted stopping lane in favor of an extended pedestrian waiting area.

So the article speaks for a car-less future with cars.  It would be like suggest e-cigarettes (vaping) will herald the end of smoking. In actuality the future urban fabric may be fully to eliminate the car itself.   Currently, it would be more important to see rideshare’s effect upon transit, if it’s complementary or in actuality duplicative.  In 2012 TCRP wrote a 72 page report on ridesharing only to conclude:

Evidence that ridesharing complements public transit is limited, according to this examination of the state of the practice. Even though ridesharing has been around for decades as a travel mode and despite the benefits that a number of agencies have experienced a good deal of skepticism about combining ridesharing and public transit still exists.

Soft Planning or Lipstick on a Pig

I often think of city planning as composed of “hard” and “soft” approaches which shape and define land use and design.  Hard planning consists of real shit like height limits, density, setbacks, and parking.  These physical, sharp, and poignant zoning rules shape the final form of building and land.   The visual effect and experience on users and on history is lasting and profound.

And then there’s soft planning, or as I think of it, lipstick on a pig.

Soft planning are requirements which are aesthetic and reflect subjective tastes.   They’re superficial, brushed on, and act to muddle the physical design.   People are to be delightfully distracted by these frivolities.   These requirements exist in a legal gray area and are often tacked on at the end of a conditional use permit.   Yet many of these will not stand the test of time, and will ultimately change.

Here is my critique of 5 soft planning requirements:


Greenleaf Apartments in Minneapolis, that solitary tree won't last very long. Focus on the boulevard instead.
Greenleaf Apartments in Minneapolis, that solitary tree won’t last very long. Focus on the boulevard instead.

We want our cities to be beautiful lush livable places but tiny islands of trees and bushes adds questionable value.  “Nature” can’t be defined by a minimum number of tree species or flowering plants. It takes a collective city-wide approach that is consistent to establish a true green city.  Pine hedges of the late-20th century sit sad and dilapidated in concrete parks. I’ve seen poor cedar trees in modern plazas where the intense reflection of architectural glass has blistered them. Landscaping becomes an architectural contrivance and a bandaid.  Boutique parks like Portland’s Tanner Springs Park and Patrick Blanc’s vertical gardens might be the better future approach to increasing urban ecology.  Also, cities need to stop forcing solitary trees to be planted when it should be maintaining a true urban oasis of street trees like the fat Public Works of yesteryear.


The developers of Le Parisien touted high-class materials but all we have is mindless white stucco with a ground-level painted wood facade that didn't last MN's brutal winters.
The developers of Le Parisien touted high-class materials but all we have is mindless white stucco with a ground-level painted wood facade that didn’t last MN’s brutal winters.

Make it a lighter shade of beige, no not too beige, okay let’s go back to brown, but more like sandy tan than wood.   Construction paint suppliers must laugh at the number of white-tan-brown shades they must produce to appease architects who are constrained by planning departments and developers who fear backlash at anything too splashy.  The original builders of American cities used real stone and brick which created the expectation of appropriate color choices today.  Then brutalist concrete architecture created today’s backlash against letting materials show their “natural” color.  Material manufacturers don’t even bother to develop different hues of products because they ultimately know it will be painted over.   Painted aluminum panels, why not.  As a result many downtown developers are opting for beautiful but characterless glass curtains.


Bob's Java Hut has a fun collection of all sorts of signs, protruding, murals, posters, and side-mounted.
Bob’s Java Hut has a fun collection of all sorts of signs, protruding, murals, posters, and side-mounted.

Granted signage was horrid in the early automobile era and that are left with their vestiges today, the concept of signage and in turn, advertisement, is inherent to a viable city.  People will avoid areas that don’t offer assurances of “something there.”  If we want to promote pedestrian use, we have to speak to pedestrians and that requires perhaps more urban information than is often allowed in square inch limitations.   Cities have to be proactive about the signage environment that will exist, not simply layout punitive rules to doom retail aspirations.    Enabling commercial districts to form collective signage, street banners, and other forms of visual street information is a great way to augment and assuage this typically case-by-case zoning model.


Need more windows? Be careful what you wish for.
Need more windows? Be careful what you wish for.

Fenestration is a fancy word for describing how many windows you have.  The idea in New Urbanism and Jane Jacob’s “eyes on the street” is that you need a minimum amount of transparency from the building to the street.   The irony is humans like privacy and developing on small urban lots gives you less ability to have windows in which you can see out without worry that people can see in.  Even after you have a plethora of bay windows facing the street, if you’re covering one with blinds around the clock, you can actually get fined if it violates this condition.   Architects have smartly bridged the gap by doing glass curtain walls with treatments that “smoke” out the opacity.  With just the right setback and angle, you have a foreboding facade of glass that meets transparency requirements.

Maintenance (Mow Your Lawn)

Terraced plants or "grass"? Photo by Maggie Foucault.
Terraced plants or “grass”? Photo by Maggie Foucault.

Tall grass and weeds are a public nuisance, that will kill you. Ok maybe kill your eyes at the sight of an ugly yard! In today’s landscape movement toward native and drought-tolerant species, there is no reason cities should be punitive in old ideas of green lawns and one-inch grass.   Ordinances like these are still prevalent in urban cities and suburbs alike.  There are some valid reasons, for example dry areas have fire concerns with brush, and insane overgrown landscapes make buildings impassable. Cities need to instead steer residents towards sustainable lawns if they’re not willing to put up with maintenance.  And in general this American ideal of green lawns needs to seriously die.

How About Free Sunday Transit

Montgomery St in San Francisco, the quintessential modern dense downtown street with archaic street parking from a bygone era.

“Why is public parking free on Sundays but public transit is not?” said @ptraughber on Twitter the other day. I couldn’t help but fume about this very question as it seems a strange injustice to give away (subsidize) public space to vehicles. There are many societal implications here, such as that people who drive deserve a “break”, that we value the leisure time of drivers, and that we’d prefer weekend activities to occur by car.

Free Sunday… Parking

We know in general people do less on weekends as a result of our modern work week.  Free Sunday parking still exists in cities like Chicago, Seattle, and mostly in San Francisco.  I’ve always known it to be a fact in the Twin Cities growing up, and overhearing the same in most major cities.

I was unable to find the origins of it, but it seems common sense, even if not fiscal sense.   Quora offers that it’s merely a byproduct of the fact that parking enforcement don’t typically work on weekends and most businesses are closed. This may be perhaps true in the earlier car era when Sunday was more religiously observed. I always thought it was meant to encourage retail visitors on Sundays, especially for downtowns competing with suburban malls.

Cities are slowly recognizing that free weekend parking doesn’t make sense.  Though this cause has more to do with finding untapped revenue sources than good planning.   New York dumped it in 2005, then Los Angeles in 2008.   Portland later followed charging for parking during weekend prime times it identified as 1pm to 7pm.  San Francisco tried to charge in 2013 but Mayor Lee abandoned it after a year supposedly pushed by churches.   In many cases cities will charge meters near special events and venues since its likely running police enforcement for those activities.

In this technology era, personal cars are being de-emphasized in dense urban areas.  There’s hardly frontage left for street parking with transit-oriented development rules that limit such frontage and require on-site parking facilities.  Demand for meters may be less on Sundays, but it’s still significant funding for strapped local governments.  Local businesses are cool on the topic, any business obviously wants easy access for patrons but is increasingly understanding that dense, pedestrian-friendly and transit-rich areas deliver far more visitors than a few single-driver spots on the street.  Plus, we want parking overturn.

But No Freebies!

It seems strange that it’s difficult to say we’re “giving away” something to the public, when we do so with parking.  The streets are owned by us too, right?  Though I can see where given the soaring capital costs of transit improvements, having no farebox recovery seems financial wizardry.

The concept of specifically Free Sunday Transit doesn’t seem to exist… yet.  Athens, Georgia piloted a month of free Sunday transit this year to promote the new weekend service but it didn’t quite catch on.  Free Christmas, New Year’s or Thanksgiving service is indeed something, but the advocacy for that stems more from getting drunk people home than a public tusen takk.

Ironically most transit systems offer plenty examples of no or limited Sunday/weekend service on certain routes.  There exist a small contingent of free transit agencies mostly offered in small towns and cities under 100,000 in population.  Nearly all university shuttle systems are free for students (TCRP Synthesis 78).

While free metropolitan transit doesn’t seem likely to become mainstream, TCRP concludes it’s a ridership booster:

People may argue about the pros and cons of fare-free transit, but none of the literature reviewed for this project questions the fact that ridership will increase when fare-free policies are implemented. No matter what types of experiments, demonstrations, or permanent programs have been implemented, public transit systems have experienced significant increases in ridership when implementing fare-free policies. (TCRP Synthesis 101 Page 13)

Stop Making Developers Build Parking

As I think of New Year’s Eve complaints about Uber surge pricing I am reminded again of another supply and demand quandary, parking.  Just as Uber attempts to encourage more drivers with exorbitant surge fares, so should we be thinking about how parking is not priced to its true cost at the detriment of our urban landscape.

David Shoup’s eponymous “The High Cost of Free Parking” gave us the economic realities of parking. We planners created the very regulatory scheme that resulted in oversupply of parking.  The market responded, accommodated, and continues to follow and nudge against corrective measures such as minimum parking requirements and transit demand management.

On Demand Parking

As it is Uber’s goal is “to make sure you can always push a button and get a ride within minutes,” so has Shoup indicated parking meters need to be priced significant higher during high demand periods to encourage overturn.   While cities tinker with on-street parking availability, the fact that planning regulation continues to blight urban areas with parking is the core problem that should be addressed now.

Architect Seth Goodman has a wonderful blog called graphing parking that offers infographics on the inconsistent regulatory frameworks between local governments.  His data suggests cities have no rational basis in its approach to manage parking.  This regulation continues to punish developers and in turn society, by spending on average $59 per square foot to provide an asphalt platform for personal vehicles.

Let’s say a typical U.S. parking space is 8 feet (city average) by 19 feet (DOT recommended length).   Two spaces average about 300 square feet, the typical microunit apartment.  Shoup says cars are parked 95% of the time.  We are devoting hundreds of millions in square footage to idle “transportation” machines instead of providing minimum shelter to Americans.

Redevelopment of Minneapolis' Stadium Village along the new Green Line. Many buildings were given parking exemptions or reductions.
Redevelopment of Minneapolis’ Stadium Village along the new Green Line. Many buildings were given parking exemptions or reductions.


Fortunately, cities are paving the way to undoing this nightmare.  In 2012, Seattle created complete parking minimum exemption zones for downtown and retail districts.  Last summer, Minneapolis approved relaxing parking requirements on new development.  San Francisco’s Planning Commission recently approved a 60 unit apartment building with no parking.  ReinventingParking has a list of international cities abolishing parking minimums.

In Minneapolis’ case, the Star Tribune reported it, “allows buildings with 50 or fewer units to be built without parking outside of downtown — where there are already no parking minimums — if they are a quarter-mile away from transit with 15-minute frequencies.”

The Federal Highway Administration’s analysis of Transit Demand Management even admits that. “Plentiful and free parking encourages driving.”  With so many oversight levels in agreeance, it’s time for local jurisdictions to give up the parking racket.

Geography of Nowhere Remains Relevant for the New Urban Age

A human-scaled side street in DC's Columbia Height's neighborhood. Kunstler loves DC.
A human-scaled side street in DC’s Columbia Height’s neighborhood. Kunstler loves DC.

James Howard Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere was published in 1993 but it’s view of our current urban landscape remains just as relevant today.  Kunstler is a journalist turned urbanist critic, much like Jane Jacob’s, and along with his damning treatise on our car addiction regards him as a popular pundit than expert in the urban planning community.   He’s often on university reading lists but perhaps his observations are not so highly regarded by high brow scholars (he has choice words for bad planning).  Kunstler’s TED2004 Talk on “The ghastly tragedy of the suburbs” has 1.4 million views, so perhaps one day we’ll regard him to Jacob’s pedestal.

Kunstler explores all the quintessential historic iterations of American bedroom “communities” using examples in his native New England from the early 1900s to today.  From Olmsted’s Downton Abbey-like Riverside, Illinois to the nowhere suburban K-mart parking lots of outskirt Anytown USA (hence becoming Nowhere USA).   His example of Woodstock, New York’s co-opting by wealthy outsiders struck me as the modern story of the 2010s.    From an actual town that self-sustained itself through farming and crafts, it is now a hollow reflection of that, propped up by the typical food and boutique service economy.  It’s new role as pseudo-historic well-to-do suburb makes it feel like the Atlantic City boardwalk of an earlier chapter.

A socioeconomic critique of shopping mall’s and their shaky public-private domain predicted exactly something the Black Lives Matter movement exploited recently at the Mall of America.  He harkened to Vietnam and questioned what would happen if towns lacked actual places of public assembly.  Sometimes a democracy needs to express itself, and if that voice is eager it will go wherever that may be.

Kunstler also might not like millennials of today and would see gentrification as the Manhattan executives of his age.  Americans love to move around, it is perhaps built into our genome from Manifest Destiny.  But problematically, we seem to abandon places we deem boring and “nowhere” instead of sitting put and actually improving them into places we care about.   So if young people flock to San Francisco for it’s Pan-Pacific revival and high-density, high-style architecture of a long-gone era, how soon will San Francisco also become like Nowhere USA with Apple stores, Trader Joe’s, and Crate and Barrel (Site Note: I love all of these stores).

My Instagram of a perfect (and intentionally designed) vista at Dolores Park. This shit doesn't happen anymore.
My Instagram of a perfect (and intentionally designed) vista at Dolores Park. This shit doesn’t happen anymore.

So now what Kunstler? How do we get out of where we are.  Even in 1993, the condition of physical America was drab and deteriorating from infrastructure to housing.   He does point out zoning as a major cause and obstacle to restructuring the urban landscape.   From there, he explores neo-traditional architecture such as Duany Plater-Zyberk and celebrates Seaside, Florida.  Though perhaps his true longing are the Gilded Age planned towns and cities of the early 1900s where Irish servant girls ran the house while you took a train to your factory. The book’s main critique is that we’ve lost our vernacular language of how to plan for communities. Unfortunately we can’t revive urban planning as a design practice given the current regulatory, political, and even intellectual structure of Design with a capital D.

For now, planners and developers contend with poor tools of “infill” and “redevelopment” to renew their communities. The Robert Moses’ age is over, but master/small-area plans and zoning overlays are quietly changing the urban fabric toward communities “worth dying for” as Kunstler would say.

I think there’s a silver lining when he laments the loss of connectedness. Today we are far more connected than the 90’s ever imagined. These “cyber” connections are manifesting in the real world. Developers don’t have to try hard to figure out why people want to live in dense urban areas (cities) again. Some architects are actually giving a damn about the street such as Jan Gehl and others are creating inspiring ecology-minded structures like Bjarke Ingels. Through social media, we’re seeing the world’s transit rich cities on a daily basis, and so grows our eagerness to bring that infrastructure here. While Kunstler may still grumble about the socioeconomic realities of an entire country drunk on a service economy, there is at least consensus that we will need to move to sustainable place-based industries soon.

Transit Tech Startups

Caltrain is the traditional intercity transport method.
Caltrain is the traditional intercity transport method.

Shaun Abrahamson of Urban.us detailed a list of “Pop-up Mass Transit” startups operating now.  From a VC perspective, he’s concerned about how game theory will make or break their mobility promises.  Can shuttle startup A beat out carshare startup B on price and retain users when the true cost of providing these services becomes reality.

I couldn’t help but think maybe transit-like startups should be concerned about their actual role in transportation and urban planning.  What niche do they serve in the transit ecosystem, not necessarily that one can get from point A to B.   A city is inherently multi-modal, with different ways of getting places and the messy synergy between these paths.

Transportation startup’s should aim to merge into the existing transit fabric, not simply create an overlay or new “platform.”   Lyft boldly pushed it’s “Friend’s with Transit” stats out there to show that between 20-33% of all rides start or begin at a transit station in DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and New York.   If a third of your business is generated by other transit, that’s not just economics, it’s good urban planning.

Here’s Part 1 of my take on Shaun’s list:

Intercity Travel

Greyhound was the original startup in this category, providing low cost bus service between cities especially as Amtrak dismantled itself through the ’80s-’90s.  Megabus jumped in before iPhones were even a thing and now we have plenty of similar “coach” services especially in Midwest and Northeast corridors.   Tech startups of course want to give you the power to provide or at least discover these services instead of running the buses themselves.

  • Skedaddle ) is taking the age-old Craigslist (shady) rideshare age and putting it on steroids.   Instead of just “hey please get into my car cuz I wanna split gas cost kthxbai” they’re encouraging fun trips to festivals and Tiesto, although it’s role as commuter A to B is the majority of routes.  It gamifies the process by only offering the ride when a minimum number of people sign up (like Kickstarter), and increasing the per head price as the number of users sign up (like Ticketmaster).  It appears to me that most offered rides were existing trips that would have happened anyway, so hopefully Skedaddle may improve the efficiency of vehicle usage, especially for leisure trips which accounts for a quarter of our driving.
  • Buster (https://www.buster.com/) matches groups to rides instead of individuals.  I imagine they approach coach companies and say, “Give us an idea of where you’d be willing to serve, how many people you can serve (vehicles), your rates and we’ll plug you into Buster.”   I asked it to take 15 people from Penn Station to Woodstock, New York, and it gave me a bunch of options from school buses to limos.  From an efficiency point of view, it better utilizes existing fleets that only have occasional use.  For example the local church’s Sunday school bus sit idle most of the week.  And for planners, we’d prefer one vehicle than 15 people splitting up into many vehicles and needing to park them everywhere on a single weekend.
  • Rallybus (https://rallybus.net/) combines Buster (hiring local providers) and Skedaddle (crowd sourcing events).  It differs in looking at long-distance intercity travel by having a provider offer multiple “rally” pick-up spots along pre-selected routes to a particular destination.  The website is rather confusing, but appears to be focused on special events.  I selected a Fallout Boy concert in New York and I’m presented a map of routes from various cities around New York getting to the event in March.  I picked a marker in Philadelphia for $55 and it indicated it needed 25 more people to actually confirm this ride. Fortunately another ride to a Dixie Chicks concert from Dupont Circle had the minimum.  It’s like Buster but instead of customized trips, it’s offering pre-planned trips based on potential special-event demand (sounds like an airline!).  To me, Rallybus exemplifies trip efficiency by both placing minimums on what the trip is, and how many people are going.   It knows people are going to a concert or conference already so it wants to encourage them to group ride.

The true difference between these tech startups and a typical coach service is that the coach services are focused on capturing riders in specific transportation corridors.   Rallybus and Buster require complex itineraries, compared to BestBus or Wanderu. These itinerary costs are also a little opaque and it’s hard to quickly search a route or the routes are customized.  So they succeed in very unique travel situations while Skedaddle lets one discover and compare costs more quickly.  Contrary to that, apps that are essentially rideshare boards have a hard road ahead because coach services are already fairly low cost, guaranteed rides with more amenities than someone’s car.  And even luxury car drivers will be hard to compete with the highly booked Royal Sprinter.

Intercity travelers must inherently spend more time to plan and consequently more time to compare, that is something startups will need to address.

More in Planning: The Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development studies Intercity Bus Travel.