Smarter shuttles for Silicon Valley

The rise of Silicon Valley employee shuttles has been much covered by the press — with some finding solace in the fact that they grant an urban, car-light lifestyle option to formerly office-campus-bound techies. Since these are operated by private employers as an employee courtesy, they’re usually comfortable and sometimes have sophisticated IT backends that make them more demand-responsive than public transit options. A few disappointments, though:

1. They’re not quite the IT revolution we were promised, although that could certainly change. Given that all the users are well-wired (erm, well-wirelessed?) and that origins and destinations are relatively closely clustered together, this is one population that could conceivably pilot a fully demand responsive “smart jitney” system. Yet instead, fixed route buses (and all the wasted capacity they entail, especially with each company offering its own service) appear to be what even the savviest of techies are comfortable with.
2. The shuttles add even more layers of complexity to what’s already a mind-bendingly complicated transit network. I’m the sort of guy who loves figuring out puzzles, and again IT can do a lot to help sort out complex equations like “getting from A to B” — but Bay Area 511 already has to keep track of 41 different transit agencies. I remember one afternoon excursion, with two destinations, which sent me on six different agencies’ vehicles — each with different fares, transfer policies, hours of operation, whatever.
3. Their emergence really points up the failure of the last-mile solutions, in SF and particularly in the Valley. Muni is a poor crosstown solution to get to CalTrain, whose corridor is not particularly close to many trip origins. And in the Valley, auto-oriented development patterns make that last mile utterly impossible. It’s telling that (just to choose one example from biotech) Genentech’s South San Francisco facility is hidden in an office park 4000′ from a CalTrain commuter rail station, while its Cambridge University Park facility is a pleasant 1000′ walk from an MBTA rapid transit line.

In short: Silicon Valley needs to grow up at some point. Perhaps nowhere else in America is there a more clearly demonstrated need for transit-oriented development.