Changing Where We Live

San Francisco Skyline (CC) Louis Raphael

An article on TechCrunch titled “Technology will change where we live” talks about how new technologies such as self driving cars, Hyperloop, and virtual reality could cause huge shifts in where and how people live. But is this a future that we really want, and do we have to wait around for new technologies to become ready before we can build better cities?

“The challenge is there’s only so much of San Francisco to go around.”

The article starts off with a fundamentally flawed (but not uncommon) suggestion that San Francisco is full. Sorry everyone, back onto BART! Let’s try the next stop!

If San Francisco has been feeling a bit full to you lately, it’s easy to conclude that we’re out of space. But there’s an invisible force at work that has been quietly deceiving you: zoning.

Low density homes along a San Francisco rail transit line. Photo (CC) Daniel Hoherd

Zoning regulations restrict what type of construction is allowed on a specific parcel of land. In San Francisco, around 41% of the entire city is under single-family zoning. This means you can build a single house and nothing else (Seattle is even worse at 54%). Rethinking zoning in San Francisco and other major cities is crucial, and will allow for much more housing to be built in the same geographic area. Many zoning laws can be traced back to racist origins, and fixing them could also be the key to improving diversity across American cities.

“Parking spaces can be largely eliminated and repurposed for more functional uses. Parking is estimated to account for at least 25 percent of surface space in most American cities.”

This is absolutely true, surface parking lots are an incredible waste of space. Even without getting into the wonky details of zoning, all you need to do is take a short walk to find signs that San Francisco is not full:

Self-driving cars may reduce demand for new parking, but we don’t have to wait for that technology to become available before the last urban concrete wasteland can be abolished. People are already driving less, public transportation ridership is breaking records across the country, and ride sharing options like Uber are booming. There’s already more than enough market demand to replace every surface parking lot with something much more useful.

New construction often replaces or multiplies existing surface parking capacity by moving it underground. This happens because new parking is built not only based on estimated market demand, but also to meet parking minimums set by zoning regulations. Some cities have defined minimums even in neighborhoods already well served by mass transit. Underground parking is very expensive, and building less helps lower building costs. This is especially important for publicly subsidized affordable housing developments.

Self-driving cars won’t solve this policy problem, and cities should get rid of minimum parking requirements now.

In areas where parking is not required, new developments are already opting out of providing any residential parking, saving construction time and costs that would be passed on as increased sale prices or rents.

An empty lot is low-hanging fruit for a developer (nothing to tear down, no existing residents who will need to move out), and they’re easy to find in San Francisco. Unfortunately, anti-development neighborhood activists (known as NIMBYs, for Not In My Backyard) make it very difficult to build anything in San Francisco, even if you’re trying to replace an unsightly parking lot. Recent examples of this include opposition to a low-cost microhousing project that would replace a lot empty since the 1906 earthquake), and a mixed-use development that would replace a suburban strip-mall-style Burger King. The site is right on top of a high-capacity BART transit station — exactly where we should be building lots of housing and no existing housing would be torn down. Opposition on that project has continued even after the developer offered to double the number of below-market-rate units.

It’s important that we shift the conversation away from the idea that San Francisco is “full”. Instead, we should talk about how zoning and NIMBYism have created an avoidable housing crisis, preventing San Francisco from meeting its full potential as a world-class city where everyone is welcome. Fortunately, a pro-growth movement is growing.

“Traffic can essentially be eliminated as ‘drivers’ become more efficient, eliminating log jams and accidents as there are fewer cars on the road.”

If anything, self-driving cars will increase the number of cars on the road. So if “more efficient” doesn’t mean fewer cars, the author must mean “faster speeds, packed closer together”. This would make cities a terrible place to live.

Robot rush hour from Futurama

Number of cars per hour is not the most important metric for a city street. Streets need to be built for people, where a person walking, riding a bike, or sitting outside drinking tea will all feel safe and welcome. Many cities are lowering speed limits to improve safety and livability.

The situation on highways isn’t much better. The Bay Area’s HW101 doesn’t even have an HOV lane that covers the entire valley thanks to an outdated policy that prohibits conversion of regular traffic lanes. Creating a high-speed self-driving-only lane isn’t going to happen any time soon (expanding the highway is also not an option).

And those cars would still have nowhere to go as soon as they enter the city, so this entire problem is simply be better solved by solutions that actually reduce the number of cars on the road: mass transit, ridesharing, and yes, the controversial tech shuttles.

“Half Moon Bay, for example, is a delightful place that few people working in Silicon Valley seriously consider because the commute today would be untenable. But if it was 30 minutes door-to-door, and you could read or watch a TV show, then yeah, that would be different. Virtually any place within 40 miles of your desired hub becomes a perfectly reasonable place to consider.”

Half Moon Bay is a small coastal city with a population of 12,000. Back in 1999, voters approved a measure that limits growth to 1% per year (the city council reaffirmed that law in 2009). It won’t be possible to build significant new housing for Silicon Valley workers without first undoing decades of anti-growth planning policy — a change guaranteed to face strong opposition. Efforts would be better spent on building more housing in areas closer to existing urban cores that can be served by mass transit.

“The next technological breakthrough to consider is the Hyperloop. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s like the vacuum tube you use at the bank drive-thru, but life-size, and is expected to move people at up to 700 miles/hour. If successful, you’ll be able to go from San Francisco to LA in about 30 minutes.”

Hyperloop is an intriguing concept — but for now it is just that, a concept. A recent demonstration that got a lot of press was basically just repurposed 20 year old rollercoaster technology. Claims that construction costs would be significantly less than traditional high-speed rail are questionable at best. Although several companies are racing to build the first Hyperloop line, one of them already seems to be a giant circus.

There may be a lot of money going into making Hyperloop a reality, but we’re a long way away from a shovel-ready proposal. Meanwhile, many of California’s existing rail transit systems are suffering from decades of neglect — while also experiencing record-breaking ridership. Voters will soon be asked to approve funding for rebuilding and expanding these systems, and we can’t let the promise of something “better” further delay these critical projects.

“Finally, we have virtual reality coming in to totally upend things, perhaps rendering the commute obsolete altogether.”

Predictions of a major shift to telecommuting go back to the early 1970s at least, and for the most part have not panned out. Just a few years ago, Yahoo famously asked its employees to stop working from home citing the importance of being “physically together”.

Illustration of “Stacks” from Ready Player One. Image Source

Virtual Reality may indeed be a game changer and bring the same benefits as sitting in the same physical room (or maybe not), but we can’t use this as an excuse to avoid solving important problems in real life. Even in a world like Ready Player One where all business and social interactions happen virtually, it’d be nice if we didn’t have to stack RVs for housing and could still enjoy real fresh air every so often.

My vision for the future also uses technology to change where we live, but in a very different way.

I‘d like to live in an affordable diverse city that can quickly adapt to a booming economy with skyscrapers built in less than a month. My dream home is a small but insanely efficient apartment — most of my time is spent out anyway. To get around, I’d like to walk or bike along better, safer streets, ride a fast and clean subway, and have other on-demand transit options to fill in the gaps. While traveling between cities, I’d like to watch the scenery pass by through the window of a high-speed train.

The technology for my city of the future is available today (some has been available for hundreds of years) but we’ve made it impossible to build across the country. Land use politics may not sound exciting and sci-fi like self-driving cars or Hyperloop, but these regulations are the reason why our cities and transportation options look the way they do.

To change where and how we live for the better, we need to first decide what future we want — then speak out to make it happen. Let’s start today.

This post reflects my personal views, not the views of my employer (or the views, likely, of many other people in the Bay Area tech industry).