Google's gentrification shuttle

The counter-migration has begun

OPINION Cari Spivek thought it was wasteful that so many employees like her were driving to work in different cars. Her idea became the Google Shuttle, a private transit network made of biodiesel-powered, wi-fi-enabled, air-conditioned buses transporting employees from around the Bay Area to Google headquarters in Mountain View, south of San Francisco.

At first it was used by a hundred employees from the entire area. But Google has been growing and now shuttles more than 1,200 Googlers every day, many from the Mission District, which has recently added a second bus.

Anyone who has ever taken a population class knows that every migration has a countermigration. In addition to all of the Google employees already living in the city and doing less environmental damage by taking the shuttle, many employees are choosing to move to the city because there is now a comfortable shuttle to take them to work. And many want to be a short walk to one of the stops.

When one takes into account the cost of gentrification, which is destroying the arts in San Francisco and forcing many low-income workers out of the city, the Google Shuttle no longer looks so environmentally friendly. Low- and middle-income wage earners are forced to commute to the neighborhoods they can no longer afford to live in. Their commute can take more than an hour, and they can't afford environmentally friendly cars.

It's very possible the Google Shuttle is doing as much harm to the environment as good. And the young Google employees, many making well over $100,000 a year, who move to places like the Mission for the art and diversity, are unintentionally devastating the neighborhood they love. Soon there will be no economic diversity in the Mission, and the young rich who have driven the rents so high will wonder how they ended up living in a place that resembles Greenwich, Conn.

Ending the Google Shuttle is not the only solution. It's not even the best solution. A much better alternative would be for Google to make substantial investments in low- and middle-income housing in the areas it's transforming, like the Mission and the Tenderloin, where its employees are clustered.

Google could give back to the community by donating $5,000 per employee living in the Mission to a fund that offsets the costs incurred by tenants forced from their homes by owner move-ins or loss of primary leaseholder, with the rest of the money going to fund neighborhood artists and new middle-income housing. Annually, we're talking between $5 million and $10 million, a cost Google could easily afford. It would be good for Google in other ways, keeping this an area its creative employees still want to live in, before they follow the rest of the artists to Portland, Ore., or Detroit.

It's hard for people to admit that their mere presence is doing damage, that their ability to pay exorbitant rent is destroying the neighborhood they love. But the Mission cannot endlessly absorb renters with six-figure incomes. In many ways, including the use of biodiesel shuttle buses, Google has behaved like a responsible profitable corporation should. Now it has a responsibility to help the Mission maintain its diversity. Otherwise, Google needs to stop shuttling its employees from 24th and Mission and stop encouraging them to live in a neighborhood that simply can't afford them.

Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott is the author of six books. He has lived in the Mission for eight years.

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