The typical Silicon Valley tech office still looks a lot like it did in the 1970s: a box-like concrete building next to a huge parking lot, in the midst of the suburban sprawl of Santa Clara County, where 86% of commuters drive alone to work.
A new report asks why most tech companies–which embrace early adoption of everything else–are stuck in an outdated physical environment, and how that can change.
Rethinking the Corporate Campus, a report from the Bay Area planning nonprofit SPUR, found that out of more than half a million jobs added in the region from 2010 to 2015, only 28% of new offices were built within a half-mile of regional transit. (If San Francisco–with its network of subways, buses and light rail–is excluded, that drops to 9%.)
Bay Area drivers now spend 70% more time stuck in traffic than they did in 2010. In the nation, only Los Angeles drivers have more stress on their commutes. And pollution from cars is now the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the area.
Most companies realize that something has to change. “I do think businesses understand that their future financial well-being is contingent on helping to solve this problem,” Allison Arieff, editorial director for SPUR and one of the authors of the report, tells Fast Company. “The current scenario of people spending two or three hours in their car to get to work–and companies starting to no longer schedule morning meetings because employees can’t get to them–that’s not a really tenable outlook for Silicon Valley. Companies are already now slowly moving jobs out of the region.”
The traditional pattern of corporate campus development, which began in the middle of the 20th century, has been persistent for several reasons. Some developers, who’ve had success selling suburban buildings in the past, see no reason to change. Some tech companies like the privacy and security that comes from a building set back from a street that few people walk on. Huge suburban buildings offer large, flexible floorplans. Many of the cities and towns in Silicon Valley, between San Francisco and San Jose, have restrictive zoning in the areas near their regional train stations that make it more difficult to build.
A company that wants to be near a train station–realizing that most of its young employees want to live in the city, not the suburbs–may not have that option because few offices are available. “I think a lot of people tend to focus on the Apples and Googles of the world,” says Arieff. “But most companies don’t have those resources and capital, so they can’t be as selective, and then probably aren’t building from the ground up, so that’s part of it.”
The report suggests multiple solutions. If companies evaluate how their location affects their ability to attract and retain employees, and the costs of getting those employees to work–including the free shuttles that most tech employees expect if they have to work deep in the middle of sprawl–they’ll likely find that an office near transit makes more sense.
Some companies are already making that choice. In 2015, Box moved its office from hard-to-reach Los Altos to Redwood City, directly above a train station, and bought transit passes for employees instead of running shuttles, which saved money. The same year, Samsung completed an office in downtown San Jose, next to a light rail station. SurveyMonkey moved to a new development next to a rail station in San Mateo, which allowed it to expand its office space (from an office in downtown Palo Alto) without moving into a traditional suburban office park.
Companies can also help discourage driving by charging for parking or offering cash to employees who choose not to drive. Bike parking and showers can encourage more people to ride to work. Cities can push companies to make these choices–part of the reason Google offers shuttles from San Francisco and transit station and other alternative transit incentives is that the city of Mountain View imposed a cap on the number of car trips allowed in the area.
The report also suggests that cities should plan for dense development near existing regional transit, improve transportation, and retrofit suburban office neighborhoods to include a mix of housing and retail. Old zoning–which usually designated large areas as “commercial” or “industrial” and required large parking lots–can be replaced by zoning near rail stations that includes apartments, stores, and jobs. Consolidating development along transit corridors can also help shift buildings out of neighborhoods that are at risk from future sea-level rise.
Denser building is likely to be a challenge in an area where a “not in my backyard” attitude has also slowed housing development, pushing rents higher. The mayor of Palo Alto has argued that the growth both housing and jobs should slow down.
“You can put your foot down and say ‘we don’t want any more people, we don’t want any more jobs,’ but if every city and town between San Francisco and San Jose says that, it’s not like people are going to stop moving here,” says Arieff. “So housing stock gets more expensive and rarer, office space gets more expensive and rarer, traffic gets worse. You can either make an active and conscious decision to prepare for this growth that is happening, [or not].”
As Silicon Valley tries to shift to more walkable, bikeable, liveable, transit-rich neighborhoods, other cities could also learn from the region’s mistakes–particularly those, like Nashville and Austin, that are working on building their own versions of Silicon Valley.
“We’ve had people come in and ask, ‘What can we learn as we try to become the next Silicon Valley?'” she says. “Well: planning. Try and mitigate the effects of gentrification before they happen. Try and anticipate–to the extent you can–how sprawl might emerge from this sort of expansion, and how you might design around rail and invest so it doesn’t. I think there are a ton of places that stand to grow a lot right now as jobs, frankly, leave here and go to other places. And if they can learn any lessons from some of the mistakes that we made, then I think that would be good.”