Google may have revolutionized our understanding of geography, but so far the world's leading internet company hasn't revolutionized the geography of commuting. So as Google contemplates its first major "campus," the City of Mountain View is looking to innovation – the coin of the realm in the Silicon Valley – to help Googlites get to work. Even if it means building a rail system that transports individual commuters around town in little capsules.
Like the rest of the Bay Area, Mountain View is investing heavily in public transit, as evidenced by the fact that the downtown transit center is a hub for both Caltrain and the San Jose light-rail line. But the North Bayshore area – locale for the Google headquarters as well as offices for such companies as LinkedIn, Intuit, and even Microsoft – is two long miles away up Shoreline Boulevard, on the wrong side of a constrained overpass that spans Highway 101 and boxed in by the San Francisco Bay and the former Moffett Field Naval Air Station.
Google is already one of the Bay Area's larger transit providers, and Google buses from San Francisco and elsewhere have cut the company's drive-alone rate to 62%. But the tech companies in the vicinity expect to double their employment in North Bayshore in the next 20 years to more than 30,000 workers. Google is working separately on a master plan for its headquarters. All this expansion creates a problem for an employment district that is currently little more than an overgrown office park located in what amounts to a large-scale cul-de-sac.
At a transportation workshop last Friday, four experts from around the country provided ideas for Mountain View and Google to consider as the city embarks upon the North Bayshore Precise Plan. The ideas ranged from the obvious – charging employees for parking – to the far-out, such as a "personal rapid transit" system that would whisk employees to and fro within the North Bayshore area, to and from the transit center, and possibly to other destinations as well.
Steve Raney of ULTRa, a company that promotes personal rapid transit systems, said Mountain View has three possible moves:
First, simply charge employees for parking.
Second, build housing for North Bayshore employees in and around the district.
And third, create a rail-based "personal rapid transit" system that would carry a few people each in small capsules from station to station throughout the North Bayshore area and Mountain View. Such a system – operated by ULTRa -- is already in a
Even though he works for a personal rapid transport company, Raney said, "If you're doing to do one thing, do the paid parking. Don't go and build a personal rapid transit system."
The City is just embarking on the Precise Plan, as well as a transportation plan for the North Bayshore area. The pending General Plan revision does call for the creation of a housing-oriented mixed-use node along Shoreline, but that clearly won't solve the commuter problem. City officials would like to connect North Bayshore to the downtown transit center served by Caltrain and light-rail, but that's not an easy task. The transit center is located in Mountain View's intimate, small-scale downtown, which is more than two miles away from Google and six slow-moving urban blocks from Shoreline Boulevard.
At the workshop, the City heard an update about BART's Oakland Airport connector, a rail link that will make it much easier to travel from the Coliseum BART station to the airport, and about Portland's South Waterfront area, where the streetcar meets the aerial tram that serves Oregon Health Sciences University.
But it was the personal rapid transit that caught people's imagination – complete with a variety of animated videos showing how it might work. City officials are clearly not convinced yet that this is the way to go. But according to Jerry Sanders, CEO of SkyTran, a personal rapid transit company located at Moffett Field, the city isn't the entity that should take the lead. In response to a question from a representative of Intuit, he said: "You guys are wealthiest, most sophisticated group of tech companies around. You should take the lead on this."