And you thought SF cabs were bad? BART strike is crippling fledgling mid-market tech corridor

By Sarah Lacy , written on July 2, 2013

From The News Desk

I have never been so happy to see a San Francisco cab as I was yesterday.

"I'm going to 9th and Market," I said getting in.

"Everyone is going there! What is going on?" he said.

"I'll tell you what's going on," I said. "Thousands of people recently started working in that building, and they can't get to work today. The Mayor has staked his term on a tech-lead Mid-Market revitalization effort that's lead to thousands of tech workers depending on BART to get to work and BART is shut down."

In case you have never had to joys of wandering through the Tenderloin, it's pretty much the mouth of hell. It makes the 16th and Mission BART station-- which was once so clogged with human feces the escalator broke down-- look like Shangri La. Market itself is near impossible to navigate street where left turns are forbidden, slow busses block the middle lanes, and there are few parking garages in sight. The ones that are there are pricey. Go the wrong way on Market and you might as well pack a lunch because you aren't turning around for a while.

There are exactly three reasons an office in this part of town is doable:

1. Mayor Ed Lee's tax incentives to move Twitter here created some critical mass to encourage developers, cafes and urban pioneers to take it on. (It's actually not so bad once you are here.)

2. SOMA was overrun and fast growing startups needed somewhere in the tiny city to expand. There simply weren't many other huge spaces left to develop.

3. BART. It's the easiest way to get in and out of this area by far.

Mayor Lee has to be even more annoyed than I or any of the other thousands of tech workers struggling to get to the office this week. Just when it was starting to look like something near impossible was working, San Francisco's new tech corridor has been brought to its knees in the last 48 hours as the city has been locked in a full-on transit and traffic nightmare. It took two hours to get through a 15 mile stretch approaching the Bay Bridge this morning and the Ferries looked like Calcutta markets. Meanwhile cab drivers have been running shuttles back and forth between neighborhoods like mine. I heard from a few hotel concierges that the airports were a total mess last night with everyone running late to flights, because tourists in town for Gay Pride had no idea BART was closed and had to hastily grab cabs at the last minute to navigate through a snarl of traffic.

The Mayor's office has only issued this somewhat plaintive statement:

“I join Governor Brown in urging BART union and management leaders to return to the bargaining table and continue to negotiate in good faith to avoid a BART strike.

A strike by a transit agency that carries hundreds of thousands of people every day will not only cause disruptions to loyal BART riders who rely on the system to get to work, go to school and travel around our region, but a strike would negatively impact our entire regional economy.

In the unfortunate event of a BART strike, the City and County of San Francisco will minimize impacts to those affected by offering increased transportation options, including at our Airport, and increasing staff for traffic management. We have also planned ahead with our own City government staff to ensure vital public services are not interrupted.  We will continue to partner with regional transit agencies, local businesses and other key stakeholders to coordinate an effective contingency plan to keep our City and the entire Bay Area moving.” And a spokesperson for the Mayor's office added by email, "Just wanted to re-emphasize that the Mayor is keenly aware of the economic toll this this having on our City and the entire Bay Area, and he is doing all he can to bring both sides of the BART strike together to iron out a compromise deal that will get us moving again."

This is why it's not easy being Mayor of a town like this. You preside between a warring brew of libertarians who have no regard for laws and progressives who want to dictate whether your Happy Meal comes with a toy; mashed up with a vocal contingent who wants to "Keep San Francisco weird" alongside newly minted hacker millionaires who want to change their reality in every conceivable way. All of these intense parties are in constant collision in a small geographically bound patch of land.

As Farhad Manjoo wrote for us months ago, San Francisco lives at the center of Catch-22s when it comes to urban development. It all comes down to the city's limited seven-mile by seven-mile geographical reach, which is compounded by a stubborn refusal to develop for its growing population. No one wants the city ripped up to create better public transportation. No one wants high density housing to replace the charming rows of Victorians. And yet, no one wants a city where everyone needs a car and rents skyrocket because there's less than 5% rental vacancy.

Nearly everyone not in tech blames startups for "ruining" the city, jacking up housing prices and creating traffic snarls, rather than accepting this is a major hub of industry and just fixing these problems once and for all so we can all happily live together with reasonable ways to get around the cities and reasonable rents. The transit problem is as dicey as the housing problem Farhad described months back. Mayor Lee has said repeatedly the city's growth simply cannot support everyone having a car. But the city's infrastructure gives us little choice. As much as progressives might like the idea, the entire city won't bike to work everyday. There need to be real options if you want people to ditch cars.

Put simply: You can't expect people to live like New Yorkers in a city that refuses to allow itself to evolve into a West Coast New York.

Public transportation is woeful in this city in the best of times. But this week it's become clear how much of the city's future -- particularly as it pertains to its future as a tech and startup hub-- is dependent on what little public transportation we have, especially BART.

BART is the closest thing we have to a subway system and it has a very limited route. But the one place it does come is Mid-Market, the recent home of Twitter, One Kings Lane, Hotel Tonight, Yammer and many other tech companies that the Mayor has worked hard to recruit into the most blighted area of the city.

While highly controversial in a place like San Francisco that resists gentrification and generally hates job creation and self-made millionaires, in my mind the plan was a masterstroke. It promised to solve two problems at once: Finally bringing some life to derelict and abandoned buildings in the middle of the city and giving rapidly growing office-space hungry tech companies a place to expand without having to leave. Twitter has been the anchor tenant -- and PandoDaily has just moved into Runway, a coworking space that's also in the Twitter building. (My bitching in this post aside, we love it here.)

As is always the case, much of the Silicon Valley set-- which has anti-union roots dating back to the days of Robert Noyce-- isn't sympathetic with striking workers demanding a greater than 20% pay raise. And all the people who are sympathetic to unions probably resent any bitching of "millionaires" who can't get to work. (Nevermind, most of the people working at these startups aren't millionaires.)

At some point, the city government will have to decide which constituency matters most. Tenants or home owners. Progressives or libertarians. People creating jobs or people who disdain "corporate interests." We will never be-- and should never be-- "a Manhattan" anymore than New York will ever be "a Silicon Valley."

But this isn't a period like 1999 where tech's expansion is fueled by an unsustainable public market bubble. On the contrary we're in a Series A crunch and public market tech stocks are in the tank. In many respects, this is the downturn everyone was so feverishly anticipating. Silicon Valley is simply doing what it has always done since the 1950s-- expanding to encompass more companies, jobs and investor capital decade after decade. Like it or not, software is eating the world and Silicon Valley is eating the Bay Area. Better to make friends with it and find a sustainable way to coexist than keep fighting.

I'll say this: The last few days have been a rare opportunity for cab drivers to shine. Every cab I've taken has been impeccably clean, accepted credit cards with no grousing, and the drivers have been incredibly polite. Although they all hate the scourge of Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, the result of those services coming into the market is what's made my commute to and from work bearable this week. Competition, it turns out, does indeed make everyone better. It's too bad no one is working on disrupting BART.

[Image courtesy Steve Rhodes]