Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Resource Center

The Future of Downtown

Bringing work back to the city

Since 1990, Bay Area residents have been driving nearly 50 million more miles each day. Regionally, transit ridership to work fell from a high of 11.4 percent in 1980 to around 9.4 percent in 2000. Although it has increased slightly since 2000 (to 9.8 percent), Bay Area transit ridership remains less than 10 percent of all commute trips. Meanwhile, our heavy reliance on automobile commutes is one the Bay Area’s chief contributions to climate change. This pattern of driving to work and other destinations — and its resulting environmental impact — stems from the sprawling geography of homes and jobs, and an infrastructure system that builds ever outward.

The smart growth movement has long called attention to the problems with sprawl, but has often been focused on residential sprawl. Yet the dispersion of jobs into suburban and exurban office parks that can never be served by transit is just as much of a threat to the environment as residential sprawl, if not greater. To achieve a low-carbon future, Bay Area residents need to be able to commute to work without relying on a car.

SPUR argues that our best strategy to reduce job sprawl is to channel more employment growth toward existing centers, particularly the transit-rich downtown of San Francisco.

Other transit-served employment centers in the Bay Area, such as downtown Oakland and San Jose, as well as Concord and Walnut Creek, also should capture a growing share of regional employment. The success of the other transit-served job centers is key to a future Bay Area that uses less carbon. But most workers in these other locations, including downtown San Jose and Oakland, drive to work. Future SPUR reports will look at what can be done to improve the land use, urban design and transportation networks for the other employment hubs in the Bay Area.

But downtown San Francisco is the only employment node in the region where most people travel to work without bringing their own car. This paper focuses on downtown San Francisco as the node with by far the greatest near-term potential to accommodate regional employment growth with a low carbon footprint. In fact, if reducing emissions and the amount of driving was our only criterion, we would advocate a region that adds as much of its incremental growth as possible into San Francisco. Even if San Francisco retains its share of regional jobs (16 percent), the increase in driving and emissions in the suburbs will prevent the region from attaining climate change goals.

We believe there are many benefits of adding jobs to downtown San Francisco:

  • A reduction in the land eaten up for suburban office parks, by providing jobs in a denser format that more efficiently uses space and energy
  • A reduction in the driving and emissions associated with daily commuting in the region, by maximizing the number of jobs within walking distance of transit lines
  • The creation of high paying jobs accessible to residents of the city and region
  • The encouragement of innovation, by bringing smart people into contact with one another in a dynamic urban location 
  • Increased funding for the broad array of public services we are proud to offer as a progressive city trying to serve as a model for the rest of the country 

At the same time, there are significant barriers to adding jobs to downtown San Francisco:

  • San Francisco is an expensive place to create employment because of high commercial rents, office development fees, business taxes and salaries (which are driven in part by housing costs). We need to keep costs as low as we can, yet make sure we add value to those who do business or work here, to make it acceptable to bear the high costs.
  • San Francisco has a reputation for a hostile business climate, manifested both in anti­business rhetoric and in the time-consuming bureaucratic processes employers encounter when they must interface with local government. Perhaps the anti-business rhetoric is now part of the city’s culture. But if that is true, then it is all the more critical that government be efficient, transparent and predictable, in order to not drive away employers.
  • Current zoning does not allow for significant new office growth. We must change zoning to fit more office buildings into the traditional central business district, or to expand the office core into adjacent areas in the South of Market and Mid-Market areas.
  • Our transportation networks, especially the Embarcadero and Montgomery BART stations, are nearing capacity. We must significantly expand transit capacity if we want to continue to add jobs in San Francisco.

San Francisco’s costs and business climate as barriers to job growth have been explored in depth in previous SPUR reports dealing with the tax structure, business costs, housing policy and government efficiency. This report focuses primarily on the physical planning problems that need to be solved: zoning for jobs and adding transportation capacity.