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How NIMBYism is holding back Silicon Valley and the American economy

Google's tree-lined Mountain View headquarters is attractive, but a big office tower would make the area more walkable.
Google's tree-lined Mountain View headquarters is attractive, but a big office tower would make the area more walkable.
Scott Beale

Most city leaders would be overjoyed to be selected as the site of a new headquarters for one of the world's richest companies. But according to the New York Times, the Mountain View City Council has been unenthusiastic about Google's plans to build a new headquarters there.

City leaders are apparently worried about the traffic, and about further development changing the character of their city. They're also worried that Google employees could become a majority of the city's voter base, giving the company outsized influence over the city's politics.

Other technology companies in the region have also faced resistance from not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) advocates. The result: not only is the Valley failing to deal effectively with growing congestion and soaring housing costs, these myopic local policies could end up hampering the country's most important driver of economic growth. So what looks like a local issue has broader implications.

Ignoring the pressure for more development is short-sighted. A better approach would be to accept that growth is inevitable and start planning ways to accommodate it gracefully. That means allowing high-density development in certain areas, positioning these developments so that some residents will be able to walk or bike to work, and making sure these areas are well-served by transit so they don't overwhelm the city's streets.

One of the biggest problems in Mountain View (and surrounding cities) is that more than 85 percent of workers there get to work by car. That works fine in a typical suburb, but it's becoming increasingly untenable as the region becomes more populous.

If Mountain View allowed high-density housing to be built in the area around Google's headquarters, that could not only help lower the area's sky-high housing costs, it could also encourage more people to walk or bike to work, relieving some of that congestion.

Higher densities work best in concert with a better system of public transit. Right now, the region's car-oriented development pattern makes it difficult to build a useful transit system. But if Mountain View allows the development of a walkable, high-density portion of the city, and other nearby cities do the same, that will make it more practical to build a system of buses — or perhaps someday a subway system — connecting them together.

Another sign of how desperately the region needs better shared-transportation systems is the fact that Google and other companies have been forced to construct their own private bus systems to bring employees in from San Francisco. These systems work fine for employees who have access to them, but it would be better for the region if Silicon Valley's transit infrastructure were good enough to make them unnecessary.

The problem, as a city councilor in Apple's hometown of Cupertino put it to the Times, is that "Nobody wants change." A lot of residents in the area like their towns the way they are — or more precisely, the way they were 20 years ago before the dotcom boom started — and don't want to see the area gradually transformed into an urban area.

But keeping things the same isn't really an option. These companies aren't going to stop growing. Traffic problems are going to get worse and worse. And sooner or later, technology companies are going to convince some cities in the area to allow more development.

Addressing these pressures proactively should allow cities to channel this growth in ways that will minimize disruption for longtime residents. Allowing new development in some parts of town can relieve road congestion and housing shortages in other neighborhoods.

In fact, if Silicon Valley had more flexible housing markets, hundreds of thousands of people could move to the Bay Area to take advantage of the tight labor market and high wages in the area, boosting not just the region, but the nation's growth rate.

Instead, these prospective workers are locked out by astronomical housing costs. We're all worse off for it.

Disclosure: My brother is an executive at Google.