The Silicon Valley Economy, a History Told by Traffic

Photo courtesy of George Miquilena via Creative Commons

Ah, traffic. I despise it. Not sitting in
it is one of the big benefits of working at home. That being said, I need to meet clients face-to-face at various points in time. So I find myself dealing with many traffic jams: sometimes ones with which I’m familiar, sometimes new forms of trafficular torture when I go to someone’s office for the first time or at a new time of day. I have lived in the Bay Area for most of my working life, and all the time I have been stuck in my car/ on BART/ sprinting to an office from the San Francisco Caltrain station has made me think about how well traffic tells the story of Silicon Valley.

1990’s: 101 or 280?

I spent parts of the mid 1990’s driving the 101 corridor on the Peninsula. As long as you didn’t go at peak rush hour, life wasn’t too bad. In 1997, I commuted from Belmont to E*TRADE in Palo Alto. I could leave home at 7:00 a.m. and zip down with only a minor slowdown where Dumbarton Bridge traffic hit 101. If it got to be 7:20 or 7:30, 280 was the only way to go. I would hit top speeds on the freeway until I had to weave my way down Sand Hill Road, through the Stanford campus, and all the way across Palo Alto. In spite of the traffic lights, the drive wasn’t too bad. Getting home usually wasn’t a big deal at all.

Dot Crazy

I moved to San Mateo in 2000, at the absolute peak of the dot com bubble. Sometimes it would take me 45 minutes to get to my job at high-flyer BroadVision (now considerably smaller company) – 9.3 miles away. It wasn’t just a choice of 101 or 280 (not the 101 or the 280, LA friends!). Now I had to consider whether El Camino Real would be faster, even with a traffic light every half mile or so. If El Camino was clogged, side streets could be the best option. Then the bubble burst, and by mid-2002 I was flying down 101 at 55 miles per hour to go do four people’s jobs.

Mid-2000’s: Slowly Building Steam

Traffic increased gradually from 2002-2007 as the economy recovered. I could feel the difference even from month to month, but more traffic was a welcome sign of less stressful times to come. My coworkers noticed too. We would joke about it how long it had taken to get home some night by saying, “Well, at least we know things are getting better.” Anyone who had survived Dot Bomb never wanted to see traffic get better so quickly again.

The Big Not Tech Recession

I wasn’t in my car very often during late 2007 to 2008 (infant twins will do that to you), but the big financial crash didn’t take all that many cars off the road. You had to plan ahead carefully, but travel times were predictable as long as you weren’t trying to go somewhere at peak times (or through the dreaded trip up 101 to San Francisco on a Friday night).

In 2009, I could do the 9 a.m. drive to my client near 101 and 237 in about 30 minutes. By 2010 when I had a client about five miles closer near Google, the same drive took about the same amount of time. By 2011, I had to leave about an hour later to get to the same client in the same amount of time. I could see things steadily getting more busy.

2015: Are We Really Any Better than LA?

I was a traffic change denier for a couple of years; I guess my working-at-home gig just made things too easy. Then I had a bunch of on-site activities that started creeping into peak commute hours, and the denial had to end. Worse yet, traffic—particularly on 101—has started to affect me at unpredictable times of the day. Now, 10 a.m. is still rush hour. 3 p.m. is too late to leave San Francisco and expect smooth sailing home. And if you have to drive through Burlingame and past the San Francisco Airport, you need to be ready to hit traffic no matter what time of day or night.

I spent two years driving up and down the 405 while I completed my MBA at the wonderful Anderson School at UCLA, and every week 101 reminds me of that time more and more.

Yesterday I got stuck in traffic heading south from SFO at 3:30 p.m. on a Sunday. Last week, I saw a lady driving a BMW 70 mph in the fast lane of 101 while putting on mascara. Lipstick at a stop light? Not out of the ordinary for the Bay Area. Mascara at 70? That’s a sign of desperate times. I’m waiting to see a man primping or combing his hair while driving, and then I’ll know that LA has arrived here.

What does your commute tell you about the economy? About life where you live?

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