It’s Time for Greater San Francisco

Cedric Letsch/San Francisco at evening

If there’s one thing that the millions living across the San Francisco Bay Area can agree on, it’s this: things are falling apart. From homelessness and fentanyl to rents that are unaffordable even on six-figure median incomes, the lack of tangible progress on these issues gives the impression that the Bay Area is fundamentally ungoverned and maybe even ungovernable. 

This is strange because governments are the one thing the Bay Area does not lack. The region is made up of 101 municipalities distributed among nine large counties. In addition, numerous agencies and institutions operate across these boundaries. One might expect that the fight for talent and capital in the region would force these myriad administrations into competence, but this never seems to happen.

In reality, the large number of governments is the root cause behind why nothing ever seems to get fixed in the Bay Area: the economy is regional, but governance is local. There exists a fundamental mismatch in scale that means no one really represents the interests of the overall Bay Area, nor has the power to govern it coherently. This is causing a fundamental breakdown. The only solution is to collapse this disparity.

Too Big for Its Bridges

The Bay Area has a highly integrated regional economy that is structurally comparable to the more populous New York City tri-state area. Employers and people are both distributed around the Bay. Facebook is based in Menlo Park, but its large office 32 miles away in San Francisco holds about 10 percent of its workforce. Stripe moved from San Francisco to a different city—South San Francisco—almost on a dime. Before the pandemic, San Francisco proper would have a 20-percent population surge during the weekday, tech giants had fleets of buses that shuttled 34,000 employees daily, and the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system carried 126 million passengers a year. 

It is not just tech workers who are mobile. Firefighters, teachers, and service workers often don’t live in the municipalities they serve. The Bay Area is so integrated that the main beneficiary of the COVID-19 San Francisco exodus has been not Austin or Miami but other cities in the Bay Area: IRS data shows that four of the top five counties San Franciscans moved to are in the Bay Area. 

The Bay Area was not always this way. In the past, its geography kept it highly segmented. Early on, railroads drove development in the East Bay, Gold Rush shipping in San Francisco, and farming in the Peninsula. It was not until after industries like denim and aerospace had emerged that infrastructure finally got built to connect the region. Highways funded by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 connected cities all over the Bay Area, turning once-burdensome trips into drives no longer than an hour. A commuter rail system was planned from 1957 onward, and BART began operations in 1972, followed by Caltrain in 1985. 

The results benefited businesses throughout the region and greatly contributed to the Bay Area’s wealth. Thanks to a high degree of integration, a modern startup in Berkeley can easily travel to Menlo Park to raise venture capital, recruit engineers from San Mateo, San Francisco, and San Jose, and run its manufacturing facility in Fremont. The Bay Area as a whole thus became extremely attractive to young engineers, who moved en masse in search of their fortune.

However, all this also created the conditions for a much wider influx of people. Today, the Bay Area leads the nation in regions where workers have to “supercommute” at least 3 hours a day. It is not uncommon to have an Uber driver who lives in Sacramento, and he’ll have to brave the fifth-worst traffic in the world. Meanwhile, out-of-town arrivals from across the country fuel homelessness, leading to a situation so poor that one UN envoy compared San Francisco to India.

The root cause of this dysfunction is that while the economy is regional, the politics are local. The Bay Area’s 101 municipalities are home to as many mayors and councils. The entire metro area measures 6,900 square miles and is home to 7.8 million people, a little less than New York. The Bay Area as a whole, however, has no single government responsible for the whole region.

There are pan-regional entities, like the Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority and a voluntary planning organization with no enforcement power called the Association of Bay Area Governments. Certain independent bodies have borders that overlap with municipalities in non-obvious ways—for example, over 100 independent school districts—but these entities have little authority over local governments and vice versa. Large agencies operate with no oversight to become slush funds that double as springboards to higher local politics. Even criminals know this, running crime rings across different cities in the Bay to “hop” jurisdictions. Even if they are working together, 50 different police forces are easier to evade than a single, unified department.

The lack of any central agencies makes it impossible to coordinate, and on many matters, there is no incentive to coordinate at all. This state of affairs also eliminates all stakes because everyone knows that no project will be completed during any particular official’s term, turning every plan into an opportunity for grandstanding and graft. In 2020, San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin couldn’t support Measure RR, a small tax to save Caltrain during the COVID-19 pandemic, without extracting a concession. The result is a Venn diagram of governance where no one knows who is accountable to anyone.

Economic integration thus masks extreme regional variation. Monthly average rents vary wildly but are all expensive; Vallejo has the low end at $1,759, while Menlo Park carries the high at $4,395. This increases turnover and makes it difficult to attract talent, especially service workers. Instead of coordinating on housing the homeless and creating economies of scale, each city is responsible for its own homeless population with wildly different shelter costs. Thanks to different tax policies, the same company’s tax bill may be as much as 1300 times higher—that is not a typo—based on a 40-mile drive.

This results in two obvious problems. The first is a lack of economies of scale. The research is relatively clear that cities have economies of scale, especially with capital projects like transit and sanitation. But without coordination, millions of dollars are wasted on unnecessary government salaries and corruption. With so many different systems, each municipality and trans-Bay entity must negotiate separately, which is one reason BART is spending nearly $130,000 per new fare gate.

The second problem is that the large number of entities increases the number of veto points, a term for political operators that can block a decision. As the number of veto points increases, the chances the game works go down. Holdouts can bring the probability of project completion to zero, creating what Francis Fukuyama calls a “vetocracy.” In a coordination game where everyone defects, things don’t get done. For example, many cities opt to build commercial rather than residential properties because the former is heavily taxed, and the expectation is that someone else will build the latter. The problem is that there is no coordination, so everyone just suffers high rents and long commutes.

The Lessons of New York

San Francisco is still a place people love and want to live in, and there are people who dream of something grander for the city. One widely-discussed new vision, from Y Combinator’s Garry Tan, is called “San Fransokyo,” a name borrowed from the movie Big Hero 6. This concept draws both on an idealistic, hyper-urban vision of San Francisco and on practical lessons from some of Tokyo’s successful policy choices, especially reliable mass transit and mass high rises. It is certainly more ambitious than the San Francisco Chronicle’s idea that there is something to be emulated from, say, Pittsburgh’s experience. 

Ideal as it may be, there is something standing in the way of San Fransokyo: the reality that San Francisco and Tokyo operate at very different scales. San Francisco has a city population of about 800,000 people and 49 square miles; Tokyo has about 14 million people and 841 square miles. San Francisco, on its own, just isn’t big enough. But another city—one much closer to home—has more immediate and practicable lessons for what strategy can overcome the Bay Area’s crippling localism. That city is New York. 

What we now know as New York was once a region divided among five different counties and numerous municipalities. It became a single city through a process called consolidation, and that process was the vision of one man: Andrew Haswell Green.

Green became involved in civic life early in his career under the tutelage of his mentor, Tammany Hall antagonist Samuel Tilden. He cut his teeth on the Central Park Commission, where he created a staggering number of notable institutions that still endure today, like Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There, he also saw firsthand the problems stemming from the lack of consolidation. Over the years, the region became more tightly economically integrated, especially Manhattan and Brooklyn. Rich Manhattanites would move to Brooklyn to avoid high housing prices, and Brooklynites, proud of their independent culture and industry, would sell their goods to Manhattan while avoiding the excessive regulation of smaller municipalities like Queens.

Green observed that this caused a great disparity between the tax base and the beneficiaries of the city’s services, creating a mismatch that “produced a character of citizen who is a drudge in his field of work and a dummy in his sphere of citizenship.” This caused a breakdown where the cities were unable to coordinate even on mutually beneficial endeavors, like infrastructure. The Brooklyn Bridge’s previous success had residents across the region clamoring for more such infrastructure, but city governments instead fought over who would claim the benefits. The equivalent of Peskin’s recalcitrance over Measure RR in 2020 was the norm of the New York government in this period. But Green called the whole situation a “sham.” To him, New York was already a unified city, just not in government.

There was recognition that a lack of consolidation was hurting the ability of the region to provide public goods, especially infrastructure. As early as 1857, the New York state legislature passed a resolution recognizing the need to create such a city. Green described New York’s governance as a “travesty upon government,” explaining that “there is not, in the world over, another like area so disturbed by multiplicity of conflicting authorities.” The New York Times, in endorsing the referendum, dubbed the burgeoning metropolis a “commonwealth of divided municipalities.”

Green argued that shared resources without shared governance led to a tragedy of the commons, as the commons were depleted by politicians “relegating their custody to the irresponsible charge of all without permitting them to the special concern of any.” Green decided to make the consolidation of New York City the cause of his life, advocating on its behalf for nearly 30 years and ultimately chairing the Greater New York Committee. By 1894, when consolidation was put up for a vote, New York was deeply integrated but straining more than ever from the lack of a single governing authority. 

New York’s consolidation ultimately passed through a combination of carrot and stick, excitement and fear. Boosters advocated for consolidation to create, at last, an American city with the scale and power of London or Paris. On a more practical level, advocates for consolidation focused on infrastructure. Even Brooklyn, the only county with meaningful opposition to the goal, implicitly conceded the point through its actions. It had previously merged its fire department with Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the main opponent of consolidation of the city as a whole, self-servingly urged the consolidation of the water supply, which was Brooklyn’s greatest resource need at the time. And besides, Brooklyn itself had annexed all nine towns in Kings County. 

At the same time, New Yorkers feared being overtaken by Chicago, which was rapidly growing. The pivotal event in the public mind was when Chicago beat out New York to host the 1893 World’s Fair. Everyone remembered how New York had sapped prestige from once-mighty Philadelphia when it eclipsed the City of Brotherly Love in size in 1835. Increasingly, New Yorkers viewed consolidation as the only defense against the same thing happening to them. 

The success of the push to consolidate New York shows the power and necessity of a positive, definite vision in large projects. The consolidation of New York only occurred because Green offered a practical, specific argument. He believed the economies of scale from consolidation would result in cheaper mortgages, lower taxes, better jobs, and better infrastructure. The establishment of underground subways had been undermined by infighting for years and was one of the great promises of consolidation. Green painted vivid pictures of the harbors and bridges that could only be built when his goals were met. 

Visions like that are rare today because they require thinking about what one actually wants and how to accomplish it. Picking priorities in a world of finite resources means picking winners and losers and making enemies in the process. Negative critiques of a problem are easy because most people can agree that an obvious problem is bad. Almost no one in New York in the 1890s or San Francisco today disagrees about problems—it’s the solutions that divide people and cause established factions to block reform.

In politics, it is quite common for visions to end up as nothing more than broken promises. Consolidation was one of those rare causes that over-delivered and started doing so immediately after its achievement. It was no small project—voters approved consolidation in 1894, and it was completed four years later in 1898. That year, unified New York became the second-largest city in the world by population. 

Green had been strongly motivated by the idea that a single mayor rather than five would be able to break logjams and complete public projects. After consolidation, New York had three mayors in rapid succession; each of them kept a major promise of the cause. Its first mayor, Robert Van Wyck, pushed the creation of the first subway through in his first year and provided funds for the proposed Brooklyn Tunnel. His successor, Seth Low—who had been the mayor of recalcitrant Brooklyn—fulfilled the promise of using increased scale to lower taxes and fight graft in various city agencies, especially the police. The third mayor, George McClellan, Jr., opened the first full subway line, as well as Grand Central Station, the New York Public Library, and other iconic New York institutions.

The strength of a united New York City also empowered mayors to resist the power of Tammany Hall, a machine of political corruption that had once seemed hegemonic. Mayors like William Jay Gaynor, who was hand-picked by Tammany Boss Charles Murphy, now had the strength to renege on their deals and support civil servants who protected projects like the expansion of the subway. Green himself, who once struggled against corruption to build the Washington Bridge across the Harlem River, created institutions like the Bronx Zoo for the benefit of all the New York boroughs.

Today, New York is still a center of culture, finance, and power. It is even the home of the United Nations. Green’s vision of an “Imperial City” has survived for nearly 130 years.

The Vision for a Greater San Francisco

San Francisco finds itself in the same situation today as New York did over a century ago. The Bay Area is straining under the tension of cultural, economic, and political realities that are artificially separated by multiple jurisdictions. The only sustainable resolution is to collapse those realities into one.

In the Bay Area, the idea of consolidation is not entirely new—the first attempted consolidation occurred when the city was ready to rebuild in the wake of the 1906 fire. San Franciscans had noticed the growth of Oakland, which by the end of the nineteenth century had absorbed eleven municipalities, including Temescal and Claremont, and had tried to annex Berkeley and Emeryville. A number of prominent locals decided to try to follow in New York’s footsteps. Together, they formed the Greater San Francisco Association. But this initiative offered a much smaller basket of goods than Green had: a bridge across the Bay to replace slow ferries, lower taxes, and, in a Californian twist, a municipal water district that would be supplied by the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite.

The consolidation required a state constitutional amendment called the Wolfe Amendment. A San Francisco Chronicle op-ed in favor of consolidation noted that “people take pride in being in a big town. The once satisfied Brooklynite or Staten Islander likes to hail from New York.” However, the advocates of consolidation in the early 1900s failed to make the case that a Greater San Francisco would be as great as New York. The Oakland Chamber of Commerce led the charge against consolidation, and it won. Only San Francisco, San Mateo, and Marin County voted in favor of the 1912 amendment.

Over the following decades, the Bay Area watched Los Angeles grow from a secondary rival to a metropolis that soon eclipsed it in population and cultural prestige. New York, meanwhile, became a global powerhouse of wealth and influence that San Francisco simply could never match. 

But at the time of the vote, none of this was obvious or predictable. The fact is that consolidation was not compelling in the Bay Area of 1912. Economically and politically, the conditions simply did not exist. Consolidation would have been a major effort for its own sake rather than the resolution of a long-festering problem.

The Bay Area was becoming connected but was not yet irretrievably linked; an Oakland Tribune op-ed arguing against consolidation pointed out that a mere six percent of Oakland residents earned their living in San Francisco. There was hardly any infrastructure connecting the wider Bay economy. None of the major bridges had yet been built; Oakland and San Francisco were primarily connected through ferries. Outside of the two major metropolises, the Bay Area’s economy was largely agricultural, not industrial. There were no economies of scale to be had.

Moreover, there were no compelling projects to unite anyone behind other than the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. As historian Mel Scott observed, “the movement for a metropolitan water district thus became identified with the political consolidation movement.” Many viewed it as a simple cash grab to avoid issuing bonds for a project that didn’t need consolidation and they were largely right: Hetch Hetchy provides water to San Francisco to this day, no consolidation required.

Most importantly of all, there was no local Andrew Haswell Green. A Tribune op-ed accused the Greater San Francisco Association of being formed in 1907 as an insidious plot well in advance of consolidation. Ironically, the problem is that it was formed too late. Green had pushed for his Imperial City for decades and been a forceful advocate with a vision of what he would accomplish.

The Bay Area of 1912 is long gone, and in its stead are all the conditions that make consolidation necessary. The Bay Area is no longer defined by a battle between two mid-size cities surrounded by rural farmland and a few wealthy vacation homes. Today, it is straining under the weight of its internal divisions. It is time to give consolidation a try again. Unlike in 1912, there is no need for a Wolfe amendment. Article XI of the California Constitution has permitted consolidation since 1988. The legal tools to create Greater San Francisco are readily available.

The Bay Area’s nine counties would form the equivalent of “boroughs” in the new city. The most important element of a Greater San Francisco would be the creation of a single city administration. Instead of the highest regional government being BART, the new city could have a real government with a single mayor. There would be representation from each region, but this should also be an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the past. Moving from 101 municipalities to one would also come with enormous benefits at the government level. Many Bay Area cities today are hamstrung by weak mayors who are at the mercy of various city legislators and special interests; consolidation can be used as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean.

The new Greater San Francisco would also be able to engage in rational city planning at the right scale. Right now, every city has to have a housing element that tries to impose a housing plan, even in extremely small towns. A bigger city can rationalize this planning process by having a greater diversity of townships—keeping some areas rural by absorbing them into a larger city with a single housing element while placing homes in places that are meant to be dense.

The removal of redundant veto players will also allow for big projects to be completed on reasonable timelines. In the 1960s, San Mateo was able to kill the southern BART expansion, severely kneecapping its ability to be a true pan-Bay transit system. This was only possible because San Mateo had the right to control its borders and public purse. In a Greater San Francisco, there would be no more rogue towns killing grand projects. 

This new city would be similar in size and population to New York City, with an economy larger than that of most countries. Rather than being unwieldy, it would provide for the simplicity of a single, coordinated response with economies of scale. It would be a big economy with manufacturing, like Tesla’s Fremont facility and the Santa Clara semiconductor complex, the South San Francisco biotech cluster, and even See’s Candies main facility, resulting in a more balanced overall economy. The police would be able to coordinate and break up crime rings as part of one large, single department instead of 50 departments, with authority that would reach across the entire Bay. A company looking to manufacture will know the zoning rules without worrying that things will change if they move ten miles away.

A single Greater San Francisco government for the whole Bay Area could also achieve dramatic economies of scale. One large sanitation department can get a much better deal on equipment than many small ones can. Currently, there are over two dozen transit agencies throughout the Bay Area, and construction is horribly delayed and expensive; the Central Subway, a mere 1.7-mile line, cost $1.6 billion and took 11 years to complete.

Combining into a single bureaucracy can allow for the streamlining of thousands of unnecessary government officials, saving not only government salaries but, more importantly, saving decades—the time wasted by piecemeal politicians who have the incentive to block projects in the current vetocracy hellscape. The surplus politicians and bureaucrats are likely the biggest barrier to this new vision, not the legal restrictions.

Part of the reason that New York politically consolidated despite such barriers is that it had been going in that direction for decades at an institutional level: Manhattan had already consolidated the Bronx, Brooklyn had already merged some of its departments with Manhattan’s, and there was already a desire to merge the region’s harbors. The Bay Area already has some regionally governed transit systems and bridges, and lower-level institutional consolidation is a more readily achievable goal.

One obvious place to start is the police. Bay Area residents are much more afraid of crime than they were just a few years ago, and crime rings are known to cross the entire Bay Area. In particular, a shared desire for more police coordination with established cities like Redwood City and San Jose could follow such a pathway. Merging police departments and giving them a mandate to crack down on criminal organizations operating across the Bay Area would be a decisive and visible signal of what full political consolidation could achieve. All the different fire departments and transit agencies that currently don’t work well together could all be brought under one roof, as Bay Area citizens see the power of consolidated government and wish for more.

This step can, and likely should, occur before political consolidation. In the case of New York, prior consolidations made the process easier and more obvious, contributing to a sense of inevitability and removing some of the opponents. Working together would show the benefits of consolidation to the entire region in its area of greatest concern and create a powerful constituency in its favor. It may also make sense for some of the smaller towns to combine as an intermediate step.

Consolidation also makes infrastructure development possible on a scale that its opponents could never counter-promise or swoop on delivering. The most dramatic of these is a seamless transit system, which was one of the major carrots of New York’s consolidation as well. Bay Area residents have long been plagued by broken transit and terrible commutes, and polls find that 83 percent of voters would support merging Caltrain and BART. It is no wonder that at a 2013 conference on consolidation, the participants concluded that transit integration would be a good place to begin.

With some of the worst traffic in the world and the highest percentage of super-commuters, voters would likely view a world-class transit system with higher speeds and frequency as highly motivating. Some nonprofits like Seamless Bay Area have put out a Vision Map of what an integrated system could look like; they are a great start but can stand to be even more ambitious. With consolidation, such a system could arguably be built faster and cheaper per mile than without such a move. A 2011 study found that Bay Area transit agencies had lower operating margins than larger, more centralized peers. This is the power of economies of scale and the power to just make heads roll rather than shift blame.

Within the current political structures of the Bay Area, there would be winners and losers from consolidation. Other Bay Area reform movements, from YIMBYs to the tech billionaires building a city in Solano County, have generally tried to focus on mobilizing the professional classes. The reason it’s easier to try and build a whole new city rather than flip even a few local governments is because there has been no deal available toward which to turn entrenched political interests.

What matters is not money but the ability to build these alliances. Green advocated for and achieved New York consolidation over 30 years without a great deal of wealth to his name. What he possessed was extensive personal experience in the institutions of New York. Green did not just advocate but actually sat on commissions to implement projects that advanced his vision step by step. That willingness to engage with the actual work of sitting on boards is often what’s missing from today’s aspiring Andrew Haswell Greens. He knew the ropes, the names, and the possible alliances. And in the end, he succeeded.

The battle for Greater San Francisco will be long and bruising, and the involvement of several charter cities means that the state legislature will need to ultimately back the effort. But it would not be starting from ground zero as it was a century ago. What matters is a clear vision of what is at stake and a charismatic champion to advance it. Consolidation saved New York from stagnation: without it, Manhattan and Brooklyn would have remained mid-sized cities. Rather than eclipsing Chicago and London, they would have been the Eastern Minneapolis-St. Paul.

As things stand, the scattered cities of the Bay Area will continue to buckle against the contradictions that emerge when there is no scale. Greater San Francisco can embrace the powerhouse the Bay Area has become and make a golden future possible.

Evan Zimmerman is the cofounder of Edge, a Y Combinator-backed startup building a patent assistant using artificial intelligence. He is also the founder of Jovono, a venture capital firm that invests in technology companies. You can follow him at @ejzim.