Can Silicon Valley’s car addiction be broken? 7 ways urbanists want to improve transit

Lauren Hepler | Silicon Valley Business Journal

Between Silicon Valley’s beautiful weather, the region’s concentration of small cities and the Bay Area’s stereotypically “green” values, Santa Clara County theoretically has everything it needs to be a model for public transit.

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A new report by Bay Area urban planning group SPUR offers seven potential ways to diversify transportation options in car-dependent Silicon Valley.

In reality, however, just 3 percent of workers in the county commute to work using public transit, according to a new report by urban planning group SPUR. In addition to a trove of data on traffic, the report offered seven strategies to drive up the proportion of area workers ditching their cars to commute. The proposals are outlined in full at the bottom of this story. (And the very last one may be the most provocative.)

SPUR addressed its suggestions to the Valley Transportation Authority, or VTA, which orchestrates everything from buses to light rail to new highways. The report also adds a sense of urgency: Santa Clara County’s population is is expected to grow by 641,000 residents by 2040 — a 36 percent increase that could yield much more gridlock and pollution.

To implement the goals outlined below, however, VTA and groups like SPUR will run up against entrenched obstacles. Suburban land-use patterns have developed over the last half-century, and the region’s mismatch between where the jobs are and where people live ( illustrated in this dynamic Silicon Valley traffic map) contribute to long commutes. There’s also a lack of dedicated funding for big transit upgrades.

Perhaps most difficult to overcome, however, is the sentiment that urbanized, walkable, transit-oriented development is more planning pipe dream than viable market opening.

“The idea that we as Americans are going to pedestrian shop is a romantic notion,” Randol Mackley, senior vice president of SRS Real Estate Partners, told me earlier this year. “No one is going to buy a big screen TV and put it in a hemp tote and get on light rail.”

SPUR acknowledges the challenge and urges targeted, incremental change:

1. Build efficient public transit hubs

Entire swaths of Silicon Valley are dominated by sprawling, fragmented office parks and commercial strips that are far from ideal for centralized public transit. SPUR urges VTA to focus on improving transit in areas where buses and light rail have already provided an infrastructure backbone.

Specifically, the group calls for a focus on making ride times to popular destinations “competitive with car trips,” targeted investment in highly trafficked areas and “first and last-mile” solutions to link riders between transit stations and their final destinations.

2. Think beyond buses and light rail

Ride-sharing startups, mini shuttles for commuters and designated “car-light corridors” in areas with good walkability and access to public transit are three areas that SPUR suggests VTA might consider to diversify transportation options. Big Data also opens new possibilities, should VTA move to provide more realtime information for riders or look at new long-term planning options.

And then there’s the underlying need to better marry the transit options the region already has: “VTA’s services should have easy physical connections to one another and to services like Caltrain or BART. An effort should also be made to integrate operation schedules or hours of service,” SPUR notes.

3. Stop building new roads

Although Santa Clara County is currently studying new ways to ease traffic by building out area expressways, SPUR is on a very different page, asking VTA to stop “default(ing) to building new roads.” Retrofitting existing roads to better accommodate biking and walking is one alternative that could be paired with planning efforts to discourage reliance on cars when building new projects.

The group adds that, “There is not enough funding to maintain all the roads in the county, and current road pavement conditions are generally poor.”

4. Develop near transit

Since VTA owns portions of land around various transit stations, SPUR urges the agency to work with employers and cities to draft broader plans for transit hubs, rather than relying on fragmented development projects. Landing a few “large institutions or employers” around transit systems — like universities, well-known businesses or government agencies — could also help build critical mass and prove that transit-oriented development can be feasible.

Still, SPUR tips its hat to the complexities of working with private developers, saying “When market realities don’t allow for the suitable joint development for a station area, VTA and local partners can explore creative solutions or seek funding together.”

5. Set transit goals … and then meet them

Regional coherence in land-use planning has always been elusive in Silicon Valley, which is chopped up into a couple dozen small cities in the South Bay and Peninsula.

SPUR suggests new ways of measuring progress on transit planning, focusing on variables like per capita car ownership and lower annual household expenditures on transportation. Beyond that, the group asks VTA to put its money behind targeted public transit fixes instead of highways.

6. Listen to the public, don’t stagn ate

“Innovation” is basically a meaningless Silicon Valley buzzword at this point, but SPUR insists that a group within VTA focused on researching and honing creative transit plans would be worthwhile — not dissimilar to the private sector’s “intrapreneurship” trend where small teams push for more innovation within big companies.

To that end, the report also points out that VTA could better engage huge area employers and universities that could make use of their services.

7. Find more funding — somehow

In what might be the most controversial recommendation in the SPUR report, the urban planning group floats “user fees to rebalance funding to travel modes other than cars” — which, in general, means charging drivers to fund public transit. Similarly, the group proposes additional impact fees for developers building new car-centric projects.

More broadly, tax hikes for the general public could also help fund transportation projects like the extension of Bay Area Rapid Transit, as the Silicon Valley Leadership Group has proposed for a 2016 ballot initiative to increase sales tax.

Upgraded WiFi Coming to All MBTA Commuter Trains, Boats and 3 Key Stations

Nate Boroyan | City News

An upgraded WiFi system is set to expand coverage to all MBTA commuter rail lines, ferry boats and three of Boston’s busiest stations. But T-riders might have to wait until early-2016 to enjoy it.

MBTA General Manager Bev Scott dotted the line of a 22-year licensing agreement with inMOTION Wireless, Inc Thursday morning. Under the agreement, inMOTION will install a new $5.6 million WiFi system across all 14 commuter rail lines and extend connectivity to commuter boats and South, North and Back Bay Stations.

“This is a very exciting time for our Commuter Rail system,” said Scott in statement. “While the introduction of new locomotives and new coaches will continue to improve on-time performance rates, customer service initiatives like WiFi and eTicketing make the overall commuting experience an even better one.”

Installation work is expected to start this fall, and the full system is expected to go live within 18 months time. inMOTION Wireless will cover the entire bill, leaving the T and its customers off the hook.

inMOTION Wireless will install, operate and maintain the WiFi network on all passenger coaches and ferry boats. When activated, T-riders will have access to free WiFi and a live television feed. For $15 per month, T-riders will be able access a premium WiFi service, which will allow for data and video streaming.

The new agreement stipulates the T receive 7.5 percent of net revenue collected from the WiFi program.

People-oriented cities: mixed-use development creates social and economic benefits

Luis Zamorano | Eco-Business

For cities to be more sustainable and liveable, urban design must reorient cities around people rather than cars. Mixed land-use development is a good place to start, say transport experts.

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Commuters in New York City. Urban planning that places different residential, commercial and recreational spaces close to one another makes it easier for people to get around by walking, cycling and public transport. Image: Andrew F. Kazmierski /


Mumbai, India can be a commuter’s nightmare. Downtown sits a full 10 miles from the residential core, and the two areas are poorly linked by public transport. Mumbaikars have the longest commute of any Indian city resident, averaging more than 47 minutes each way every day. This fragmented urban development has pushed car ownership in the city to rise by an astonishing 3,700 per cent in the past 60 years, clogging roadways and polluting the air.

Travel to New York City and the landscape is much different. A single city block houses a mix of restaurants, office buildings, residences, and shops. This type of development—known as “mixed-use development”—makes it easy to use public transport, walk, or bike, helping to efficiently connect the city’s neighborhoods through sustainable transport. The portion of commuters relying on cars in the city fell from 90 per cent to 59 per centbetween 2010 and 2011.

These two cities showcase an emerging urban design lesson: Sprawling cities decrease quality of life; compact, mixed-use developments yield economic and social benefits.

Sprawling and Segregated: The Cost of Disconnected Cities

The proliferation of zoning at the beginning of the 20th century contributed to sprawling cities around the world. Residential neighborhoods sprouted on the urban periphery and in suburbs, giving rise to car-dependent commuter towns. City centers languished, shopping malls replaced commercial streets, and the urban poor were segregated from the wealthy elite.

These sprawling cities are increasingly common in developing nations. For example, Mexico’s history of dispersioncreated thousands of single-family houses on the outskirts of cities. The sheer distance to everyday destinations means some families spend 25 percent of their income on transport. This type of design increased Mexico City’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by up to 70 percent and costs USD 2.5 billion (33 billion pesos) each year in lost economic productivity.

Connected Communities Improve Health, Environment, and Economies

Mixed-use development works against these trends to create inclusive, connected communities. In mixed-use areas, you can find housing, restaurants, services, schools, cultural facilities, parks, and more. This connectivity reduces the need for private vehicles, thus increasing the viability of public transport, walking, and bicycling. For example, Mexico City’s longest street, Avenida Insurgentes, is home to a range of services, residences, and businesses, but traffic congestion initially made the street difficult to access. For these reasons, local decision-makers choseInsurgentes as the site for the city’s first bus rapid transit (BRT) system, Metrobús. After the launch of Metrobús in 2005, 100,000 daily car trips were replaced by sustainable transport, easing congestion and reducing the city’s GHG emissions by hundreds of thousands of tons.

Growing Cities and Sustainable, Mixed-Use Development

According to the World Health Organization, cities will hold 70 per cent of the world’s population by 2050. About 96 per cent of this growth will occur in developing countries, demanding quality urban spaces and services.

As current cities expand and new ones crop up, it’s important for local leaders, urban planners, and citizens to examine what works. Compact, car-light cities spur economic growth, social cohesion, and quality of life.

East New York affordable housing may be out of locals’ reach

Julie Strickland | The Real Deal

Homes in East New York

Homes in East New York

A square mile section of Cypress Hills, a northeastern subsection of Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood, is set to house the first 15 sites of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $41 billion affordable housing plan. But residents of the area, one of the poorest in the city, likely won’t be able to swing the cost of these “affordable” units.

The median income in the district is around $32,000 per year, and the median rent of the planned affordable units citywide is to be between $1,050 and $1,670, Shai Lauros, director of community development for the Cypress Hills Local Development corporation, told Gothamist. Affordable rents for this community, she said, “typically range from $375-$625, so there is a discrepancy here. This could contribute to displacement.”

As a mayoral candidate, de Blasio made Transit Oriented Development a basis for his community revitalization strategy, pointing to the planned rezoning and development of additional housing to locations with strong transit connections, and called for higher-density development at and around transit hubs. But a report on the Sustainable Communities initiative, published by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development a few weeks after de Blasio’s housing plan was announced, found that the so-called sustainable communities have “the potential to spur gentrification and displace residents in low- and moderate-income areas.”

“Recent research confirms that walkable, transit-oriented communities nationwide are becoming increasingly less affordable and have varying benefits depending on the income level of the residents,” the HUD report added.

Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants Political Action Committee, told Gothamist that a better affordable housing approach would be to build more public housing or revive the Mitchell-Lama model, though he called both scenarios highly unlikely.

Downtown Denver’s Meet in the Street event steps toward urban engagement

Caitlin Hendee | Denver Business Journal

Glenn Ross DDP Meet in the Street 19Businesses lining the 16th Street Mall had their hands full Sunday after the mall’s shuttle service was detoured for Meet in the Street, an event that drew an estimated 2,800 people per block per hour.

“What this event is about is bringing the community together into an urban environment … working with partners, having people experience the urban environment in different ways,” said Jenny Starkey, a spokesperson for the Downtown Denver Partnership, which hosted the event.

Regional Transportation District (RTD) free mall-ride buses that typically run the length of the mall were rerouted to 15th and 17th street for the duration of the event, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The Downtown Denver Business Improvement worked with the Partnership to create Meet in the Street, which included drum circles, bike decorating stations, live music, a photo booth, games and more.

According to Starkey, the event started as a way to encourage a more bike- and pedestrian-friendly atmosphere, as well as draw people to the 16th Street Mall to engage with businesses and build community.

Events like this, she said, are part of Denver’s “tactical urbanism,” plan, which ultimately will lead to the city’s continued transformation towards new urbanism, transit-oriented development — the movement to create walkable, mixed-used neighborhoods featuring small, compact residential lots and stores, schools and other amenities that can be easily reached by walking, biking and transit rather than driving.

“These kinds of tactical urbanism projects are really just interventions to create projects that improve the urban environment,” Starkey said.

The next Meet in the Street event is set for August 10.

The re-routing of the mall buses also gave the Partnership a convenient opening to install permanent intersection art, a painting by artist Katy Casper Gevargis, onto the intersection of 16th and Curtis Street.

Glenn Ross DDP Meet in the Street 5That installation is part of an initiative the Partnership started last year to reinvigorate the central blocks of the 16th Street Mall, between Welton and Curtis Streets.

“They have been the blocks we’ve struggled with activating as public space,” said Ryan Sotirakis, public realm design specialist at the Partnership. “There’s not a lot of cafés … they’re not like the blocks down by LoDo where’s there’s a lot of energy.”

Sotirakis said the initiative, which will feature art at both Curtis and 16th Streets and soon at Welton and 16th Streets, seeks to address pedestrian safety by “extend[ing] the feeling of the mall across intersections.”

And by putting in art and hosting events like Meet in the Street, Starkey added, it creates a more positive environment for businesses and visitors.

Asked if that was a strategy of the Partnership to address concerns about homelessness and crime — the city recently approved $1.8 million to increase police presence on the Mall— Starkey said activation was the main goal.

“Any kind of activation strategy, whether it’s public art or bringing out our partners … brings positive activity, and that really negates other activity that could happen there,” Starkey said.

West Palm Beach Unveils Plans for New Station

James Ruggia | Travel Pulse

West Palm Beach Unveils Plans for New Station

A new station is coming to West Palm Beach. (Courtesy of All Aboard Florida)

All Aboard Florida, the project that will bring express rail connectivity between Miami and Orlando, when it opens in 2016, unveiled plans for a major component of the project, the West Palm Beach Station. ABF is building three railway stations to serve their trains, in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, with each one designed to be a major component in its host city’s cultural and commercial life. The All Aboard Florida project will exploit an already existing 230-mile long rail corridor that connects Miami to Orlando via Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

Yesterday, Palm Beach County Mayor Priscilla Taylor and West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoia joined All Aboard Florida executives unveiled the designs for the station. To be located between the city’s government center and its Performing Arts Center, the 60,000-square-foot station will join several transportation systems including the existing Tri-Rail and Amtrak stations and the neighborhood’s trolley and pedestrian networks.

“We have been working closely with the city staff to develop a station and overall master plan that makes the downtown area even more dynamic,” said P. Michael Reininger, president and chief development officer of All Aboard Florida. “We fully expect this underdeveloped part of the city to see a dramatic change with new development that will be spurred by the transit activity we are leading.”

“That new location will be a nexus for downtown and provide direct and efficient connectivity to the hubs of Orlando and Downtown Miami,” said Bernard Zyscovich, founder and CEO, Zyscovich Architects. “The station will be a catalyst for redevelopment, enhancing the opportunities for additional Transit Oriented Development on the west side of downtown.”

All three of All Aboard Florida’s planned new stations are being designed to serve as transit hubs and important destinations within each city. Economists estimate that All Aboard Florida will add more than $6 billion to Florida’s economy over the next eight years, including $164 million in economic impact for Palm Beach County through 2021. More than 1,200 jobs will be created in Palm Beach County through the construction of the station and the rail line.

The coming of the All Aboard Line should produce a sea change in Floridian tourism. Today the state’s tourism revolves around two hubs: Orlando with its theme parks and Miami and its sophisticated urban experience. The introduction of a comfortable, service-oriented train experience that connects the two via three-hour ride will go a long way towards unifying Florida’s tourism, extending stays and spreading the revenues.


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