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.
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.