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Fast Bus Service a Tough Sell in Car-Centric Silicon Valley

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The Valley Transportation Authority's bus rapid transit plan would speed buses along El Camino Real, from San Jose to Palo Alto.  (Courtesy of the Valley Transportation Authority. )

Update, Feb. 26: The Sunnyvale City Council has voted against a crucial component of a plan to create a bus rapid transit system in the heart of Silicon Valley.

After four hours of public comment and debate Tuesday night, the council voted against a plan for dedicated bus lanes on El Camino Real through the city. Under a proposal from the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, the bus-only lanes would allow dramatically speeded-up transit service along El Camino from Palo Alto to downtown San Jose.

In a 4-3 vote, the council passed a resolution backing an alternative idea: having the VTA's enhanced bus service travel in "mixed flow" lanes along a corridor that would include improved "bulbout" bus stops. The new stops would allow buses to pick up and drop off passengers without pulling to the curb, which would improve travel times somewhat.

Tuesday night's vote was advisory, and Sunnyvale is just one of five cities along the proposed bus rapid transit route that must ultimately decide whether they support the effort or not.

The VTA is expected to decide on the details of the project later this year.


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U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx came to Silicon Valley earlier this month to announce the administration's transportation vision for the next three decades. That future includes faster public transit, and Foxx's 2016 budget recommends a chunk of federal dollars to help cities build bus rapid transit systems.

This speedier form of bus travel, set to debut in San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco over the next few years, is becoming popular in cities all over the world. Buses have their own dedicated lanes, priority at traffic signals, low floors for easy boarding, prepaid ticketing, Wi-Fi and other amenities.

Officials at the Valley Transportation Authority would like to build such a system -- tentatively called Breeze -- along El Camino Real, Silicon Valley's busiest bus corridor, to better serve its thousands of daily riders and attract newcomers who will be part of a projected population boom.

The VTA is in line to receive $75 million in federal funds as part of a $233 million bus rapid transit project that would make the buses run faster than cars.

There's just one big problem.

None of the cities that run along the corridor, other than San Jose, have embraced it over fears it will make traffic worse, according to transportation officials and transit advocates. The center of tech innovation is also a region where the car is king, and having a fast public bus system is a tough political sell.

"There are very entrenched interests that don't want to see this project happen, or want to see it watered down," says Chris Lepe, a senior community planner for the transit advocacy group TransForm.

Palo Alto is backing an alternative to dedicated lanes: a mixed-flow proposal that VTA officials say falls short of true bus rapid transit. Tonight, the Sunnyvale City Council is expected to take an official position, and there is pressure to oppose dedicated lanes.

VTA officials fear the lesser alternatives will put the project's federal funding at risk because it won't be a competitive project.

The Plan

The new bus rapid transit system in Silicon Valley is tentatively being called "Breeze."
The proposed bus rapid transit system in Silicon Valley is tentatively being called Breeze. (Courtesy of the Valley Transportation Authority )

The 17-mile rapid bus route from San Jose to Palo Alto would run in dedicated lanes along the current 522 rapid bus route, starting at Diridon station in San Jose, and then onto El Camino Real through Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Los Altos, Mountain View and Palo Alto.

This busy bus corridor currently accounts for 20,000 daily trips. Under bus rapid transit, VTA officials estimate more than 10,000 additional riders would hop aboard by 2040.

Every year on El Camino Real, because of worsening traffic congestion, the buses slow down by an average of two minutes. That means today the buses are 30 minutes slower than they were in 2000.

Under bus rapid transit, a ride from San Jose to Palo Alto is expected to take 40 minutes. Right now, it's a 90-minute ride.

"The bottom line with these buses is to make them fast, frequent and reliable," says John Ristow, the senior planner on the project for the VTA. "In order to do that, we've got to actually find ways to allow them to move rapidly because they have to make stops and pick people up."

The new low-floor buses would have more comfortable seating and Wi-Fi, and people of all abilities would be able to board quickly.

The Riders 

A survey of 500 bus riders found they most are low-income working families and people of color who make an average household income of $38,000 a year.
Recent rider surveys found most are low-income, working families and people of color under the age of 35 who make an average household income of $38,000 a year. (Courtesy of the Valley Transportation Authority )

Sneha Rajkumar is a software engineering student who lives in Sunnyvale and takes the bus to school in San Jose. Her husband takes their car because there is no transit connection to his job. It's the bus ride home that pains her the most.

"It stops at each and every signal, then at each and every stop," Rajkumar says. "You lose patience when it's already 9:45 p.m. and you gotta get home, cook dinner and see your family."

Her experience is similar to 500 bus riders along the corridor who were recently surveyed by the group Working Partnerships USA. Their average travel time on the bus is 50 minutes, but some had commutes as long as two hours, says Charisse Ma Lebron, the group's director of health policy and community development.

The research showed that bus riders are predominantly working families, people of color, students and people from other underserved populations. VTA's 2013 on-board survey found riders' average household income was $38,000, says Lebron.

'Carmageddon' Fears 

VTA officials say Sunnyvale residents and businesses have sent the most letters opposing dedicated bus lanes. Over the weekend, a group called the El Camino Coalition took out a one-page ad in the Mercury News decrying the "ill-conceived" lanes.

Most of the opposition is being organized by car dealerships along El Camino Real.

"We're not opposed to transit," says Ryan Hopkins, the general manager of the Honda dealership. "We feel that if you block off a lane on El Camino ... it's just going to create more traffic and congestion, and it's going to divert traffic to the other streets."

But VTA officials say they studied the potential traffic impact at more than 80 intersections along El Camino, and concluded it would not worsen traffic. And Lepe of TransForm says fears about traffic congestion have not materialized from bus rapid transit projects in cities like Cleveland and Los Angeles.

"The kind of carmageddon that folks fear might happen hasn't manifested with these projects," says Lepe. "Why? Because you have a mode shift that takes place. When people start seeing the bus traveling faster than cars, they say 'Hey, maybe I should jump on that.' "

Still, Sunnyvale City Councilman David Whittum, who also sits on the VTA Board of Directors, says businesses along El Camino Real, which pull in 20 percent of city tax revenue, are concerned it will affect their bottom line.

Says Whittum: "If somebody comes and says, 'Hey, I’m going to take away two lanes, but don’t worry, everything will be fine,' my question would be: So what is your experience in doing that in some of these business communities, and can you show me examples of where everything is fine?"

He says merchants are also concerned about disruptions that would be caused during construction.

 A Safer Street

El Camino Real is Sunnyvale's most dangerous street for cyclists and pedestrians. When I visited the corridor, I found more than a few people biking and walking, especially transit riders on their way to and from bus stops.

"I have to ride as if people don't see me, and I have no rights," Tony McToy explains. I had spotted him pedaling slowly down El Camino, dressed casually, with a Popeyes bag hanging from his handlebars.

"There's no bike lane. So, whenever I can, and there's no pedestrians on the sidewalk, I get on the sidewalk. Then if I see a pedestrian, I yield, but I have to watch my back," he says.

The bus rapid transit plan calls for protected green bike lanes on El Camino Real, which transportation officials say would make the street safer for people like McToy. Officials would also install them along other parts of the corridor, along with pedestrian safety improvements.

Political Will

It will be up to the board of the Valley Transportation Authority to decide whether to implement bus rapid transit, but if the cities don't support the project it will likely die, say transit advocates.

“We have to remember that population and job growth are inevitable in Silicon Valley, and doing nothing is not an option,” says Lebron.

She points out that many of the bus riders who would benefit from the project don't always have time to attend meetings and voice their support.

"It’s not uncommon that the needs of traditionally underserved, underrepresented populations are excluded from the policymaking process," she says.

Ultimately, says Lepe, it's a question of political will. Whether Silicon Valley elected officials will get behind bus rapid transit remains to be seen.


Curious about the boom/bust cycle that is reshaping the Bay Area? Check out our Boomtown series.

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