By Meghan Hall
The Bay Area’s booming economy and explosive growth have resulted in one downside that every resident around the region deals with on a regular basis: traffic. Lengthening commute times, clogged freeways and rising transportation costs—or parking costs—are the daily reality of many, and it is a reality that is worsening as the Bay Area densifies. In San Jose, where development over the past five years has been monumental, officials are now looking for ways to connect its employment and transportation centers in an effort to build a network that can compete with the traditional automobile. In July of 2019, the San Jose Department of Transportation, the Valley Transit Authority (VTA), and the cities of Cupertino and Santa Clara released a request for information (RFI) for such solutions, and are now evaluating potential responses.
“The city has got some really bold goals in terms of urbanization and environmental action, and so we are looking for ways to accelerate change in the transportation system to meet those goals,” explained Ramses Madou, the Interim Division Manager of Planning, Policy and Sustainability for San Jose’s Department of Transportation. “Our land use pattern is predominantly single-family with a few dense nodes around the city…We know that we need a great deal more transit that is competitive time-wise and experience-wise with the automobile that most people are used to getting around in.”
The RFI published in July asked the community to produce visions for connections between the Mineta San Jose International Airport, Diridon Station and west Santa Clara Valley cities. Officials received 23 responses that discussed a broad range of solutions, including personal rapid transit, Hyperloop, monorails, and magnetic levitation vehicles (also known as maglevs). A wide variety of organizations responded to the RFI, including Jacksonville, Flor.-based CRSC USA Inc., a subsidiary of the China Railway Signaling and Communication Company, and Southern Illinois University.
Currently, those responses are being reviewed for their feasibility, and the officials are working with a consultant to produce to analyze the technological maturity of the proposal and produce a strategy document that will lay the ground work for next steps. Madou anticipates that the document will be released around the end of the first quarter of this year.
While the proposals were broad in their scope, Madou stated that proposals were dominated primarily by two features.
“Some of the traditional players are trying to figure out how to use their established technologies and pivot on them a little bit to fit with this idea of faster, cheaper and better,” said Madou. “But what I think is more interesting is the other trend we see: There is now a new market, or a lot of folks playing in the market, that are willing to take some bets on new technologies. And they’re sounding less and less like flying car companies and more like real possibilities.”
The willingness of folks willing to take that risk, Madou continued, could hold the solution to the Bay Area’s longstanding public transportation problems.
“We have a lot of people with a lot of money and engineering prowess willing to put in the effort to create new systems that will require a public-private partnership to come to fruition,” Madou noted. “This is something we haven’t really seen outside of a few idealist folks. [There are] people willing to leave their jobs at well-established firms with large pay checks to take a bet on something that seemed like a pipe dream not too long ago. And to me, that is where the real hope is, is that people understand the transportation world needs new solutions, And those solutions may be at hand.”
According to Madou, there are many reasons why residents do not necessarily feel compelled to take public transit. Often, public transit can be less timely, expensive or not as convenient as the use of an automobile. The lack of connectivity between San Jose’s light rail, its bus lines and VTA lines also complicate matters for those looking to use public transportation to get around.
“They’re all used, but they are not competitive; there’s not even enough of the market share right now to call [public transportation] a significant piece of the pie,” said Madou. “Right now, the overall travel experience is slower and is not as private or as comfortable to get around. People are going to take the mode that is most competitive. Right now, transit cannot win that fight. Transit itself has been a struggle and the way cities have responded has not been great.”
Despite planning efforts, the region’s rapid development, combined with municipalities lagging efforts to build infrastructure to support it, are at the crux of the problem when it comes to public transportation.
“In one generation we’ve gone from apple and plum orchards to what everybody sees now. We’re seeing urbanization of the area happening in front of us,” said Madou. “I would say the choice between making more roads for more cars made sense, rather than giving money to a system that doesn’t have a lot of value to people in their daily lives. But the rubric of choice is changing now.”
The consultant’s report on the RFI strategy will evaluate what types of tech are feasible, potential funding avenues, the delivery of transportation alternatives and what operations would be. Madou added that as of now, speed of delivery is key.
“BART will hopefully open in downtown San Jose in 2030; it will have taken 50 years from when someone like me envisioned that plan to it actually opening,” emphasized Madou. “The East Ridge Light rail that VTA is about to start building has taken almost 20 years. What we’re really trying to do here, if we’re ever going to make transit into a realistic option, is to build out a network. And to build out a network, we need to build faster. So our driving question is: Can we make transit work, and can we build enough so that people will want to use it? We want to apply that Silicon Valley mentality to accelerate these kinds of processes.”