The future of El Camino Real is in your hands

Chris Lepe Headshot

Last week, our event “The Future of El Camino Real is in Your Hands” drew a crowd of nearly one hundred people. Hailing from diverse backgrounds, professions, and perspectives, they shared the goal of making El Camino Real a street that serves all of the people who bike, walk, drive, and do business on it. Here's how it went. 

How do you envision the future of El Camino Real?

The forum included two activities in which participants first stated what they don't like about El Camino Real right now, and described their vision for the future of the corridor. Some of the core issues noted by participants were the unbalanced automobile orientation of the corridor (for example, they think the existing speed limit is too high); the lack of pedestrian and bicycle safety and access; the need for better transit service and connectivity; and a lack of a sense of place.

In contrast, people’s visions for El Camino Real revolved around creating attractive, inviting neighborhoods with housing for all income levels that respects the character of surrounding neighborhoods; ensuring excellent transit service; providing more pedestrian amenities such as shade trees and water fountains; and making streets safer and more accessible and shifting land use patterns to promote walkability, transit use, and cycling. 

How can we achieve a more walkable street with faster, better, more reliable transit? 

A panel discussion followed two excellent presentations on land use and transportation as it relates to El Camino Real with a focus on Sunnyvale. Much of the panel discussion focused on the El Camino Bus Rapid Transit project, which is nearing another round of public meetings as part of the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR). The panel featured conflicting perspectives on bus rapid transit (BRT) by representatives from LinkedIn and the Sunnyvale Auto Dealers Association. 

Transportation and land use plans are often complex, but several key themes surfaced during the discussion. To ensure that we continue to have a productive and well-informed dialogue moving forward, we hope you'll share the information that follows with others interested in the future of El Camino Real.

Is El Camino Real a good candidate for Bus Rapid Transit?

The answer is yes. El Camino Real is already lined with businesses, major educational institutions, and other services that people want to get to, and plans call for more transit-supportive and walkable development patterns moving forward. The corridor connects the government centers and downtowns of San Jose, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, and Palo Alto, and a significant portion of the residents in cities along the corridor already live near El Camino Real. For example, 20% of Sunnyvale residents and a 46% of Mountain View residents live within a half mile of El Camino Real, and it’s reasonable to expect more residents living along the corridor in the coming decades as existing land use plans become a reality. 

Furthermore, BRT will drastically improve service along what has always been the most popular bus corridor in the Valley. Existing bus ridership on El Camino Real is greater per mile than the light rail system, and in Sunnyvale transit ridership on El Camino is roughly equal to that of Caltrian ridership. One fifth of all bus trips taken in Santa Clara County are along El Camino Real on the 22 and 522 routes despite the low level of transit investment on the corridor. Today most bus stops consist of a basic shelter and seating and buses are often caught in traffic during peak travel times. BRT will upgrade these stops into true transit stations with real time bus arrival information and ticket vending machines and provide free Wi-Fi and other amenities on the transit vehicles. Where dedicated bus lanes are installed, buses will run efficiently and on time no matter the time of day.

Will BRT help get workers living along the corridor to employment and other destinations to the North?

BRT is part of a future county, regional, and statewide transportation network that includes BART, more efficient light rail services, modernized Caltrain, and other bus services. In order to leverage the benefits of transit improvements on El Camino Real, VTA is conducting a plan to improve north-south transit service in Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Cupertino, and Santa Clara. For example, one of the improvements VTA is considering is introducing a "Route 354" limited-stop bus service between De Anza College in Cupertino to the Lockheed Martin Transit Center in North Sunnyvale, connecting transit service on Stevens Creek Blvd and El Camino Real with Caltrain and light rail service and Sunnyvale’s downtown. For information about the study, visit VTA’s project website

We further encourage the public and private sector to look at the future BRT station areas as mobility hubs where a rich array of transportation choices can be concentrated to provide transit users with a variety of options, including local and regional public and private transit services, bike share pods, and car sharing services.

Will BRT be competitive with driving by car along El Camino Real?

It depends. Mixed flow BRT will result in improved travel times in the short term but those benefits will be degraded over time as congestion increases. The advantage of BRT with dedicated bus lanes is that it maintains reliability and makes transit truly rapid, even when congestion levels are high. A round trip during the peak AM and PM commute hour in 2018 between Halford Ave in Santa Clara and Showers Dr in Mountain View is projected to take 33 minutes with dedicated bus lane BRT, 58 minutes with mixed-flow BRT, and 62 minutes with no BRT project. This is compared to current travel times by car of roughly 45 minutes for a round-trip. 

The time savings of BRT with dedicated lanes are huge when magnified over the course of a year. Compared to the no-project alternative, dedicated lane BRT time savings will be 29 minutes per passenger for a round trip between Halford Ave and Showers Dr, adding up to two and a half hours over the course of a five day work week and five days over the course of a year (50 weeks). 

The ridership benefits between the dedicated lane and mixed flow alternatives are also significant: 23% increase in ridership with dedicated lanes vs 4% increase in ridership with mixed flow.

 

How can BRT improve accessibility to local businesses?

Left turns and crosswalks: El Camino Real currently has multiple un-signalized left turn pockets for autos but has a lack of safe street crossings for pedestrians and cyclists. In a mixed flow BRT alignment, there will be no changes to the layout in the street, allowing for those left turn pockets to be preserved without any accessibility benefits for other road users. With a dedicated lane option, VTA will eliminate un-signalized left turn pockets but can install signalized intersections with left turn access and crosswalks where requested by cities. These signalized intersections will result in safer access to local businesses for autos, pedestrians, and cyclists. 

Bicycle accessibility benefits: BRT can pay for the installation of enhanced bike lanes on El Camino Real. Since El Camino Real is 120 feet wide, there’s enough space to accommodate four lanes of traffic for autos, dedicated bus lanes, bike lanes, on-street parking, and a ten-foot median. That’s not to say that bike lanes can’t be installed separately by cities, but the benefit of a dedicated lane approach is that cities wouldn’t have to pay for the installation of bike lanes, and with a possible narrowing of the median to ten feet, paid for by VTA, buffered bike lanes can be installed, as is currently planned in Santa Clara.

Parking: Some on-street parking spaces may need to be relocated or removed depending on how the project is designed. The Draft Environmental Impact Report, which is expected to be released in October, will provide a thorough parking analysis of where and how much of the parking on El Camino Real is well used and critical for local businesses. Parking and loading zones are sensitive issues, and we believe steps should be taken to protect sensitive parking needs such as loading zones where needed.

Where does the conversation go from here?

TransForm will continue to work with communities along El Camino Real to ensure that a robust BRT plan contributes to the future vision of a connected, thriving corridor with safe places for people to walk, bike, take the bus, or drive. If you'd like to get involved, contact Chris Lepe, Senior Community Planner or read more about our South Bay Bus Rapid Transit efforts.

If you’d like to share the presentations from last Thursday’s forum, please visit our YouTube channel.   

To learn more about the El Camino BRT project, visit VTA’s website. To reach VTA’s Community Outreach Team for additional questions, call (408) 321-7575 or email community.outreach@vta.org

To reach the City of Sunnyvale Planning for questions regarding the El Camino Precise Plan Update, contact Andrew Miner at aminer@sunnyvale.ca.gov or Rosemarie Zulueta at rzulueta@sunnyvale.ca.gov.

Many thanks to our moderator, Bruce Paton, and our speakers and panelists, Andrew Miner, Ria H Lo, Mark Balestra, and Michael Alba for sharing their knowledge and perspectives with us.

We’d also like to acknowledge our volunteers and co-sponsors including Friends of Caltrain, Greenbelt Alliance, League of Women Voters of Cupertino-Sunnyvale, Nelson\Nygaard, Santa Clara County Public Health Department, Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, Silicon Valley Independent Living Center, Silicon Valley Leadership Group, Sunnyvale Chamber of Commerce, Sunnyvale Community Services, and Sunnyvale Cool.

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About This Blog

TransForum is the blog of TransForm, California's leading transportation advocate. For more about our work, including ways you can take action and contribute, visit TransFormCA.org.