By today’s standards, it is normal for most people to drive for every little errand: getting to work, dropping the kids off at soccer, or meeting a friend for coffee. Our cities and towns have been designed around one mode of travel, the car, so other ways of traveling often aren’t as safe or convenient.
The result of this car culture is suburban sprawl, where the only way to get from our homes to the basic amenities we need is often by getting behind the wheel. And what we’re finding is that this lifestyle is not good for our health, our communities, our economy, or our environment. As city planner Jeff Speck said during a TED talk, “Fourteen Americans die each day from asthma, three times what it was in the 1990s, and it’s almost all coming from car exhaust. American pollution does not come from factories anymore, it comes from tailpipes.”
It's time for a new normal.
There is growing demand for a less car-dependent lifestyle. A recent U.S PIRG study found that Millennials consistently report a greater attraction to less driving-intensive lifestyles and more walkable communities. Baby Boomers are trading in their ranch-style homes for a more urban lifestyle, and according to AARP, 71% of older adults want to live within walking distance of public transportation.
We need to start designing our streets and neighborhoods in a way that creates people-friendly places, where driving is an option, not a necessity. These types of places can be broken down into two simple elements that go together like peanut butter and jelly:
- Clusters of homes, jobs, and shops
- Good public transportation
And one place where we can really make some headway on this recipe is along El Camino Real.
El Camino Real was built over a hundred years ago to be a thruway, first for wagons and later cars. It supported multiple modes of travel with the rise of the railroad and later, electric streetcars (which were ripped out by the 1930s). Today, even though it passes through the heart of so many communities, El Camino is pretty inhospitable to people.
Yet, El Camino Real is an ideal location for creating more people-friendly places. It connects historic business districts, supports frequent bus service and is close to many destinations and amenities, like universities, parks and hospitals. Efforts are afoot to make this corridor a better place to live, work, and play; where walking, biking and taking the bus are easy, convenient, and affordable. The Grand Boulevard Initiative supports work that does just that.
In 2007, the Grand Boulevard Initiative recognized Sunnyvale’s El Camino Real Precise Plan as a visionary document. The plan, which will be updated in 2015, focuses on four opportunity sites, where a more intense mix of homes, shops and jobs will be accommodated to create thriving neighborhoods. This is the peanut butter.
At the same time, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is planning for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) along El Camino Real. Done right, BRT offers a faster, more convenient form of travel because it has its own travel lane, avoiding traffic altogether. This is the jelly.
Transit-only lanes create a time-competitive alternative to the car, allowing people to get to their destination quicker. As more people choose to live and work along El Camino Real, in cities like Sunnyvale, the more attractive this service will become. Dedicated lanes also provide better access to jobs when part of a complete network that includes north-south connections. And with dedicated bus lanes comes marked bicycle lanes, an infrastructure improvement that will begin to address the fact that today, El Camino is dangerous to people who want to ride their bike.
Now, consider the space one person sitting in one car takes up, compared to one bus that can fit 60 people, or one person on a bike. Designing our streets to accommodate other modes of travel such as BRT and bicycles is more efficient and gives people more options. It also supports more compact, mixed-use neighborhoods, making this combination a recipe for delicious success!
The old way of cities and regions growing and developing was to pave over farmland with new houses and strip malls located far away from jobs and amenities. In order to reach these places, we’d then widen the highways to ease congestion. Those added highway lanes have proven to be temporary bandages, filling up with cars within a few years.
And when the economic bubble burst in 2008, those far-flung suburbs lost a lot of their value while homes closer to transit, held their value. As urban planning scholar Christopher Leinberger has noted, “there is great pent-up demand for walkable, centrally located neighborhoods.”
This is what the Millennials who work at LinkedIn, Google and Apple want. It is why they live in San Francisco and commute by bus to Sunnyvale and Mountain View. Would it not be better if they lived in Sunnyvale, playing a more active role in the community in which they live and work? To convince them to move, we need to design walkable neighborhoods with a mix of amenities and good transit connections.
Most of the shoppers in downtown San Francisco arrive by foot or public transit and they make more visits and spend more money than those who drive. There is no reason why that same dynamic can’t happen in Sunnyvale or Mountain View. In fact, by not pursuing the peanut butter and jelly mix of land use and transportation, cities along the El Camino Real corridor are losing valuable revenue to their more urban, walkable neighbor to the north.
It is not simply about what people want, but also about what they can afford.
Location matters. For most auto-dependent neighborhoods, transportation is the second biggest expense after housing, together accounting for over 55% of a household’s income. When you don’t need a car and can take care of most needs by foot, bike or bus, you have more money to spend on other things, likely in your neighborhood. This is why it is so desirable to live near transit and also why it is critical to ensure that transit-rich neighborhoods are also mixed-income neighborhoods. Allowing people to live close to their jobs, schools and services provides opportunity for all to thrive!
The new normal is to re-invest in our cities and towns.
This makes better use of existing infrastructure, like roads and bus routes, and focuses on designing neighborhoods for people, not cars. The result is more people hanging out in plazas, walking on the street, and spending money at local shops; a recipe for thriving downtowns.
Silicon Valley is the most dynamic place in the world because of the people who live and work here. By making neighborhoods along El Camino Real more people friendly, we will make our region an even better place to live for generations to come. If we make the new normal less car-dependent and make walking, biking and taking the bus convenient for everyday errands, sitting for hours in traffic, circling the parking lot for that last space and road rage will be frustrations of a bygone era.
You can play a role in making sure that great transit supports walkable neighborhoods along El Camino Real:
- Send an email to the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority by January 14, and urge them to support a safe and connected El Camino Real with great Bus Rapid Transit!
- Sign up for email updates from TransForm.
- Volunteer to administer the residential survey along El Camino Real and help get more public input.