What if riding the bus was faster than driving? It can happen on El Camino Real.

Chris Lepe Headshot

A man rides the bus in the South Bay. Photo credit Brandon Matthews 2011.As we’ve noted before, most people agree that El Camino Real has room for improvement, to put it mildly.  Speeding cars, unsafe pedestrian crossings, lack of accommodation of cyclists, buses stuck in traffic – you name the transportation problem, El Camino Real has it.

That’s why we’re so excited that the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is planning for a transformative solution: Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The Silicon Valley is already leading the region by building BRT on the Alum Rock corridor, and we’re excited to see BRT and its benefits spread to El Camino, too.

VTA recently released the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for the project which includes seven different alternatives, including a no-project, mixed flow, and various lengths of transit-only lanes from three miles in Santa Clara to 14 miles to Palo Alto.

Now, it’s up to us to help refine their proposal into the solution El Camino Real so desperately needs.  Public comment has begun, and we’ve got our work cut out for us. It’s quickly become clear that there’s a lot of misinformation driving opposition to BRT.

Let’s not let unfounded fears kill a great project. 

One of the concerns raised recently is that BRT will “kill” business along El Camino Real.

This is simply not true. BRT has been a boon to business in other cities by making streets like El Camino Real a welcoming place for more people to visit and shop in a more comfortable, vibrant, and safe environment. Once the street becomes a more attractive destination, people who currently avoid the area altogether will start to show up, making businesses flourish. For example, when BRT was built in Eugene, OR, jobs in arts, entertainment, and recreation within 1/2 mi radius of an EmX station grew 93% between 2004 and 2010. 

Another concern that doesn’t hold up to the data is that transit-only lanes will cause “carmaggedon” on El Camino Real while only making the commute marginally better for transit users. The graphs below show that not only will transit-only lanes cut bus travel times in half and create a time-competitive alternative to the automobile, the effects on driving times are minor. 

From Downtown Palo Alto to the San Antonio Shopping Center, BRT with transit-only lanes will be a touch faster than driving during the afternoon commute. Bus riders could make the trip in just under ten minutes, while driving the same distance would take twelve minutes – making it possible for everyone on the road to get to their destination quickly and efficiently.

Perhaps most striking is how much faster BRT can be from the San Antonio Shopping Center in Mountain View to Hollenbeck Ave in Sunnyvale. From the Palo Alto/Mountain View border to the Mountain View/Sunnyvale border, taking BRT with dedicated lanes will be 34% faster than driving - improving travel times for transit by 8.5 minutes while only changing auto travel times by a minute and a half.

In Sunnyvale and Santa Clara, the time savings are equally as impressive and competitive with driving. 

The result of making BRT competitive with driving is that more people will use the system, as this graph of projected ridership in Palo Alto and Mountain View exemplifies.  

Neighbors have also expressed fear that BRT with transit-only lanes will push hordes of cars from El Camino Real onto the surrounding streets. The reality is that with dedicated bus lanes, BRT’s impact on side street congestion is miniscule on most streets, even during the highest point of congestion (PM peak hour). The following chart from VTA’s Sunnyvale presentation says it all: 

It’s understandable for people to be afraid of something new, but the drawbacks of a great BRT line on El Camino Real are relatively minor when measured against all the positive benefits - including faster public transportation travel times, increased safety for people walking and biking, and a more vibrant street where everyone can get where they need to go safely.

To be sure, there were legitimate concerns about BRT that came up at Tuesday’s meeting, and VTA should listen to this feedback to ensure the project provides as many benefits as possible and reduces any negative impacts to the extent possible. For example, the current plan lacks sufficient left-turn access, which can be corrected through better design; and lost parking spaces could be restored by narrowing the median along most of the corridor.  Ensuring adequate North/South transit connections can also enhance the benefits of the project. We have our own suggestions for improvement, too – that’s what the public process is all about.

But not everyone’s voices are being heard in this public process, and that’s a problem. 

We need everyone who wants a safer, more walkable, bikeable community with a state-of the art transportation system along El Camino Real to speak up now.  

Please, send an email to VTA’s Board of Directors and city leaders along the El Camino Real corridor to support a full BRT solution with bus-only lanes and better design.

Come to one of the upcoming public meetings in Palo Alto (November 17), Mountain View (November 20) or Santa Clara (December 3).

And please contact me if you have questions, or want to get more involved.  You can also sign up for email updates on this campaign.

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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.