How can public transportation thrive in the South Bay? Although it may sound like a simple enough question, the percentage of people who drive to work is higher here than Los Angeles, the poster child for car culture. Furthermore, a quarter of all the miles traveled by car in the Bay Area are in Santa Clara County, yet we only make up a tenth of the Bay Area’s trips taken by public transportation.
Recently, I spoke at a SPUR event discussing this question. My role was to address the political factors that keep us from achieving world class public transportation options in one of the world’s great hubs of technology and innovation. SPUR’s latest report, Freedom to Move, focuses on these issues and offers several strategies for how to create better transportation choices in the South Bay.
One of the biggest obstacles to thriving transit in the Silicon Valley boils down to one very fundamental thing: a car-centric worldview.
Although it’s now a region famed for innovation, Santa Clara County has historically been a place with a narrow view when it comes to transportation. Within a generation, the open spaces and orchards of “the Valley of Heart’s Delight” were paved over with highways, parking lots, and car-centered development patterns, making it inefficient and sometimes unsafe to access jobs, health care services, or even a cup of coffee by foot, bicycle, or public transportation. Raised on the “convenience” of the automobile, it can still be difficult for some people to “think outside the car.”
One implication of this car-centric worldview is the effect that it has on plans such as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) that would improve existing bus lines with faster travel times and better stations. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people make public comments such as, “Nobody in my community rides the bus. Why should I have to be inconvenienced by this proposal?” Even in diverse cities like San Jose, such statements can be tinged with racial and economic prejudice, manifesting as an undeserved negative perception of transit riders.
That’s why it’s critical that we challenge underlying assumptions about transit with the truth: that public transportation benefits us all. BRT lines, like the one currently under construction along Alum Rock Avenue, will make affordable and stress-free transportation a real option for more people, taking cars off the road and improving access to opportunity for low income populations.
How people think about public transportation impacts how much money and priority it is given, which is the second fundamental challenge to great transit in the Valley.
Ultimately, our world-view has political ramifications. As the SPUR report correctly points out, many voters today “view transit as a transportation mode for a narrow segment of the population. Transit lacks powerful political champions.” A glaring example of this was a recent proposal for a new transportation funding measure in Santa Clara County that was withdrawn after concerns about the draft spending plan. The initial plan included $0 to improve the bus network out of $3,400,000,000. By contrast, the plan would have put over $1,000,000,000 towards highway projects. The outcome of such policies is clear: if we make it easier to travel by car while disinvesting in the bus network, we’ll never have the freedom to decide how we get around.
Although obstacles such as these are significant, the potential to overcome them is even greater, as there is already so much good work being done to move towards better transportation options.
The SPUR report exposes some very real challenges as well as opportunities for making reliable, convenient, and stress-free transportation a reality in the Valley. One example is the call for the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to set clear goals and priorities focused on objectives like reducing carbon pollution and pedestrian fatalities, and reducing the number of miles driven in the county. TransForm also wholeheartedly agrees with SPUR that we need to use creative approaches to reduce traffic while funding public transportation. We highlight one strategy, express lanes, in our report, “Innovation Required”, which proposed a new approach for Highway 101 in San Mateo County.
Another critical and sensible recommendation is to improve public transportation where it works well. After decades of investments that neglected the Valley’s most popular bus routes, VTA now has policies that direct more transit services to the areas with greatest demand. One promising example of this policy shift is the introduction of limited stop and rapid bus lines 323 and 522 as a complement to the two most popular bus routes in the Valley which resulted in double-digit ridership gains. These are important examples that we can learn from – not the least because they show that the right policy and funding decisions can provide us with better choices and influence whether we decide to start the ignition or leave the keys at home.
TransForm will continue to work with SPUR and diverse organizations advocating for social equity, environmental and public health, and a sustainable economy by advancing new research that can alter the way we think about transportation, creating new models of planning, and empowering people to demand changes in their community. That is how transit in the South Bay can – and as I believe, how it will – thrive.