Beyond the tech commute: examining Silicon Valley workers’ transportation needs

Chris Lepe Headshot

surveying a workerWhat are the transportation preferences and challenges of workers commuting in Silicon Valley, and how might a proposal like the Highway 101 Managed Lanes project be designed to meet their needs? How can new express lanes move many more people and benefit commuters of all incomes to the greatest degree possible?

These questions are particularly important in San Mateo County, where over 60% of the workforce earn less than $70,000 per year, and many are traveling great distances to get to work. 60% of San Mateo County’s workforce already commutes from outside the county. Due to the lack of local affordable housing options, many lower income workers are being displaced, resulting in longer commutes and other barriers to opportunity.

Equity was at the center of the discussion about the managed lanes project at a C/CAG Board meeting earlier this month. County Supervisor David Canepa objected to the plans, stating, “what we’re saying with toll lanes is if you have money and resources you move to the front of the line. This shouldn’t be pay to play.”

Are managed lanes and equity mutually exclusive? Or are there ways to expand the benefits to low-income commuters?

surveying studentsResults of our Highway 101 Commuter Survey

Last year, TransForm staff and volunteers, including students from Stanford University, and partner organizations, surveyed 338 people who work near El Camino Real and around Caltrain Stations from Palo Alto to San Bruno.1 The purpose of the survey was to identify the needs, perspectives, and priorities of area workers — in particular low and moderate income workers in the service sector — in regards to the Highway 101 Managed Lanes project.2

demographics of 101 survey takersRoughly half of the workers surveyed had a household income under $75,000 a year, about half were under the age of 25, and over 80% were people of color.

Workers need better, more affordable transportation options 
Nearly half (47%) of the workers we surveyed carpool, bike, walk, or take public transportation to work. This is despite the fact that the vast majority (82%) do not receive transportation benefits of any kind from their employers, such as the free transit passes and shuttle services provided to many higher wage tech workers in the area.

Furthermore, more than one in five respondents have quit or lost a job because it was hard to get to work. Many expressed frustration about long commutes and the lack of quality transportation options.

Pie chart about employer-provided transportation benefitsManaged lanes (aka express lanes) could offer a solution for many of these workers. However, evidence from other regions suggests that lower income commuters will not benefit as much from the lanes as higher income commuters without significant policy interventions, such as transit-service improvements and/or pricing schemes such as toll credits. That’s because absent these investments, commuters of lower incomes will be less likely to pay to use the lanes and save time when they need to.

According to our survey, fewer than one in five workers would pay $5 to use the lanes to save ten minutes on a regular basis, and the higher the tolls rose, the less likely respondents were to say they would use the lanes. Only one in ten would pay $10.

Workers are interested in traffic solutions
What if express lanes were accompanied by significant investment in affordable, convenient, efficient options, so that the lanes could move more people and benefit commuters across the income spectrum? How many more workers would opt to go car-free?

Most workers we surveyed said they would benefit from a variety of improved transportation options along the corridor, including:

More frequent public transit service 66% of workers surveyed said they would benefit from more Caltrain service. 42% would benefit from more express bus services.
A free or reduced-cost transit pass for low income/service workers along the Highway 101 corridor 64% said they would benefit
A managed lanes rewards program to encourage more transit use and expand the benefits of the lanes to more people across incomes4 58% said they would benefit
Last-mile transportation services, such as public shuttles from transit stations to major employment destinations 55% said they would benefit
Carpool and vanpool incentives and programs to get commuters to their destination faster than driving in regular highway lanes 54% said they would benefit
Safety improvements on connecting and parallel roads to facilitate more walking and biking 50% said they would benefit

The fact that so many respondents said they would benefit from the projects and programs above is a great sign. Now we need to ensure these solutions get implemented to meet local workers’ transportation needs.

Recommenations and Opportunities

Based on these survey results, we believe transportation strategies such as those highlighted above could greatly benefit low and moderate income workers and avoid the ever-worsening traffic delays expected on Highway 101 with or without the managed lanes project.

TransForm recommends that San Mateo County transportation agencies responsible for the Highway 101 Managed Lanes Project take the following steps to ensure that the project delivers climate benefits and mobility improvements for commuters of all incomes.

  1. Develop a 101 Mobility Action Plan (MAP) and provide significant funding to implement its recommendations. The MAP would develop a comprehensive set of strategies to maximize the movement of people on the managed lane, including the provision of excellent public transit and vanpool options, carpool programs, new mobility options, as well as publicly funded and employer-driven incentives to greatly increase the use of these options. Learn more about the need for a MAP and what it could do for traffic on our highways from this video of our event, Optimizing Our Highways.
  2. Develop and fund an Equity Strategy to assure the benefits of the managed lanes for people with lower incomes. The following are a few examples of what an Equity Strategy could include:
    • Expansion of affordable new transportation choices for low-income communities and commuters.
    • Funding for discounted and free transit passes for people with lower incomes.
    • Reduction in the barriers to access the lanes, for example with options for cash payment, free transponders, and reduced tolls for low-income commuters.
  3. Ensure San Mateo County's upcoming transportation funding measure advances affordable, safe, sustainable, convenient, and healthy transportation choices. SamTrans and the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors are developing San Mateo County’s next transportation funding measure, which may be on the ballot this November. TransForm has been working closely with diverse partners in the Transportation Equity Allied Movement Coalition (TEAMC) to ensure that the ballot measure meets community needs, including in addressing congestion on Highway 101. See below to sign a petition in support of TEAMC’s expenditure plan proposal.

The 101 MAP and Equity Strategy must be funding priorities, including in the expenditure plan for the San Mateo County Sales Tax. There are a variety of opportunities to learn more and take action on this issue:

SPECIAL THANKS to our friends at, the Palo Alto Transportation Management Association, the Redwood City Chamber of Commerce, and Friends of Caltrain for survey distribution to their networks; our brilliant and hard working volunteers, Dan Sakaguchi, James Shelley, Leena Sahu, Amulya Yerrapotu, Jacque Ramos, Alex Martel, Victoria Mao, Chris Zhang, and Katherine Xie; and staff at TransForm, particularly Isa Gaillard.


1 Survey locations included downtowns along the Peninsula, the Shops at Tanforan, the Stanford Shopping Center, and Hillsdale Mall.

2 Surveys were conducted through a door to door approach at local businesses along the corridor and sent out to workers electronically through partner organizations including, Palo Alto Transportation Management Association, Redwood City Chamber of Commerce, and Friends of Caltrain.

3 While there were a total of 338 survey-takers, in some cases, survey respondents skipped questions or intentionally wrote "N/A".

4 An example of this program is in Los Angeles, where transit users can earn a $5 express lane credit for every 10 transit trips on or near the I-10 and I-110 managed lanes.


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