A Bold New Solution to Silicon Valley’s Traffic Woes

Our transportation system is stuck in 70 year-old thinking.  We need innovation to win on climate and equity while solving our traffic mess.

California is a global climate leader with a focus on social equity, but there is a legacy of projects that pull in the wrong direction -- $70 billion of proposed climate-killing road expansions.

There is a better way and one that can be done sooner, faster and cheaper: make more efficient use of our existing roads by converting a “regular” lane into an express lane for high-occupancy vehicles, expand transportation choices to take advantage of that lane, and ensure low-income commuters can save both time and money. For the past four years TransForm has advocated for a demonstration project to do this in the center of innovation, Silicon Valley.

Map of transportation projects on the peninsula

Now, with both San Mateo and San Francisco counties studying this concept, there will be a major decision whether to move ahead with it in 2017.

The corridor connecting San Francisco to San Jose is home to many of the world’s most innovative companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook, as well as new mobility providers like Lyft and Uber. Yet, the antiquated transportation system on the peninsula is paralyzed by the region’s success and rapid job growth.

Vehicle travel is skyrocketing on 101 and El Camino Real, the arterial parallel to 101.  Caltrain is straining under a crush of riders. There are no carpool lanes in San Mateo or San Francisco counties, and express buses have mostly been cut.  Employee shuttles, with more than 200 trips a day between San Francisco and Santa Clara County, are caught in the same grueling traffic as solo drivers.  Carpools have no incentive to form. The result is four lanes of intense traffic congestion in each direction.

If you’re horrified by this situation, just wait: Caltrain is about to undertake an electrification project that may last 3-5 years, with reductions in service and sometimes shutdowns of sections of track, requiring riders to disembark and take buses between stations.  

San Mateo County is trying to solve this nightmare with highway widening, but we already know that won’t work.

Even Caltrans, founded as a highway-building agency, now acknowledges that road widening just leads to more traffic. More roads attract more drivers. They push more people to crowded exits, and all those new drivers also clog local roads on the way to and from the highway.

The fundamental problem on 101 is that 75% of all vehicles on that road carry just one person.  Most of the remaining space is taken up by two-person carpools.  

comparison of road space to move people in cars v. busIn 2013, TransForm proposed a better way. Instead of moving about 2,000 people per hour in each lane, we can “optimize” one of the existing lanes in each direction to move at least 6,000 people. With enough changes it could actually carry 10,000 or more during rush hour -- the same as the entire highway now carries!

Specifically, our proposal for “Optimized Express Lanes” would convert the existing left-most general purpose lane into an Express or “High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lane”.   Transit and carpools get a fast ride, and if the lanes are not full, solo drivers can pay a fee to get in. Instead of spending $300 million (that San Mateo County doesn’t currently have) and at least ten years to widen the road, the county would focus on providing more efficient alternatives — a dramatic expansion of public transit, vanpools, etc. It would also start an equity program to expand choice and reduce cost for for low-income travelers.

Last year our regional transit agency, MTC, studied the concept and came to the same conclusion as TransForm — this proposal can be done sooner, cost less, move more people, reduce traffic for everyone, and pollute less than adding a new lane.

It’s now or never for Optimized Express Lanes on 101.

While San Mateo’s study is just starting and will not end until late 2018, we expect that as early as June 2017 an initial preferred alternative will be chosen.  This could expedite construction of that alternative by allowing design work to start, before the full study is even complete.

The time has never been more ripe to try out new solutions, especially with state agencies officially backing away from road widening while there's still $78 billion (with a b) of widenings on the books in regional plans across California. With innovation and enough political will we can stop building highways and start providing effective, climate-friendly choices that get people where they need to go more quickly, more safely, and more affordably.  

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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.