silicon valley: bus rapid transit that’s faster than driving?

Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 10.50.18 AM

El Camino Real BRT Alignment


Silicon Valley is easily viewed as a  car-oriented place, where tech giants rule from business parks that are so transit-unfriendly that they have had to run their own bus systems to bring employees from afar.  But one interesting transit project is moving forward: the El Camino BRT, a proposed  rapid transit line connecting Palo Alto and central San Jose. 

El Camino Real ("the Royal Road") is a path defined by Spanish missionaries as they spread north through California. It lies close to the old railroad line now used by Caltrain, and the two facilities combined  determined the locations of the pre-war transit-oriented downtowns that still form the most walkable nodes in the area.  

Today El Camino is the spinal arterial of the San Francisco peninsula, passing through or near most of the downtowns.   This spine continues across Silicon Valley, through Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara and finally downtown San Jose.   (The BRT will not extend the full length of the peninsula, because it is a Santa Clara County project and the county ends at Palo Alto.  However, successful projects do get extended sometimes.)   In Silicon Valley, too, the corridor is far enough from Caltrain that they are not competing.  Caltrain will always be faster but probably less frequent than the BRT, optimized as it is for much longer trips including to San Francisco.

In land use terms, the project corridor is ideal territory for transit – lots of employment and commercial destinations, with strong anchoring institutions at each end.   But while the path is historic, the modern street was designed with a singular focus on auto travel time, as a six-lane divided boulevard. Auto and transit travel times continue to increase substantially as more people come to live and work in the corridor, and even more population and employment growth is forecast for the coming decades.  

Santa Clara VTA and the FTA released the Draft Environmental Impact Report for this project last week, detailing multiple alternatives relating to the extent of dedicated lanes and street configurations. The purpose and need statement tidily summarizes the rationale for this investment:

El Camino Real is an important arterial in Santa Clara County and on the San Francisco Peninsula. However, El Camino Real is predominantly auto-oriented, and streetscape amenities are limited. There are widespread concerns regarding congestion, appearance, and safety, and a general public perception exists that the corridor is not well planned. Exacerbating current conditions, Santa Clara County is expected to experience substantial growth in the next 30 years from 2010 to 2040. If no improvements are implemented, heavy demand will potentially be placed on the existing transportation infrastructure, which is planned to increase by only 5 to 6 percent. 

Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 11.40.10 AM

This striking graph (which I couldn't locate in the report itself, but which is reproduced over at the TransForum blog), compares transit travel time among the four alternatives:

In the A4c alternative (the alternative with the greatest extent of exclusive lanes), a trip during the peak through the corridor would actually be faster on transit than driving, and dramatically faster than the same trip today.

The various alternatives' alignments are compared below:

Screen Shot 2014-11-13 at 11.35.00 AM


As usual with arterial BRT in the US, there will be some mixed-traffic segments, and the line will only be as realiable as its least reliable point.  Note that the alternatives seem to envision different responses to city limits, as though anticipating that as you get further west (which means wealthier, but also closer to big destinations like Palo Alto and Stanford University), support for exclusive lanes will decline.  It will be interesting to see if this is true, in a very educated polity, when the benefits are understood.  

11 Responses to silicon valley: bus rapid transit that’s faster than driving?

  1. Ladyfleur November 14, 2014 at 1:44 pm #

    “The corridor is far enough from Caltrain that they are not competing”
    You’re right that they don’t compete, but it’s not so much because of the distance between the lines. It’s that the service they offer is very different. Caltrain has far fewer stops than VTA buses. Caltrain offers hourly vs 15 min headways in the middle of the day. With fewer stops and no competing auto traffic, Caltrain is much much faster. But VTA buses are much cheaper ($2 vs $5 for Palo Alto to Santa Clara).
    This plays into a demographic difference in ridership. Caltrain riders have much higher salaries (>$100k). There are very few people riding VTA on El Camino with that high a salary. I’d say the reason is partly because the bus is slow and the bus suffers from an image problem here. When I talk to people (even people on Caltrain) about taking the bus they get this look like I’m telling them to shop at Goodwill instead of Macy’s.
    However, with dedicated-lane BRT I can see the shorter transit times attracting more riders, including some of those who would only consider Caltrain before. That’s why I support it.

  2. threestationsquare November 14, 2014 at 4:57 pm #

    The strong opposition to bus lanes on Telegraph Ave in Berkeley (which led AC Transit to abandon the proposal) seems like significant evidence that an educated, liberal polity is not sufficient to ensure support for this kind of project, especially given the local political dynamics of the Bay Area.
    Will the bus lanes be only for VTA buses, or will they be open to other bus operators (such as the tech employers)?

  3. Dannyman November 14, 2014 at 5:16 pm #

    I attended the presentation in Sunnyvale this week. The reactions seemed to sum up as:
    1) Status quo sucks, something needs to be done.
    2) Sunnyvale has been asking for improved North-South connections for years, but all VTA is offering is improvements to an East-West corridor. (We have Caltrain and Light Rail..whereas the North of the city is office parks and the South is residential..with infrequent, meandering bus lines between the two..)
    3) Push back from some businesses who fear a loss of street traffic or parking. (Especially auto dealerships.)
    4) Criticism of the local transit agency, their bias towards a single alternative (dedicated lanes) skepticism over methodology, &c.
    5) Transit advocates pointing out that BRT in other cities has led to booming business.
    I took a turn at the mic and expressed that El Camino businesses already lose a lot of customers because the corridor is a really unpleasant 6-lane highway where the businesses are set back from the road behind vast parking lots and you have to fight traffic, U-Turns, parking, &c. to visit businesses there. Were the place friendlier to foot traffic, I’d be far likelier to go down there. As it is, people in the region drive or take transit to the little old downtown areas between El Camino and Caltrain where they can meander on foot and enjoy shops and restaurants, &c.
    The other thing I noticed is that the proposed Sunnyvale stops were not at major arterial streets like Mathilda or Sunnyvale Ave, but at smaller streets where the North-South bus lines meander away from the arterials to cross El Camino. I suspect that the locations were to make connections with the meandering bus lines and also to avoid station platforms from having to compete with Right-of-Way at major intersections which typically have multiple turn lanes, &c.
    I’d also be curious as to the relationship of the incumbent bus lines and connecting lines to the proposed lanes: can and will connecting lines share the dedicated lane and station platforms or will they occupy one of the two-per-direction traffic lanes …

  4. anonymouse November 16, 2014 at 6:11 pm #

    The thing is, nobody actually drives all the way down El Camino: if you want to get from Palo Alto to Santa Clara or San Jose, you take the 101 or maybe Central Expressway. And actually, the relationship between the bus and Caltrain is much the same as the relationship between the 101 and El Camino: one is an express regional corridor for longer trips, and the other one is an artery supporting a long commercial strip and tying together all the north-south corridors. I expect them to be more complementary than competing.

  5. Matthew November 17, 2014 at 6:35 pm #

    El Camino Real hosts the frequent 22 bus that has the distinction of being one of the few 24/7 transit routes in the region. Also one of the few frequent buses in the region. It also hosts the newer 522 “rapid” bus service, which in your parlance would be a “limited stop” service.
    Frankly, I hold out little hope for this “BRT” to be anything but a token gesture. I don’t live there anymore (thankfully) but in the time I did spend there it was easy to see that the powers-that-be want El Camino Real to be and remain a desolate, suburban hellscape of strip malls, auto dealers, and frequent pedestrian deaths.
    The power brokers of this supposedly “liberal” area are quite firmly committed to the automotive lifestyle and would never tolerate anything that might possibly take away a little bit of auto capacity — much less a lot. They certainly don’t care about anyone struggling to afford a home or a car. We’re talking about a region that is so ridiculously expensive that it has displaced people into San Francisco, of all places.
    It also doesn’t help that VTA is run by a set of remarkably incompetent people. The kind of incompetence that manages to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on “light rail” that goes nowhere except to big old parking lots, and thus has some of the worst ridership per-mile and per-dollar in the world. Oh, but the same agency is in charge of widening highway 101 as well, depleting even more riders from their transit system. Truly astonishing incompetence.

  6. Al Dimond November 17, 2014 at 11:30 pm #

    @Matthew: I lived in the Bay Area for a while and while I’d generally agree with your criticisms of the conditions along roads like El Camino Real and general ineffectiveness of mass transit in the South Bay and Peninsula, I’d be more cautious in attributing them entirely to agency incompetence. They’re limited a lot by politics and a history of growth that occurred around mass auto transportation in the second half of the 20th century. VTA Light Rail is a puzzling mismatch between service characteristics and land use, but I don’t know how much of that was driven by politics and how much by poor planning, particularly when there just isn’t that much fertile ground for transit ridership in Santa Clara County anyway.
    A lot of frequent, popular, effective transit services in the western US run on big, pedestrian-hostile roads. That has a lot to do with things that are out of the transit agencies’ control — there’s a lot of stuff along those roads (as they’re often the focus for development still due to outdated zoning codes) and they go a bunch of places in a manner that’s at least direct and legible. As you mention, existing services on El Camino Real are among VTA’s most important. Improving speed and reliability along that route is probably their best next move.

  7. Ming November 18, 2014 at 2:04 pm #

    I thought Sunnyvale, Mountain View, and Palo Alto already voted against dedicated BRT lanes a long time ago. I find that rather silly because there’s actually plenty of room for BRT lanes because much of El Camino Real has on-street parking that no drivers are silly enough to use since it’s dangerous to park on the side of a highway and since all the strip malls have their own parking. That parking could be easily converted to bus lanes.
    Sometimes, I wonder whether the Bay Area has TOO much money for transit infrastructure. Because they have dedicated funding for new transit infrastructure, it sometimes seems like they end up overbuilding really expensive but under-utilized infrastructure like BART or the LRT. If they put that money into more frequent bus service and express buses, it might actually be a lot more useful. Like, do they really need this elaborate center lane BRT? Couldn’t they just paint some bus lanes on the side of the road for a fraction of the cost?

  8. FDW November 21, 2014 at 6:44 pm #

    @Ming: This video provides an excellent explanation on why Center Running Transit is so much better than Side running Transit:
    tl;dr: It’s safer for pedestrians and causes fewer traffic conflicts.

  9. Sascha Claus December 6, 2014 at 10:16 am #

    > »[Caltrain] is an express regional corridor for longer trips, and [El Camino BRT] is an artery supporting a long commercial strip and tying together all the north-south corridors. I expect them to be more complementary than competing.«
    For complementary corridors, it would be useful to occasionally meet each other, so that people can change between express and arterial like cars do at freeway exits.
    This proposal (following the its underlying road) manages this at the ends (Palo Alto, San Jose) and Santa Clara (two universities and two possible HSR stops), but almost 18mi/28km with only one intermediate connection point is a little bit scarce.
    But don’t worry, you are in good company. This problem (meetings between rapid transit and arterial local transit) exists everywhere where rapid transit is running along a legacy rail ROW instead of a purpose-bored subway (or El’).

  10. Wow September 8, 2015 at 7:46 pm #

    If a transit agency seizes traffic lanes for its own exclusive use, of course whatever mode of transit it offers will beat passenger vehicles given fewer lanes or no lanes at all. If the VTA owned a team of donkeys instead of buses, it would be proposing VTA donkey-only lanes for El Camino Real and every other major street. Donkey rides could be fun. Most riders would never get to work, but who cares?

  11. Wouter July 11, 2016 at 1:32 am #

    Thw VTA’s game of delaying BRT on El Camino Real until after it gets its sales tax increase measure passed in November will backfire. The measure will not obtain two-thirds voter approval. Although Santa Clara Cpinty residents are desperate to reduce traffic congestion, the VTA cannot be trusted to devise or nanage effective projects.