San Jose and Silicon Valley: Welcome to Your New Network

Finally, the long deferred new network design for Valley Transportation Authority — which covers San Jose and much of Silicon Valley in the Bay Area, is going live as I write this, on December 28, 2019.  The plan arises from a major study that we led in 2016.

[Implementation was delayed so long due to delays in completing the BART rapid transit extension from the East Bay into San Jose, which the plan is intended to complement.  VTA planned on the line opening tomorrow, but a last minute delay (too late for VTA to postpone their plans) has pushed that opening into the spring, so express buses will be providing that link in the meantime.]

What’s new?  A massive high frequency grid covering most of San Jose, where transit demand is highest, but also bit improvements for the “Silicon Valley” area to the west.  A new frequent north south line runs through Sunnyvale and Cupertino.  Routes are simplified and made straighter. The light rail system was redesigned at the same time, to make it more gridlike as well.  Nothing new was built, but the service pattern is also more of a grid, with a new continuous east-west line across the north side of the region that will connect tens of thousands of jobs to BART for travel to the East Bay.

Here’s the old network, with red denoting high frequency.  (Click to enlarge and sharpen.)

The old VTA network. Red = 15 minute frequency or better. Note the lack of a high frequency grid apart from the lowest-income area in the far east. Map by Jarrett Walker + Associates.

And here’s the new one, by our friends at CHK America. The style is slightly different from ours, but still, high frequency is in red, and the broad colored lines (black in our map above) are the light rail network.

The new VTA network. Red=15 minute frequency or better. Map by CHK America.

Also, an historic event about which I’ll write more:  A two-segment very low-ridership light rail segment has been closed, between Ohlone/Chynoweth and Almaden stations in southern San Jose.  I believe this is the first time that a modern US light rail segment — i.e. built since the 1950s — was permanently closed, with the exception of a single station in Pittsburgh.  (Please correct me if I’m wrong!)

And yes, some low-ridership segments disappear, though very few people end up losing all of their service.  Often, the deleted routes provided some link inside an area that already had other service, and while some of these routes were fiercely defended by locals, there was no way to justify them when they achieved neither high ridership nor unique coverage.  Another important part of that story is that many of the wealthier Silicon Valley cities have their own transit services, and while of course they would prefer that the county pay for their service, they have the option of running some of these low-ridership links themselves if they decide it is important to them.

Meanwhile, the center of gravity of the network remains in the east, not just because incomes are lower there but also because the geography is more favorable to efficient transit, with fewer barriers to walking and a more regularly gridded street network.  Google’s move into the Diridon station area of San Jose is a great first step toward bringing jobs and prosperity into a landscape that efficient transit can serve well.

All this resulted from a clear discussion with the VTA Board, and the community, about the ridership-coverage tradeoff.  The old system was about 70% justified by ridership, while the new network is closer to 90%.  Getting to the right balance of ridership and coverage goals was the result of a long conversation, in which we showed the public alternatives and got their feedback before the Board made a decision.

To all of Silicon Valley and San Jose, welcome to your new network.  It’s been a long struggle (for VTA more than for us) but you can finally go places you could never go before, and soon.


27 Responses to San Jose and Silicon Valley: Welcome to Your New Network

  1. Peter L December 28, 2019 at 3:01 pm #

    Two things. 1) I was in the MIlpitas/San Jose area *once* 20 years ago and remember little of it — other than fanning the light rail and remembering that fights leaving SJC seem to spiral tightly upwards until reaching 50,000′ before heading off wherever (altitude approximate) — so I don’t get why BART ends where it does. It may be obvious to someone familiar with the area but to me it seems that going downtown via (or not) the airport would be a no-brainer. 2) I was thinking “The MBTA Green Line was abandoned below Heath St!” but that’s hardly new-build even if the 1980s-era Forest Hills station was built to accommodate the Green Line, a section that was never used (Orange Line Rapid Transit and Purple Line commuter rail both stop there).

    • Kirk January 1, 2020 at 10:05 pm #

      Flights leaving SJC to the North do one (and only one) loop around the airport to get them above incoming SFO traffic.

      The blog post clearly states that the highest ridership area of SJ is the East side. That’s why BART takes a more Easterly approach to downtown so as to serve the high ridership neighborhoods.

      • Reality Check January 3, 2020 at 11:23 am #

        BART merely takes the route it does because VTA bought and used an old UP freight ROW to extend BART as far as Berryessa (SJ Flea Market area).

    • Cliff January 19, 2020 at 3:51 pm #

      VTA is actively planning for extending BART from Berryessa to downtown

  2. Other December 29, 2019 at 7:26 am #

    “I believe this is the first time that a modern light rail segment — i.e. built since the 1950s — was permanently closed, with the exception of a single station in Pittsburgh. (Please correct me if I’m wrong!)”

    Yes, you are completely wrong. There is a world outside US, dummy.

    • Jeremy M December 31, 2019 at 12:07 am #

      What about Sacramento’s green line?

    • Murray January 1, 2020 at 2:21 pm #

      Would you mind sharing a few examples to enlighten the rest of us? I don’t follow this as much as yourself.

  3. AAI December 30, 2019 at 6:44 am #

    Can anyone point toward any online planning documents for this redesign? VTA’s website is a bit confusing. Thank you!

  4. Jeremy M December 31, 2019 at 12:10 am #

    It seems like there is still a major gap in that it is difficult (or at least not intuitive) to get from downtown SJ to the BART station. Ultimately BART is supposed to go downtown but not for several years at least. For now it seems like the connection to the East Bay via BART should be easier (maybe I’m missing something). Maybe a better solution would be for the ACE train to run every 20 minutes 4a-midnight, but of course there’s a interagency problem.

    • Kirk January 1, 2020 at 10:10 pm #

      You must be missing something. Express 500 exists for the exact purpose of connecting downtown to Berryessa BART. It makes very few stops in between. It will run every few minutes during the daytime.

  5. Kevin Foreman December 31, 2019 at 6:52 am #


    Like fine wine… some of these things take time to get better. 🙂


  6. Jason December 31, 2019 at 9:24 pm #

    While there are some improvements, overall it is still infrequent and slow in Silicon Valley. Having ridden regional trains in Japan, I see so much great potential in CalTrain… if we just have:
    * Frequent Caltrain all day everyday (15 min or better at 9pm on Sunday!!)
    * Caltrain extended to South San Jose (e.g. stop at Tamien to connect with LRT blue line)
    * Buses connect to Caltrain better (e.g. especially for “frequent” routes like 57).
    * BART to San Jose Diridon

    then I will be able to reach most of the places in South Bay within 30min transit + 15min walking, and most places in San Jose within 1hr transit + 15min walking

    Right now, trips that take 15min by car or Uber still often take more than an hour, and frankly that is just not very appealing to me.

    • Kirk January 1, 2020 at 10:13 pm #

      Literally all of the things you mentioned are already in process, but transit development moves at a very slow pace in the US. Rather ridiculous to compare to Japan. Japan’s system is orders of magnitude more developed. Everyone knows that.

      • Jason January 2, 2020 at 11:16 pm #

        Even some Toronto GO trains have all day 15 minute frequency. You don’t have to compare to Japan to see how ridiculously bad it is here. Literally any Canadian city will do. I find it the poor coordination, poor planning, and poor execution here inexcusable. Honestly this bus reorg did fix a few irritating problems with the previous network, making it a little more useful to me, but ultimately it is not very transformational.

        The minor things that it fixed (relative to me, living in Mountain View):
        – 40 goes to Mountain View station, so I can now go see a movie by bus (in theory, but sadly biking is still faster, and the movie can’t be too late at night)
        – 21 is more useful than the 32 it replaced (at least it runs on Sunday now, albeit not very frequently)
        – 51 is viable for going trail running at Rancho San Antonio now
        – 523 going to Sunnyvale saves a lot of time for going to Cupertino
        – Light rail goes directly from Mountain View to I-880 mall and Milpitas Station, saves a transfer
        – Going to Westfield Valley Fair is not so bad with frequent 60

        I commend them for doing what they could, and it does make me more likely to use it. However, I’d like to see, as people like to talk about here, some 10x thinking. What would it take, to make it a network that almost everyone would see themselves using?

  7. Joseph Brant January 1, 2020 at 3:20 pm #

    This was designed to be a revenue neutral change. However, the equation should not be revenue neutral. VTA has poured tons of money into expanding highway lanes and redoing interchanges while slashing bus service. Expanding the small number of frequent routes, while commendable, should not have been done at the cost of removing coverage routes that let riders get to those frequent routes.

    • Kirk January 1, 2020 at 10:24 pm #

      Of course transit advocates like you and I think that way. Most voters, however, would prefer that the money be spent on roads.

      • Warren January 6, 2020 at 2:50 pm #

        I wonder, if you asked “most voters”, if they actually like their cars and all that goes into owning and using one.

        I bet if you laid out a proposal for an extensive-coverage long-span high-frequency(every 8 minutes or better) system that would take them where they wanted and when and that thusly they could reduce the chore of car ownership or eliminate it entirely you might find that there are enough voters who like that to swing budgeting from roads to that transit system.

        With some good, on-point messaging about time and costs savings and removing so many little chores and hassles from their lives you’d have a winner of a campaign.

        They might even be willing to spend more.

      • Joseph Brant January 7, 2020 at 5:02 pm #

        Most voters are tired of traffic congestion which is why they keep supporting ballot measures for transit. This is not some hick country. But the money is not being spent correctly.

    • MaxUtil January 3, 2020 at 11:47 am #

      “What would it take, to make it a network that almost everyone would see themselves using?”

      The simple answer of course would be “a lot more money”. I would recommend advocating for politicians and policies that would massively increase the funding available for transit.

    • Daniel Sparing January 22, 2020 at 1:29 pm #

      Congrats Jarrett! I used the VTA light rail and Caltrain early December when I was there (and I was already happy I managed to avoid renting a car again), but next time I’ll try and use the new frequent buses between work and downtown Sunnyvale.

    • Valley January 30, 2020 at 3:32 pm #

      Agree with Mr. Brandt. VTA probably moved the demand-versus-coverage dial too far in going from 70/30 to 90/10. In my planning experience, 70/30 actually is a pretty good spot to be and usually allows you to reasonably cover your service area AND provide good frequencies and service spans in the main corridors at the same time.

  8. Low Headways January 2, 2020 at 10:38 pm #

    This is definitely a step in the right direction, but why is the cutoff for “frequent” service still 15 minutes? That hardly seems like a reasonable wait, especially for a bus and especially when a transfer is far from unlikely. Wouldn’t it be better (and only marginally more costly given an end to split shifts) to achieve something like 10-minute all-day headways? Or better?

    • MaxUtil January 3, 2020 at 11:45 am #

      “Frequent” and “reasonable” are both relative terms with no simple, objective definition so it will mean different things to different people. But 15 min. frequency is fairly widely used as the cutoff for “frequent” service in transit.
      Reducing headways from 15 to 10 minutes would require roughly a 33% increase in staff and equipment. Of course, not quite that simple, but would likely be more than a marginal increase in labor and capital costs. More frequent service would of course be “better”, but all these things have costs.

    • Valley January 30, 2020 at 3:03 pm #

      Although it definitely depends on the context, for local transit, “frequent service” really should mean walk-up frequent. And many agencies define on-time for mixed-traffic service as up to 5 minutes late. So the tolerance threshold for a walk-up frequency is going to be the headway plus 5 minutes. If you just missed a bus that was running exactly on time on a 15-min frequency route, and the next bus arrives 4 minutes behind schedule (still considered on time), you will have had to wait 19 minutes.

      I consider 15 minutes to be an *acceptable frequency* in a suburban environment, but it’s not a *frequent frequency* – you still need to consult a schedule. And it’s definitely not suitable for rolling departures at transfer hubs; you have to bank or your pax will be unhappy.

      But yes, going from 15 minutes down to a single-digit headway is expensive, and would most likely need to be based on demand rather than policy.

  9. Jason January 2, 2020 at 11:27 pm #

    Also, a lot of the frequent transit network is “fake frequent” – maybe good for Mon-Fri, but runs only every 30-60min on Saturday / Sunday and ending surprisingly early like 10pm. As I commute to work by bike, most of my transit usage would be on the weekend, and sadly such low levels of service is limiting.

  10. Reality Check January 4, 2020 at 3:56 am #

    St. Louis’s ill-fated Loop Trolley rolled along Delmar Boulevard for the last time on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019. It died in infancy, at the chronological age of 13 months and 14 days, but an actual service life of only 235 days.