Atlantic Cities

Silicon Valley Can't Get Transit Right

Silicon Valley Can't Get Transit Right
Shutterstock

Light rail recently celebrated its 25th anniversary in Silicon Valley, but most people in the area were probably too busy driving to celebrate. Mike Rosenberg of the Mercury News reports that the system, run by the Valley Transportation Authority, is among the country's worst by just about every common metric of success.

To wit: Less than 1 percent of Santa Clara County residents ride VTA light rail; the per-passenger round-trip operating cost is $11.74 and taxpayers subsidize 85 percent of costs — third and second worst in the country, respectively. There are problems with measuring costs per passenger mile on light rail, but ouch.

Rosenberg piles on the anniversary cake:

Light-rail agencies in Minneapolis, Houston, Newark, N.J., and Phoenix each run less service than VTA yet carry more passengers than the South Bay's network. Several cities that are much smaller than San Jose — from St. Louis to Salt Lake City to Portland, Ore. — also feature light-rail systems with more riders than VTA.

Sacramento — which also opened its light-rail network in 1987, operates with approximately the same level of service and runs through a similarly sprawled-out region — carries nearly 40 percent more passengers per day than VTA.

Even transit enthusiasts in the area aren't rushing to the system's defense. Eugene Bradley, founder of the Silicon Valley Transit Users advocacy group, notes a number of lingering problems with VTA light rail. For one thing, writes Bradley, the system doesn't link up well with the San Jose airport. (VTA does run a flyer between the terminals and the closest light rail station, but the frequency ranges from a meh 15 minutes to a lol half hour.)

The bigger problem, according to Bradley, is the speed of the trains — or lack thereof:

When I first encountered VTA light rail in San Jose (briefly) in 1990. I noted how slowly it moved thru the downtown area, intermingling amongst pedestrian traffic. I thought it then to be weird at best for a city to run light rail on a sidewalk where pedestrians normally are. Fast forward to today (after returning to New Jersey then moving back to California), even with system-wide expansion to Mountain View, South San Jose and East San Jose, and its still the same, sad slowness I remember.

Silicon Valley must be getting used to bad transit news at this point. In November, Rosenberg reported that a VTA plan to extend a light rail line 1.6 miles to Los Gatos, home of Netflix, will cost $175 million while drawing only about 200 new riders. Back in May, a local news station found a culture of fare evasion on VTA that gives the system a rate of 7.2 percent — highest in the region.

In April, construction began on an extension of BART from the Bay Area to Santa Clara, ending at the Berryessa station, where it will meet the VTA light rail system. Among that project's shortcomings are the fact that the stop falls short of downtown San Jose, and that Berryessa seems poorly suited to transit-oriented development. An extension to San Jose is still in the plans, though BART service to the city would duplicate the Caltrain commuter rail that already goes there.

Not that anyone in Silicon Valley uses Caltrain anyway. In October, Stamen Designs released a map of private bus lines that serve the campuses of Google, Apple, Facebook, and the like for employees living in downtown San Francisco. These buses are seen as a better option than Caltrain, which runs infrequently and requires a number of transfers from the city to reach Silicon Valley.

The irony of this arrangement is apparently lost on Silicon Valley itself, wrote Jarrett Walker at the Human Transit blog:

The industry that liberated millions from the tyranny of distance remains mired in its own desperately car-dependent world of corporate campuses, where being too-far-to-walk from a Caltrain station — and from anything else of interest — is almost a point of pride.

When it comes to public transit, the leaders of the tech industry are way behind.

Top image: Hank Shiffman/Shutterstock

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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