“Forget self-driving cars,” argues Rod Diridon, the former chair of one of the worst-managed transit agencies in the country. “Mass transit is the only answer to gridlock.” Writing in the San Jose Mercury-News, Diridon presents what he considers to be alarming statistics about job growth and then asserts that only huge subsidies to transit will allow those people to get to work.
“Well over 100,000 new primary jobs will be added to Silicon Valley in the next decade,” he estimates, and each primary job will be supported by seven to thirteen secondary jobs. Since Silicon Valley (which I equate to the San Jose urbanized area) only had 873,000 jobs in 2016, he is essentially predicting that jobs (and therefore population) will more than double in a decade. Considering that the region’s population has only been growing at about 1 percent per year, that’s impossible.
At no matter what rate the region is growing, transit–or at least the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority (VTA) that Diridon once led–has proven itself incapable of dealing with this growth. Back in 2000, VTA carried 55.6 million transit riders. By 2016, the region’s population had grown 16 percent, yet ridership was down to 44.0 million. In the first ten months of 2017, ridership fell another 8.5 percent below the same period in 2016. As a result, annual transit trips per capita have fallen by more than a third since 2000.
Diridon blames the federal government for not giving VTA enough subsidies to expand its transit service. But the feds have given VTA billions of dollars which it spent building light-rail lines and extending BART from Fremont into Santa Clara County. The feds also recently gave hundreds of millions to CalTrains to electrify commuter lines between San Jose and San Francisco.
While VTA and other transit agencies were spending all of this money, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and other companies were building large new campuses. Guess how many of them are served by light rail, BART, or CalTrains? As far as I can tell, the answer is none, which is why Apple, Facebook, and Google all operate their own private bus systems to bring their employees to and from work.
More than a decade ago, Apple announced it had purchased land to build a giant new headquarters with more than 12,000 jobs. A decade is plenty of time to plan and start a rapid bus service. But if you want to get to Apple Park by transit, one way is to take light rail or CalTrains to Diridon Station (the name of San Jose’s historic train station), then take a bus that takes 55 minutes to go about 6.5 miles (as the drone flies) to Apple Park. According to Google maps, it is considerably faster to ride a bike.
Perhaps if Rod Diridon had been more focused on providing transit service to places people wanted to go rather than spending tens of millions of dollars on a train station named after himself, San Jose would have a better transit system. But even if it did, transit would not be the solution to congestion. If it was, we wouldn’t see any congestion in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco.
Diridon didn’t really say to “forget self-driving cars”; that was only the headline. He admits that “automated vehicles will help,” but that they “will add only a fraction of the needed capacity.” The real problem, he claims, is that Silicon Valley doesn’t “have the space/land upon which to add major roadway capacity.”
And that is just another big lie. According to the 2010 census, Santa Clara County is 74 percent rural–and that hasn’t changed since then because the urban-growth boundaries that have kept 74 percent of the county rural haven’t been moved. If the county abolished the boundaries, there would be plenty of room for new office parks, new housing, and new roads to serve both. Those boundaries were created at about the time Diridon joined the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, so he would have had plenty of opportunity to fix the problem. Instead, he was an “ardent environmentalist” who supported the boundary that has made San Jose one of the least affordable places to live in the world.
I don’t know if self-driving cars will eliminate Silicon Valley congestion. I do know that the only real problem that transit will solve in Silicon Valley is the problem of how to spend any surplus billions of dollars that might be lying around. That’s not really a problem that anyone has. Diridon’s four-decades-plus leadership of Silicon Valley’s transportation system has caused far more problems than it solved.