Is Transit the Only Answer? Is It Even an Answer?

“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.


4 thoughts on “Is Transit the Only Answer? Is It Even an Answer?

  1. prk166

    I’m not sure how much more of Santa Clara county can be developed regardless of human made restrictions. About 3/4th of the county is very hilly. I’m not so sure that terrain has a lot of potential for large scale development.,+CA/@37.189066,-121.9855228,74693m/data=!3m2!1e3!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x80902f527934f677:0x102c754137830cb9!8m2!3d37.3336581!4d-121.8907041!5m1!1e4

  2. Sandy Teal

    There are several concentrated areas of high tech jobs around the country now — Boston, Raleigh, Austin and probably others. Considering the tax and housing problems in California, I wouldn’t doubt that these other areas will get most of the new tech jobs in the coming decades. If any job is portable, it is a tech job.

  3. The Antiplanner Post author

    San Francisco County is pretty hilly too. It is almost completely developed. Many streets are steeper than 25 percent; a couple are more than 40 percent. The hills around San Jose are nowhere near as steep as that.

    Besides, according to the State of California’s report, Raising the Roof, Santa Clara County has 300,000 acres of developable but undeveloped land that is less than 15 percent slopes.

  4. Ohai

    “Raising The Roof” was published almost 18 years ago and predicted that Santa Clara County would run out of developable land by 2010.

    It also pointed out that increasing density could also increase housing supply:

    . . . it may be possible to accommodate much of California’s anticipated population and household growth with housing forms that consume less land than has traditionally been the case

    The problem is most of Santa Clara County is zoned for low-density uses. Santa Clarans probably value their restrictive zoning rules that preserve the suburban character of their neighborhoods just as much as they value their urban growth boundary that preserves their views of the hills and natural open spaces, even though both of these things drive up housing costs.

    For some odd reason, though, the Antiplanner only ever complains about the urban growth boundary.

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