Anatomy of a Transit Disaster

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), San Jose’s transit agency, has been making a series of happy-talk advertisements about how transit is green, is faster than driving, and reduces congestion. Of course, it is none of those things: VTA uses about as much energy and producing as much greenhouse gases per passenger mile as the average SUV; VTA light-rail trains average less than 16 mph and its buses less than 12; and rather than reduce congestion it is increasing it as its poor service leads people to give up transit and drive instead.

The reality is that VTA’s transit and transportation planning has proven to be a disaster for Silicon Valley. In 2000, VTA buses and light-rail transit carried 55.6 million riders, or more than 36 trips per capita in the San Jose urban area. Ridership grew to 57.3 million in 2001. But then the dot-com crash hit, reducing jobs and ridership. Desperate to avoid defaulting on the huge loans it had taken out to build light rail, by 2005 VTA had cut bus service by more than 20 percent. Even though the number of jobs declined by only 9 percent, ridership fell by more than 30 percent.

The economy came roaring back, and today Silicon Valley has 23 percent more jobs than it did in 2005. Yet VTA failed to restore bus service: though it increased light-rail service by more than 40 percent since 2005, it left bus service virtually unchanged. In 2017, total bus and light-rail ridership was slightly more than in 2005, but still 30 percent less than in 2000. Today transit carries under 25 trips per capita, ridership has declined every year since 2015, and is on track to lose another 5 percent in fiscal year 2018 (VTA’s fiscal years end on June 30).

Rather than do something about this serious problem, the big question for VTA has been whether it should build a single double-decked tunnel or two tunnels for BART to get to downtown San Jose. Downtown property owners who had strongly backed bringing BART to San Jose nevertheless were deathly afraid of the two tunnel option, which meant closing streets, digging holes, covering up the holes, and then reopening the streets. A single tunnel would be built by a tunnel-boring machine, which wouldn’t require closing the streets — but it would also be more expensive.

Despite reservations from BART, VTA went with the single-tunnel option. Yet it was through this technology that New York City built what the New York Times called the “most expensive subway mile on earth.” Moreover, only one double-decked, single-bore tunnel has previously been built, making the project even riskier.

The reality is that all of this debate is a waste of time and money. VTA shouldn’t even be building BART to downtown San Jose. The argument for this project is that it will spur downtown development. But why does one of the wealthiest regions in the world need a government project to spur development?

All of VTA’s planning is based on an outmoded vision of a city. In that vision, jobs are downtown and transit brings people to those jobs. But downtown San Jose has less than 4 percent of the region’s jobs, and at least ten other Silicon Valley job centers are more important. Instead of trying to turn Silicon Valley into a nineteenth-century city, VTA should be designing and operating a transit system that works for the region as a whole — and that means buses rather than trains.

With more than 6,000 people per square mile, Silicon Valley is the third-densest urban area in the United States. Yet population density does not translate to high transit ridership. Instead, transit only works with high job densities, and Silicon Valley doesn’t have that. Individual campuses such as Apple, Facebook, and Google may have lots of jobs, but they tend to be poorly served by VTA, forcing the employers to provide their own bus systems.

People who don’t understand how modern cities work have been given control of billions of dollars of public funds. They are totally misusing those funds and ignoring the fact that the results they claim to want — higher transit ridership — aren’t being achieved. Perhaps someone should make a video about this failure.

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6 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Transit Disaster

  1. paul

    Google is buying large amounts of property in downtown San Jose, search key words “Google buying property downtown San Jose” for range of articles, such as:
    https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/01/31/downtown-san-joses-google-village-takes-major-step-forward-with-government-property-deals/
    It will be interesting to see if this results in the Google campus employees using the transit, or if Google buses would have been a better solution.
    This raises the question as to why Google isn’t paying more for the BART extension or Caltrain electrification.

  2. LazyReader

    if VTA really wanted to propose a transit scheme for the 21st century, they could have built a monorail.
    Using straddle beams, derailment is virtually impossible. Since it’s elevated, accidents with surface traffic and pedestrians are impossible (unless the train derailed and landed on the road; again a highly unlikely scenario). Translates to less system down time, less liability suits and most importantly, a safer public. Street rail systems with grade crossings (light rail, trams, commuter rail or trollies) can’t approach this level of safety since foolhardy people often try to beat the speeding train at the crossing with disastrous results. Also underground rail is prohibitively expensive (tunneling through Hawaiian solid basalt) Running on rubber tires makes monorails relatively quiet compared to the loud clickety clack of metal on metal.

    Polls show monorails are the most aesthetically pleasing of all elevated rail systems. Their sleek design blends in with modern urban environments. But if need be, the pylons and track; which made of precast concrete can be made to accommodate whatever architectural style the system is meant to coexist with, including more classical ones….
    https://sc02.alicdn.com/kf/HTB1Z9JULpXXXXcuXpXXq6xXFXXX0/227906069/HTB1Z9JULpXXXXcuXpXXq6xXFXXX0.jpg

    Quick construction time results in less disruption to the surrounding environments, whether business or residential. Building heavy rail in the city means rerouting cables/lines and pipes, digging and businesses forfeiting revenue for the disruption caused by years of construction, light rail is no different. Customers can’t access their establishments during the long period of construction. Entire streets and underground utilities must be rebuilt to put in light rail. During light rail construction, there are always businesses that go under because customers can’t get to them. Monorail beamways can be installed quickly and simply. Simply put…dig a hole, drop in a pre-built support pylon, truck in the track which was manufactured offsite, lift into place! The Las Vegas Mono only took Seven months to build (granted LV Monorail isn’t exactly financially good, but when Casinos offer it’s own alternative). Contractors and rail consultants love heavy rail. It keeps them busy for years and brings in the big bucks. You pay for it Mr. Taxpayer. As if that isn’t enough, operational costs of heavy rail are so high that Mr. Taxpayer (you again) have to subsidize it heavily for as long as it operates. Being electrically driven by a power provided from the rail, monorails don’t require the spider web of above ground power lines.

    Steel wheels on steel rail grind and wear. Therefore, both wheels and rail require far more care than monorail. This alone makes cost efficient impossible with heavy rail. Frequent vehicle breakdowns during operation also make heavy rail much less reliable than monorail. Monorails regularly operate amazingly at over 90% reliability. No other form of transit can touch that number. The rubber tires get little wear running on smooth guideways. Typically, each load tire gets over 100,000 miles of travel before being replaced and changing it’s tires is as simple as…..changing a tire.

    Steel wheels on steel rail grind and wear. Therefore, both wheels and rail require far more care than monorail. This alone makes cost efficient impossible with heavy rail. Frequent vehicle breakdowns during operation also make heavy rail much less reliable than monorail. Monorails regularly operate amazingly at over 90% reliability. No other form of transit can touch that number. The rubber tires get little wear running on smooth guideways. Typically, each load tire gets over 100,000 miles of travel before being replaced and changing it’s tires is as simple as…..changing a tire.

    Now out of context monorail is too whimsical, Simply offering superior bus service would help to alleviate silicon’s traffic concerns. One of the rare instances where BRT and dedicated lanes to buses may actually serve a purpose. A dedicated bus lane that carpoolers can use for free.

  3. LazyReader

    Improve traffic without barely spending a dime in taxpayer money, Incentivize car pooling. 3-4 people in one car takes up less road space than four people in four cars.

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