San Jose Transit Is Still Near the Top

That is, near the top of the list of the nation’s worst transit systems, says the San Jose Mercury-New. “The near-empty trolleys that often shuttle by at barely faster than jogging speeds serve as a constant reminder that the car is still king in Silicon Valley,” says the paper, “and that the Valley Transportation Authority’s trains are among the least successful in the nation by any metric.”

Many if not most San Jose light-rail “trains” are just one car long, which means they aren’t really trains at all. Considering an average load of just 18 people, the first third of this articulated railcar would be more than enough to handle the demand most times of the day.
Flickr photo from Albert’s Images.

Five years ago the Antiplanner declared the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) to be worst-managed transit system. Is it still the worst? It has a lot of competition, including Baltimore, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, yet VTA manages to remain competitive.

In terms of number of riders per light-rail car, VTA carried an average of just 18.3 in 2011, a number lower than all other light-rail systems except Buffalo (17.0) and Baltimore (18.2). Fares from San Jose’s light-rail riders cover just 15.7 percent of the trains’ operating costs; only Baltimore, at 12.0 percent, is lower. Counting just operating costs, taxpayers pay nearly $5 to subsidize each light-rail trip, an amount exceeded only by Dallas and Pittsburgh light-rail systems. Overall, I’d say Baltimore’s is the worst system, with San Jose’s a close number two.

According to the Mercury-New, VTA planners think that “we are ultimately going to realize the (original) vision,” but they blame urban sprawl for the system’s failure so far. However, if “sprawl” is defined as low-density development, San Jose is one of the three least sprawling urban areas in America: only Los Angeles and San Francisco urban areas are denser. What San Jose lacks is a dense employment center: downtown San Jose probably has less than 5 percent of the region’s jobs. Without that employment center, any form of fixed-route transit is simply not going to attract a lot of riders.

Silicon Valley is supposed to be filled with smart people, but none of them seem to be working on transit. The Mercury-New quotes former Santa Clara County supervisor Ron Diridon, who first promoted light rail three decades ago, as saying, “If we didn’t have the current system, we would have terminal gridlock.” Well, not exactly: a $2 billion system that only carries about 3.7 percent of commuters to work and less than 1 percent of all passenger travel is not doing anything serious about congestion.

The problem isn’t sprawl; the problem is that VTA is applying the wrong solutions to their problem. Rail transit makes sense only in ultra-high densities. In the United States, for example, Manhattan subways lost just 33 cents per passenger in 2011; no other light-, heavy-, or commuter-rail system comes close to that. But Manhattan’s population density is ten times greater than San Jose’s. Rails might also make sense if people lived in really dense corridors–but they don’t, not in San Jose and not really anywhere.

Instead, we’ve spread out across a two-dimensional landscape, which means that expensive one-dimensional rail lines can’t serve most travelers. VTA took a “build-it-and-they-will-come” approach, hoping that people would eagerly move to high-density housing and employers would move to high-density offices along the rail lines. Instead of expecting people to shape their lives around a transit system that doesn’t carry more than 96 percent of commuters, VTA should have shaped transit around the actual dimensions of the region–which means using buses, not rails.

Among the early promoters of light rail in San Jose were property developers and planners who wanted to build high-density housing. Banks, they said, didn’t want to finance high-density housing because Americans preferred single-family housing. But if there was a rail line, somehow banks believed high-density housing would be more attractive. So light rail was really just a property-development scheme.

Or, to be more precise, a failed property-development scheme. Some high-density developments were built, but most people in the region still live in single-family homes and most travel out of the high-density developments that were built still relies on cars.

To make matters worse, San Jose and BART are extending the BART system to downtown San Jose, an extremely expensive endeavor that will do nothing to relieve congestion or promote mobility. While BART will run the system, it will expect VTA to pick up a large share of the operating losses. When that bill hits, VTA will surely return to the number one spot among the nation’s worst-managed transit systems.

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3 thoughts on “San Jose Transit Is Still Near the Top

  1. paul

    I suspect that building light rail was only an excuse for getting planning permission to build higher density apartments along the light rail routes. In 1999 at a tour for local planners promoting San Jose’s “affordable housing by silicon valley standards” I got into an argument with the then head of the silicon manufacturer’s association. It was clear that light rail was not cost effective and finally in exasperation he said “but you cannot build high density housing unless it s next to a rail line”. I took this to mean that the support for the rail line was only to be able to get permission for high density housing. The fact that most people living in these developments still drove everywhere was not a consideration.

  2. Dave Brough

    The picture reminds me that the business end of those things, being unprotected, makes for very efficient battering rams and people killers. Even the early railroaders had sense enough to add cow catchers, and one would think that, at the very least, they would add some padding so that the hapless individuals they nail would at least get bounced out of the way so that the injury occurs from what they impact, not what does the impacting. I’m guessing that the motto on the boardroom wall is “Mess with us and we’ll kill you!” I’m awaiting their next innovation akin to the nose art that adorned WW2 fighters indicating the number of kills. I’m sure it will be a big hit.

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