San Jose Plots a Renewal of Its Struggling Light Rail Network

San Jose Transit Map

» VTA, unlike most other modern systems, has had trouble attracting ridership.

More than 20 years after its first segment opened, the VTA Santa Clara County light rail system has yet to provoke a significant change in the land use patters of San Jose and its surroundings. Rather, the project has yet to attract major investment in areas around stations and it has done little to reinforce the tenuous status of downtown San Jose as the region’s center. Fortunately, VTA planners are on the lookout for potential improvements and are now evaluating ways to improve service. The problem is that the failures of this rail system aren’t the lines or vehicles themselves but rather the physical form of the city.

VTA’s difficulties are made manifest by the system’s low ridership: despite the fact that the system now offers 42 miles of service heading in all directions from downtown, it only transports about 30,000 users a day. Per mile, it attracts the lowest ridership of all modern light rail system in the U.S. Lyon’s 30 mile long network of trams moves 160,000 daily — and it began operating just eight years ago! Of course, France’s second city is far more densely populated than San Jose, and its tram network parallels an extensive collection of metro, bus, and rapid bus lines.

Even so, San Jose is America’s 10th largest city and it is rapidly approaching one million citizens. It ought to have a better-working transit system, especially since its neighbor on the other side of the San Francisco Bay is so well outfitted.

Light rail in San Jose, however, is paralyzed by the South Bay’s adherence to a land use model that encourages single family homes and office complexes surrounded by parking. Downtown San Jose is growing slowly compared to other resurgent inner cities, and it remains an unwalkable neighborhood. It is not recognized as the center of the region by the area’s inhabitants. The “garage” model for tech company headquarters has been taken a bit too literally here and the consequence is a landscape that is all too dependent on the automobile. How can light rail compete effectively when most destinations are far easier to get to with cars and when parking is provided everywhere at no charge?

In recent years, VTA has seemingly abandoned its interest in making light rail work, focusing instead on extending the BART heavy rail system south from Fremont and Warm Springs through downtown San Jose, as if convinced a different type of transit will solve the city’s structural problems. The 16-mile BART project will cost billions of dollars and provide slower service into San Francisco than is currently available on Caltrain. It will be next in the line of poorly planned projects in the Bay Area.

But there are ways in which the existing light rail system could be improved, and VTA’s recent actions are a step forward. Management is considering building a second track through downtown to increase speeds from the current 10 mph average that makes cross-region trips a nightmare. Trains on the Almaden spur will continue all the way downtown, rather than stopping at Ohlone as they now do, an operations pattern that forces customers to make a transfer and reduces ridership. A new through-route will run from East San Jose to Mountain View, instead of requiring customers to wait for a separate trains at Tasman. A new overpass will increase vehicle speeds through a major intersection.

All these changes would make light rail a more convenient option for people living in the valley, but ridership won’t skyrocket until San Jose and the surrounding cities become more serious about encouraging transit-oriented development. The region should pilot a program of suburban reconstruction that would replace large groupings of stand-alone office parks with denser towers and apartment homes. Downtown and the surrounding area should be reinforced with better landscaping and public amenities. Diridon Station should be transformed into the region’s center, rather than a peripheral transit node.

VTA’s obsession with a BART extension, reaffirmed by voters last November, should be delayed for now. While a new light rail line running directly from downtown to Alum Rock would vastly improve speeds, the $334 million Capitol Expressway Line that would extend the corridor further south would attract just as little use as the existing lines. Other projects that might be more successful, like a route west from downtown through St. Leo’s along Stevens Creek Boulevard or northwest through the huge office parks in Sunnyvale, are not being considered.

San Jose’s future won’t be defined by the transit system VTA has built for it — and its inhabitants won’t use it — unless city planners focus on rebuilding the region in a denser, more transit-friendly nature. Stations should be surrounded by apartments and office towers, not single-family homes and office parks. Until that transformation occurs, San Jose’s improvements to the light rail system will be limited in their effect.

32 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Good comments about urban form, which I’m sure VTA’s planners are aware of. But to be fair, even Portland is having trouble stimulating large scale redevelopment on its light rail system outside the greater downtown core.

    Although I do not mean to express an opinion on the BART extension, it should not be evaluated based on its travel times to San Francisco. Its value is mainly to connect San Jose to the East Bay, particularly its Oakland-Berkeley urban core.

    Good post.

  • Andy K

    Even if the BART extension is judged on the travel times to the East Bay, it comes up short when the costs vs. alternatives are considered.

    The people who lead the charge for the failed light rail system are many of the same who are planning the CAHSR project. Not a good sign, given the track record.

  • TC

    You’re right – the Silicon Valley transportation culture is largely car-oriented. The only large company which the VTA goes directly to is Cisco. Employees of most other companies must drive.

    Better landscaping and public amenities won’t be enough to draw people to downtown however. Downtown San Jose does not currently have enough quality of shops/businesses to make it a destination. Also, the crowds which frequent the establishments at night often have a gang influence so the city requires much police presence.

  • Ramkumar Sridharan

    You make some excellent points in your post. You are right, the land use model is really one of the key reasons why South Bay is the way it is. Until the root of the issue is addressed, it makes no sense to blame VTA for poor ridership – they have done an excellent job given the circumstances. In fact, ridership on VTA (bus as well as LRT) has been seeing a steady increase of late; yet its budget is being cut and it is forced to cut down services, eliminate connections, etc.

    I beg to differ on a few minor points::

    - I live in downtown San Jose, and while downtown SJ fails in many ways, one thing it has going for it is this – it is eminently walkable, contrary to what you mention. The sheer abundance of city parks, shopping, entertainment, restaurants etc close to where we live is great. The problem is that not enough people walk downtown – BECAUSE the rest of the city is not transit or walking friendly at all. The giant garages sponsored by the City of SJ don’t help, and the fact that offices are not located in high density buildings but in “office parks” away from downtown hurts big time. A viable downtown exists, only the people and the urban planners need to come.

    - I think the Capitol Expy LRT extension might actually see good ridership. If you’ve ridden a 22 or 522 any time of day, any day of week, you’ll realize what I mean. East San Jose is THE corridor with the heaviest transit use in SJ, and it makes great sense to invest in transit there.

  • Winston

    The biggest problem with VTA’s light rail is that after their initial line (which wasn’t a terrible design) they extended it in the worst possible ways. The extensions along Tasman only serve sprawling office parks (something light rail does poorly) and force most commuters who come from the south to travel through the slow, street-running downtown segment to get there. The next extension, the Capitol Expressway line takes such a roundabout route, going north to Tasman and then south to downtown that it is much slower getting downtown than just taking a bus. A far saner choice would have been to extend light rail along E. Santa Clara street and Alum rock to serve the dense, close to downtown neighborhoods there. In fact, VTA would have been better off just replacing the 22 bus line on both sides of downtown with light rail, say to the San Tomas expressway in the west and Eastridge Mall in the east. This wouldn’t serve any sprawling office parks on this route, but there are two walkable downtowns along the route (San Jose and Santa Clara) and most of the development along El Camino Real is walkable if not a pedestrian paradise, unlike the vast swaths of parking VTA’s light rail currently serves.

  • jon

    i dont understand why so many bay area transit advocates are so against bart to san jose. yes its expensive, dont worry though, voters are willing to foot the bill as theyve now said twice. youve got this large existing transit system (BART) that doesnt serve the largest city in the bay area yet one of the existing lines runs 3/4 of the distance from oakland to san jose. i agree caltrain should be improved but i dont see why that means bart still cant go to san jose. its good to have some redundancy in the regional transportation system. caltrain is better for SF-SJ trips and BART would be better for east bay-SJ trips, but the other transit line would still be an option. and introducing yet another single purpose transit agency in the bay area to run a single commuter rail shuttle between union city/fremont bart to san jose diridon is idiotic and just makes bay area transit more complicated and unattractive to riders. if you want people to use transit you have to make it easy to use which bart will be (one seat ride as part of extensive system) and yet transit especially bart has tremendous political support amongst the public, certainly no easy feat for regional transit. unlike most other places in the country, the bay area public almost unanimously demands better transit and yet the uninspired unambitious bay area transit planners and advocates spend too much time on BATN peddling cheapskate crappy unambitious projects like geary brt. or opposing the central subway and suggesting a cheaper surface alignment… no shit it would be cheaper because it would suck ass inching along slower than a 30-stockton rolling thru chinatown. whats all the bay area transit money being saved up for by skimping on all the planned transit projects now?

    pardon my rant

  • EngineerScotty

    Given that the Bay Area is one giant megalopoiis–here I mean the anchor cities of San Jose, San Francisco, and Oakland, and the numerous smaller cities and communities surrounding them–I think that the biggest failure in the Bay Area is NOBODY is looking at the whole picture, at least not without the competence to do anything about.

    The car-centric culture in the Valley is a problem. But it’s not just a problem for San Jose and for cities to the north (Cupertino, Mountain View, etc)–its also a problem for the throngs of people who work in the Valley but cannot afford to live there, and are driving from affordable (albeit still expensive) towns in far-out East Bay such as Pleasanton and beyond. Yet the Bay Area has a whole pile of distinct transit systems, which don’t work together well as a system at all.

    Some re-zoning might help. Lots of people would love to live in the Valley, and the area’s venture-capital culture tends to prefer startups with a Valley address–but it’s so expensive. One would think that the response of the market would be to increase density–to see more vertical office complexes and urban living, which there has to be a demand for… yet such things don’t come into existence.

    Compared to this, I supsect that addressing ridership problems on VTA are small potatoes.

  • EngineerScotty, the reason the Valley is unaffordable is that the people living in it like it that way. They already own homes, so their cost of living doesn’t go up. Prop 13 limits their property taxes. They can sell for a windfall or borrow large sums of money against their home. People of lower social classes can’t afford to live in such towns as Palo Alto and Menlo Park, so the people living in those towns don’t have to deal with diversity.

  • Dustin

    I can understand the value of better connections between San Jose and the East Bay, but doesn’t a pretty good one already exist — Amtrak California’s Capitol Corridor? Could expanding mainline train service possibly be a better use of resources than a costly BART extension?

  • EngineerScotty

    Ah yes, I forgot about how Prop 13 distorts the real estate market in California.

  • Winston

    Dustin,

    The Amtrak Capitol Corridor doesn’t currently provide useful commute hour service into San Jose because there is a long single track section in San Jose that they share with freight and the Altamont Commuter Express. Work is currently under way to add a second track to the southern end of section which will allow roughly hourly service between San Jose and Oakland and should make the CC much more useful for commuters. Upgrading to service every 15 mins between the Union City BART station and San Jose would cost around $1.5 billion (it would involve building a long causeway next to the current causeway over a marsh and extensive track work in Fremont). Upgrading the entire CC to this frequency would cost significantly more since it would involve a lot of expensive new track. It would still probably be cheaper than BART and it would get people to the northern part of VTA’s light rail, Downtown Santa Clara, Downtown San Jose and the airport faster because of its much more direct route.

  • “Upgrading the entire CC to this frequency would cost significantly more since it would involve a lot of expensive new track. It would still probably be cheaper than BART and it would get people to the northern part of VTA’s light rail, Downtown Santa Clara, Downtown San Jose and the airport faster because of its much more direct route.”

    Amen. Amusingly, Carl Guardino, the patron saint of BART to San Jose, has recommended extending the LR lines with Bus Rapid Transit because it’s a more efficient use of transit dollars.

  • david vartanoff

    . Expecting sprawl density to generate transit ridership is silly at best. VTA cannot succeed until the miles of low rise offices in huge parking lots are changed into higher ride buildings with housing taking up the land now wasted on parking.
    As to BART to SJ, the same density lack means this extension is a money sink even by BART standards. The cost of upgrading the CC is much lower, allows greater route flexibility, and if done right directly adjacent stations to transfer to/from BART. A great upgrade would be an elevator to a station on Tasman directly above the Great America CC/ACE station.

  • Winston

    David,
    San Jose is denser than a lot of cities that have much more successful light rail systems including Portland, San Diego, Denver Dallas and Sacramento. Heck, even sprawling Phoenix, gets more ridership and more ridership per mile than San Jose. The problem isn’t lack of density, the problem is the routing of the system.

    By the way, I agree with you about the need to improve connectivity between ACE/Amtrak and VTA light rail, either by building an elevator and moving the LR station or by providing a direct level walkway between the current Amtrak station and the current LR station. The current situation which forces people to walk up a staircase and then walk down to the light rail station is nearly the worst imaginable.

  • Jarrett M.

    I echo the comments regarding SJ’s weak transit oriented development. As others have mentioned, the VTA light rail system was built for a dense urban environment. This is especially true in the North San Jose area where trains run in the median of roads and must face traffic signals when crossing streets. Unfortunately, the nearby development doesn’t mesh with what the system was designed for. For instance, Cisco Systems has many large buildings along the Tasman light rail corridor, but the buildings are surrounded by acres of free parking and massive, multi-lane arterials with pedestrian-unfriendly light cycles and street design. If these areas were designed on a smaller, pedestrian-oriented scale, the system would serve it very well with frequent stops and relatively rapid service. Unfortunately, light rail operates like a streetcar in these most sprawling, pedestrian-unfriendly areas imaginable.

    As others have mentioned, VTA seems to be giving up on light rail. Many of the new transit priority corridors are slated for Bus Rapid Transit instead of rail. While the extensions to Eastridge Shopping Center and Vasona Junction will likely happen, the Santa Clara Street and San Carlos Street corridors will probably be BRT. As the Downtown-East Valley project advances, VTA defined the Santa Clara rail option as “single car light rail” and the train will not have dedicated lanes downtown. This is unfortunate because these two corridors are already dense, have high bus ridership, and support the kind of service light rail provides.

  • Daniel Krause

    The City of San Jose is planning for significant new transit-oriented development along a good portion of North 1st Street (where two LRT lines currently operate). May not happen as soon as planned due to the economy, but should help increase LRT ridership to a certain degree.

  • Steve T

    Yonah, Downtown SJ is not as tenuous as you believe. Downtown has exploded and grew way, way faster than anyone ever thought. Just go to your main library’s California history room and look at vision of downtown SJ in the future back in 1980, and surely enough, downtown is even better than imagined back then. We thought we would have 7 million sq. ft. office space downtown but got 9 million, and we thought we would have 1,000 housing but got 8,500 instead. Before lightrail downtown, downtown was a wasteland. Get your facts straight and stop being ingnorant.

  • On a recent trip to San Jose, I found the VTA light rail to be the perfect solution for briding locally-walkable areas that were just too far apart from each other to walk. I also reject the notion that downtown Joser is unwalkable – it certainly beats the carp out of any midwestern CBD I’m familiar with. And what’s more, even tourists from non-transit communities all over the country were willing to use it: http://cartky.org/node/335

    The only walkability deathmarch that went a little sour for us was a walk from the VTA express bus to our semi-unwalkable hotel, a distance of ~3mi on a busy multi-laner. We should have taken the light rail like google transit told us to.

    For crying out loud, even walking to the AIRPORT was a success! So I just don’t buy these “San Jose is unwalkable” or “VTA Light Rail is not good” arguments. They were tools that work hand in glove, and by my midwestern standards the result is a grand slam.

  • jon

    theres some shots of the VTA LRT route around Great America circa 1987 in this video, its a real shame that this area was completely undeveloped when the LRT line went in and that despite that they built standard issue auto-centric office parks. hell they hadnt even built the adjacent roads that the LRT line would run down the median of. talk about a missed opportunity to design from the start a transit oriented community, but then again that was the 80s.

    the other thing that hurt the LRT line was that the route south of downtown was originally going to operate in the median of an at-grade expressway, unfortunately that expressway turned into a full fledged grade separated freeway.

  • zweisystem

    There is a confusion in North America for the role of light-rail and metro, with planners designing expensive metro type systems (Seattle) and wanting them to operate as trams and tram systems/LRT systems and wanting them to operate as metros!

    http://railforthevalley.wordpress.com/2009/05/20/is-lrt-becoming-the-new-light-metro/

    Metro is built, or should be, when ridership on a transit route demands long trains, operating short headways, necessitating grade separated routes.

    Light rail is built, or should be built, when ridership on a bus route exceeds about 2,000 persons per hour per direction. This is because one modern streetcar/LRV (1 driver) is as efficient as six to eight buses (6 to 8 bus drivers) and not forgetting that for every bus it LRV operated, one must hire 3 to 5 people to maintain, drive, and manage them.

    The idea of building extremely high density housing at LRT stops or stations is counter productive because only a small percentage will use the light rail, with the rest using cars.

    This precisely what has happened in Vancouver Canada, where the SkyTrain light-metro system (subsidized by over $280 million annually) has create high density nodes at some stations, but has not stopped car use.

    80% of SkyTrain’s ridership first takes a bus to the metro and ridership modal share has remained at 11% to 12% for almost two decades, with ridership increasing at about the rate of population growth. There has been no modal shift from car to metro and the SkyTrain system seems to give existing bus customers a slower overall journey time by forcing transfers.

    To be successful LRT must serve the ‘burbs and major transit destinations, it must go, where the customer wants to go, if not the car just becomes a simpler transit solution.

    http://railforthevalley.wordpress.com/2009/09/16/commuting-is-harder-now/

    It’s time that North American transit planners start building LRT for what it is, an affordable transit mode that bridges the gap between what bus can carry and the ridership that demands a metro, not as a poor-man’s metro or subway.

  • The article begins with the claim “VTA, unlike most other modern systems, has had trouble attracting ridership.”

    Where do you get your numbers to support that claim? Research by the Department of Transportation, Harvard Economists and Danish scholars all demonstrate that the vast majority of modern rail lines rarely attain forecasted ridership numbers.

    In fact, ridership is perilously low compared to forecasts, on average around 50-60%. In the case of Jacksonville, FLA, that number is as low as 5%.

  • EngineerScotty

    Cite?

    Not that I disbelieve you–overpromising to obtain funding is a common practice in both public and private sector project planning. But if you’re gonna cite “the Department of Transportation, Harvard Economists, and Danish scholars”, it’s a) useful to read the research ourselves, and know b) who, exactly, you are talking about. While the DOT (which one, BTW?) may well speak with a uniform voice and have an institutional opinion, its unlikely that this is true for either the Harvard Department of Economics, or the country of Denmark. Quoting in this manner might lead the unwary to assume that all “Harvard economists” and “Danish scholars”, or a significant fraction thereof, are in agreement on this issue–a state of affairs which I seriously doubt.

    Since you mentioned Jacksonville specifically, that city is a horrible place to put mass transit of any sort. It’s a huge, low-density sprawling mess; with a significant number of residents who view public transit as a form of communism or similar nonsense.

  • Steven, I’ve read otherwise – that the 1980s ridership projections were overblown, but more recent projections often aren’t. For example, the light rail systems in Phoenix and Charlotte, which were opened this decade, both exceeded expectations.

  • Woody

    Steven’s claims are stale, very outdated, and probably ideologically determined. Beginning back in the 70s, some quasi-experimental transit efforts were over-hyped. Jacksonville, FL, Morgantown, W Va,, that loop-de-loo in Detroit, a couple others. Some right-wing propagandists ate well off those failures for a decade or more. In fact, I believe Wendell Cox and one or two others still make a good living off the old-time mistakes.

    But in THIS century, new rail systems are doing damn well overall. More recent and better facts:

    The light rail system in Phoenix is running about 30% ahead of projections.

    http://dancody.org/archives/new-phoenix-light-rail-system-exceeding-ridership-projections.html

    Houston is running a decade ahead of its forecasts.
    http://www.progressiverailroading.com/news/article.asp?id=17943

    In the Twin Cities, the Hiawatha line beat it’s 2020 projections two years after opening.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiawatha_Line

    And Denver is doing well.

    http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/local/article/0,1299,DRMN_15_5418506,00.html

    “Early new light rail project ridership estimates were greatly exaggerated during the early and mid 1980s, as highlighted in the Urban Mass Transit Administration-financed report, Urban Rail Transit Projects: Forecast Versus Actual Ridership and Costs (1989). This is to be expected when there is little upon which to base estimates.

    “New regulations and oversight by the Federal Transit Administration, and experiential data has solved this problem, and in most cases, have caused underestimates of ridership levels. For example, Baltimore’s light rail has seen their ridership increase seven-fold since 1992.

    “When planned and implemented correctly, projections and estimates are very accurate. For example:

    “Salt Lake City’s light rail system, TRAX, projected initial weekday ridership of 14,000. Actual ridership for first four months was 19,000 per weekday. Saturday ridership was even higher at 25,000. TRAX also came in a year ahead of schedule and $23 million under budget.

    “When Portland’s MAX system opened in 1998, critics argued the 2005 ridership projections were overly optimistic. MAX surpassed it’s 2005 projections by its second anniversary, carrying 71,000 riders per day.”

    http://www.cfte.org/critics/what.asp#1

    Pardon me if I’ve left out a few — St Louis and others.

  • jackson

    I lived in San jose for 25 years. Never have I used this rail. It just never crossed my mind or never was it a viable option to solve my transportation problem. Every time I see it, its looks slow, forlorn and sad.

  • jackson

    San Jose is an inappropriate city for light rail, so is congested and hilly San Francisco. San Jose is spread wide and out and evenly populated. The city centre is really not a centrer, not a huge population goes in an out of it. Because work is done everywhere and life is lived everywhere in San Jose a rail system which usually has specific origin and destination can’t really serve much purpose. The best thing for San Jose is build more roads.

  • jackson

    Nerds don’t like high rise building. Its just not silicon valley’s culture to work in high rise buildings in a city centre. You leave that to banks. High tech industries be it computer or bio like to build their secluded campuses surrounded with huge parking areas. The last thing people whose heads are buzzing from too much bits is walk to a train station. nooooo waaaay. Now a days people sit in their cars, park their cars in bumper to bumper traffic and pass the time surfing the net or watching porn.

  • Dexter Wong

    What about those people who work at Google and take the company bus from their homes in San Francisco and elsewhere? They don’t don’t have to fight the traffic and work from their seats with wi-fi. What about those people who work in bio-tech and also ride company buses? Not everyone in the valley drives. Jackson, you act like public transit is a waste of taxpayer money.

  • Dexter Wong

    With regard to San Francisco light rail, it is an outgrowth of the city’s streetcar system. Yes, San Francisco has had streetcars for over 120 years and the city depends on it (although they complain a lot about it, the complaints are worse when it is not running). In San Jose, light rail may be an afterthought, but in San Francisco it is an important part of city transportation.

  • Dexter Wong

    Also, don’t forget about those who commute using ACE (Altamont Commuter Express) from San Joaquin County. It makes a long commute bearable.

  • Reedman

    The new 49ers stadium is on the VTA Light Rail line, and VTA would be insane not to provide a good transit experience to the stadium. VTA Light Rail will likely also get a boost in usage once the BART extension is operating. The Great Mall/Milpitas will be where the two systems cross. [Metcalfe's Law (from the inventor of Ethernet): 'the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connections'.]

  • Eric

    Speaking as a high-tech nerd, I think that most tech campuses are in outlying areas because 1) the industry developed in the 60s-70s-80s when suburbia was at its most popular, unlike banking/law which has existed for centuries; 2) the industry used to be based on large industrial operations, like semiconductor fabs, which could not easily be built in cities.

    The first factor boils down to inertia, and will gradually change over time, if cities continue to regain their attractiveness. The second factor is still true for many companies – but less so for Internet companies like Google, which can put their engineers (though not their server farms) in cities, and we see that they are doing so.

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