» 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.