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Bus Lanes Critical to El Camino's Transformation

A disappointing chorus of skepticism emanated from City Hall last Tuesday on the subject of bus rapid transit in Mountain View.

Santa Clara County’s segment of El Camino Real is on the cusp of major changes.

All of the cities along El Camino targeted the corridor to accommodate future growth in a manner that is far different from the status quo. Santa Clara is taking the lead by embracing the Grand Boulevard Initiative and spearheading the transition from ugly expressway to multimodal promenade. The city plans for wide sidewalks, bike lanes and storefronts built right to the street. 

Critical to this vision is frequent, fast and reliable transit. Along with the bike, pedestrian and urban design improvements, Santa Clara is facilitating robust transit service by replacing two of the six auto lanes with dedicated bus lanes and light rail-like stations.

While this proposal was broached among local authorities, it parallels Valley Transportation Authority’s overall vision to bring bus rapid transit service to the county’s stretch of El Camino Real between San Jose and Palo Alto. This project will bring much-needed improvements to VTA's highest ridership corridor with 10-minute frequencies and a 30 percent travel time reduction from local service. Dedicated bus-only lanes are key to maintaining reliability and mobility in the worst traffic congestion. 

Unfortunately, at a meeting last Tuesday, the Mountain View City Council was much more tepid on exclusive bus lanes than their Santa Clara counterparts. 

Following a presentation from VTA staff that proposed two dedicated bus lanes, four auto lanes and two bike lanes for El Camino, the majority of council members questioned the need for exclusive lanes and said they felt auto throughput was paramount in mobility considerations for the corridor.

Councilman Tom Means described his ambivalence to dedicated lanes as “a question of equity.” In reality, mobility investments in Santa Clara County and Mountain View are dedicated almost entirely to private automobiles. An oversupply of parking is required by city codes, and the region is crisscrossed by massive arterials and freeways. Dedicating two lanes to transit on El Camino would go a long way to making mobility more equitable, not less. 

Other opposition revolved around misguided concerns about traffic congestion. Councilwoman Laura Macias said, “objectively, I think mixed flow works for us.” An objective deduction from the traffic data leads one to conclude that dedicated lanes are a superior option, compared with the six-lane status quo. 

Valid are the concerns of redirected traffic. VTA's model predicts increased traffic on surrounding streets under the four-lane option. However, the city can implement design mitigations on the peripheral streets that will maintain the quality of life for nearby residents.

Jarrett Mullen July 09, 2011 at 02:45 AM
I think the "rapid" name is a little ambiguous. It's rapid compared to local bus service and shares a lot of similarities with our light rail system (with the exception of low ridership, because this service will be near a lot of destinations) rather than Caltrain. Compared to Caltrain, the BRT will have an average operating speed of 21-25mph whereas Caltrain's is 35-45. Like Daniel said, El Camino is quite far from Caltrain in most parts of the corridor and has a lot of destinations right on the street which is why the corridor has VTA's highest ridership. Even in Mountain View, the "2" blocks from El Camino to San Antonio Caltrain are supersized, pedestrian unfriendly blocks that take 10-15 minutes to traverse. In Santa Clara and Sunnyvale the distance is even more. I hear you on additional stops and pedestrian crossings. I think we might be able to pull for an additional stop at El Monte and El Camino. There's several large parcels there that may be redeveloped in the future and it's currently a neighborhood activity center. On the pedestrian crossings, there's a section El Camino between Shoreline and El Monte where there are zero crosswalks. That's over 1 mile between crossings. We need new mid-block crossings and VTA seemed willing to install them as part of exclusive lanes. I disagree with allowing additional vehicles, though. The "R" in BRT can also stand for reliability. Dedicated lanes will keep service dependable and reliable no matter what the traffic.
Jarrett Mullen July 09, 2011 at 02:59 AM
Danny, Thanks for the comment and mentioning the strong ridership VTA already experiences on this corridor. I know VTA had approximately 20,000 riders on the El Camino-Alum Rock corridor 10 years ago, and I believe it's nearly 30,000 or 3/4 of the entire light rail system ridership. This is a very prudent upgrade that will benefit many persons.
Jarrett Mullen July 09, 2011 at 05:21 AM
(2 of 2) Even if traffic was to get somewhat worse under the four lane option, I think traffic flow shouldn’t be the only consideration for the corridor. A lot of new residents and businesses will be along El Camino in 2035 and it can’t remain the same auto-oriented unlivable corridor it is today. Perhaps an additional station at El Monte and El Camino would be a good addition to the project to better serve current and future residents and further transform the corridor. Finally, I’m almost positive that ECR is the same width in Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, and Mountain View. The medians are different widths, but I think we can sacrifice some of our median for more reliable transit. While San Jose doesn’t have exclusive lanes in their Alameda-Plan for a Beautiful Way document, they are removing two lanes of traffic on the Alameda.
Jarrett Mullen July 09, 2011 at 05:22 AM
Councilmember Macias, thank you for the reply. (1 of 2) At the council study session I got the impression that VTA staff were willing to add mid-block crosswalks and maintain existing left turns and mid block crosswalks as part of the exclusive lanes alternative. Even if VTA were indifferent on those ideas, I think we could influence the outcome so we retain and improve access while improving transit with exclusive lanes. For the traffic models, I may be misinterpreting VTA’s intersection LOS/traffic analysis chart (attached to this article), but it looks like traffic flows the same or better with the exclusive lane option when compared with the 6 lane status quo. Granted, there’s no data for the “limited access” intersections because I’m assuming they were planning to eliminate left turns at those intersections.
Katherine Forrest July 29, 2011 at 04:34 PM
To see how bus rapid transit can work, come see a film tonight. The film is “A Convenient Truth.” Cities around the world look to Curitiba, Brazil as the model for creative and enlightened urban planning. Over the past 40 years, Curitiba has demonstrated how to transform problems into cost-effective solutions that can be applied in most cities around the world. Location: Fenwick and West Silicon Valley Center, 801 California Street, Mountain View, 7:00 pm–9:00 pm. There will be an open conversation afterwards about how the ideas in the film may be relevant for Mountain View.

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