Missing Ingredient for Successful Transit

Mixed land use and transit stops are the bread and butter of attractive public transit, yet cities continue to constrain zoning to single uses.

If you’ve traveled down West Evelyn Avenue recently, you may have noticed a new apartment building rising from the site of Minton’s lumber. Google’s satellite view also captured the site post-demolition.

Just a year ago, the fate of this project was unknown and the approval process dissolved into an acrimonious dispute over density, parking, and traffic. Opponents claimed the four story design conflicted with the identity of the surrounding neighborhood and additional residents would induce traffic headaches. Supporters, of which I was one, saw it as an opportunity to add much needed housing in a location close to services and public transport. 

After the project was finally approved, I spoke with a skeptical onlooker and he echoed the traffic concerns, stating that the county’s light rail system is not a realistic substitute for driving. 

Despite my fervent advocacy in favor of the project, his concern resonated with me. Valley Transit Authority has one of the worst performing light rail systems in the nation and the Mountain View, or Tasman West line has seen service whittled away because of weak ridership. 

It’s not uncommon to hear: “light rail doesn’t go where I want to go.” However, this is exactly what the new apartments on Evelyn Avenue will begin to fix. The more origins and destinations near stops, the more places people will be able to reach via transit. 

With that said, increased densities are not the exclusive solution for successful transit. Density must be coupled to a concentrated mix of land uses. That means shops, housing and offices should be within a short walk of the station to generate demand for frequent all-day transit service and support retail business. If the land around stations is developed for a single use, such as offices, travel demand is limited to peak hours and usually in one direction. 

To visualize a single-use district and the problems it creates, travel to East Whisman in Mountain View or Moffett Park in Sunnyvale. Both places are characterized by offices and are served by light rail. Outside of commute times, light rail is barely used and retail is sparse since its difficult to thrive on the 9 to 5 crowd. After 6 p.m., both places are ghost towns. 

Compare these dull environments to thriving peninsula downtowns where shops, housing and offices are intermixed. Judging by recent , the mixed use character of Peninsula downtowns is in demand. Cities would be foolish not to promote this type of environment around other rail stations. 

Despite the momentum towards mixed use, walkable, transit oriented environments cities continue to plan for the past. Mountain View’s General Plan update calls for the East Whisman area to remain exclusively office and new developments lack space for retail. Sunnyvale's Moffett Park Specific Plan has produced similar outcomes. Without retail and housing, these places will remain limited destinations and depress transit service. 

Claudia Cruz (Editor) October 20, 2011 at 04:25 PM
You raise some really thoughtful points Jarrett. In the 16 months I've lived in the South Bay, I've only taken the light rail once--and it was to go pick up a car! However, I'm considering moving to a location that abuts the light rail so that my roommate and I can commute together. I'd bring a bike on board and then use that to move around MV. But I agree, I'd take VTA more often if there were things to do at more stops between here and San Jose!
Lisa October 21, 2011 at 12:30 AM
Agreed to multi-use zones - HUGE! Another aspect VTA (and many other transit systems) seem to avoid addressing is creating strategic 'hubs', such that suburbanites can easily drive to, and park at, a place where they can catch an express train or bus to business / retail districts. While it's nice to envision everybody walking to a stop/station, California was designed around the car and door-to-door public transit, for most of us, is unrealistic due to the fact the valley is too spread out to run a good public transit system. By catering to a greater number of valley residents by simply offering distributed parking options, we'd increase ridership, which would increase service frequency, which would make public transit worthwhile for more residents. And really, around here who DOESN'T want to surf the Web instead of sit in traffic?
Chris October 21, 2011 at 03:16 PM
One thing that could be done to improve the ridership, would be to have stops that allow access to the trails, parks and hiking areas. Then you could have a great day exploring the trails, and as you would be worn out on the return trip, relax on VTA.
randy albin October 21, 2011 at 08:04 PM
perhaps shorten the time required to wait between the stops. this service is somewhat unreliable at best
Paul W October 21, 2011 at 08:20 PM
I've never seen a more poorly designed system than Light Rail. Half of the stops drop you off in the middle of nowhere, useless unless you happen to work in that particular office. Moffett Field, River Oaks, Curtner and Capitol Stations...there is NOTHING you can get to within walking distance to even grab a bottle of water. Even places where stops make sense like Great America and downtown San Jose, all have one fatal flaw: the rail goes right through major street traffic routes and is reduced to a crawl. So even if you are lucky enough to work and live where you can do point-to-point commuting, it still takes 2-3x as long to do the rail commute as opposed to driving, even in hellish Bay Area rush hour traffic. I don't understand why VTA didn't elevate the tracks or go underground through these busy areas...every other transit system I know does. I live in Milpitas not far from the Cropley station and work in Mountain View near Google. On a bad traffic day my commute is about 45 minutes, 25 minutes on a good day. If I took public transit, there is ONE morning time (from 6:30am) and ONE afternoon time (from 4:30pm) for a 1.5 hour commute. If I miss either of those times...it would take 2.5 hours to get home!! In fact, I believe the Great Mall is the only stop that is built with any common sense...elevated, with a station well away from the busy traffic, and stopping at a major retail location.
Claudia Cruz (Editor) October 21, 2011 at 11:34 PM
That's a great idea too! Someone suggested to me that VTA should have actually continued to Rengstorff Ave, which makes sense. The park is there and its a high density area.
Jarrett Mullen October 22, 2011 at 09:08 AM
Lisa, thanks for the comment. A lot of the VTA light rail stations have park and ride lots and all of the South Bay Caltrain stations have park and ride lots. Building parking is a difficult policy decision because the land that parking consumes is adjacent to the transit station and the most desirable for transit oriented development. Additionally, parking garages are extremely expensive– They usually cost between $20-30,000 per space. While certain stations way out at the end of a line justify large parking facilities, I think land next to most stations should be reserved for the type of development you and I are thinking of. Again, not all station areas fit this mold, but nothing kills the vibrancy of an area quite like a giant parking garage or parking lot.
Jarrett Mullen October 22, 2011 at 09:15 AM
Chris, A lot of VTA routes get pretty close to parks and trails but I would imagine cost keeps service from directly serving these areas. With that said, I've used VTA to access the San Tomas Creek trail from the Great America station and you can ride or walk out to the Bay which is nice. I've also rode from the end of the Almaden line over the hill to Santa Teresa and connected with the Santa Teresa line which was challenging, but scenic. Claudia, VTA had long-range plans to extend light rail to Palo Alto via Central/Alma and Rengstorff probably would've been a stop since they keep stations about .5 miles apart.
Jarrett Mullen October 23, 2011 at 08:28 AM
Paul, Thanks for sharing your experiences. Yeah, those stations are pretty isolated. Before the economy tanked, River Oaks was going to get a big makeover with a mix of 14 and 6 story residential towers with a grocery store and other retail on the ground floor. This is the type of development that makes transit work. You can get off the train, pick up some groceries on the walk home and enjoy the Guadalupe River park behind your house. It's a complete package Here's an image: http://www.ro-na.org/projects/PDC07-057/wyse_elevation.gif It's rare for light rail to tunnel under or rise over roadways because of the cost. Cities that have light rail like Denver, Portland, Sacramento and Dallas all have at-grade light rail alignments through their downtowns since tunneling is so expensive. Fortunately, VTA is aware of the deficiencies in the system and they’re working to address some of the issues. They hope to increase speeds on N. First street and grade separate Montague/ North First street which will alleviate some of the delays and slowdowns trains experience on North First. The Mountain View line will also get a new peak-period express from Alum Rock to Downtown Mountain View. It’s supposed to chop 10ish minutes off the travel time so that means your ride from Cropley to downtown Mountain View would be 30 minutes instead of 45. here's the improvement page: http://www.vta.org/studies/lrt_system_analysis/index.html
Brandi Childress - VTA Spokeslady October 24, 2011 at 09:33 PM
It's no secret that VTA has its challenges operating a successful transit network in a region where land use patterns strongly favor the automobile. No matter the hand that was dealt, VTA is working on many fronts to provide faster, more frequent light rail service and bus rapid transit network that will be more relevant to the needs of the Valley. This fall, VTA will begin planning and engineering work necessary to implement key recommendations of the 2010 Light Rail System Analysis (as Jarrett points out). Staff also work with various jurisdictions countywide to promote joint development and identify opportunities for transit-oriented development. One example of recent coordination is the City of Santa Clara’s General Plan Update, which supports intensifying land use around transit. VTA is also working with MTC and ABAG to implement the landmark greenhouse gas emissions reductions Senate Bill 375, through the Regional Transportation Planning process, which will incentivize funding for municipalities and transit agencies with land use/transportation plans that demonstrate the highest potential to reduce greenhouse emissions. Local ideas and support is critical to transit realizing its potential to increase mobility, support economic vitality, reduce congestion, and improve quality of life in the Valley. For more information about all of VTA's planning efforts, please visit http://www.vta.org/projects/studies.html.
Claudia Cruz (Editor) October 24, 2011 at 09:37 PM
Thanks for including an official VTA voice Brandi. This should surely provide more information for this engaging discussion.
Jarrett Mullen October 26, 2011 at 06:06 AM
Brandi, Thanks for updating everyone on the projects VTA is undertaking to improve transit in the context of greenhouse gas emission reduction and land use planning. Judging from VTA's bus system revisions and simmering light rail improvements It's clear that VTA is much more proactive in planning and collaboration than in the past.


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