Ride on: Bay Area public transit works to ease traffic woes | Crain's Silicon Valley

Ride on: Bay Area public transit works to ease traffic woes

  • Passengers board an SFMTA bus in Chinatown. | Photo by Jim Watkins

    Passengers board an SFMTA bus in Chinatown. | Photo by Jim Watkins

Bay Area native Dan Lieberman, the public affairs specialist at Caltrain/SamTrans, remarks that he currently commutes to his job along the same bus route he long ago rode to middle school.

Lieberman spoke with Crain about the ways in which Silicon Valley’s overcrowding problem affects not only the housing market but also the Bay Area transit situation in general. Systems such as Caltrain and the Valley Transit Authority, and thoroughfares such as U.S. Route 101, are suffering under the crush of tech commuters, Lieberman said.

And although its staggering travel numbers may never be entirely alleviated, the Bay Area’s transit agencies nonetheless have solutions in the works. The Caltrain Modernization (CalMod) program, the Dumbarton Corridor restoration and the Traffic Signal Priority plan all are finding their place on the peninsula.

Q: What can you say about Caltrain’s plan to electrify?

A: This subject has been discussed since maybe the ‘80s. But we finally got [federal funding] in April, and now it’s underway. This will give us an electrified fleet we’re looking to have running by 2021, which will allow for a 21 percent increase in daily ridership. At the moment we’re working with some trains that are almost 40 years old, near the end of their lifespan. So it’s a good time for us to make that switch to a really modern fleet.

[Electric transport] is generally more efficient, with lower fuel costs. Those aren’t the only costs involved, but the plan is that funding we’ve raised should be able to take care of electrification.

Q: Which station would you say is the busiest right now?

A: San Francisco station has the top ridership, which is not terribly surprising. Number two is Palo Alto, home of the Stanford campus. San Jose is in the three spot. Those are the big ones, though [Google hometown] Mountain View is right behind them.

Q: How does the housing-shortage crisis in the Bay Area contribute to congestion and long commutes?

A: Going from San Francisco to San Jose is a long distance, even without traffic — and there’s a tremendous amount of traffic. A lot of people are making just really crazy [commuting] trips. This is one of our thoughts behind the Dumbarton [Transportation Corridor] study, which looks at ways to reduce traffic congestion among Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

The goal of interlining Caltrain service with ACE Capitol Corridor on the other side of the Bay is [to offer a way that] people living so far out in less-expensive housing [can] hop on a train to commute. With housing [costing what it does], a lot of people are living very far afield from where they’re working. And until a solution to that is figured out, I think it’s up to transit agencies to make sure people have a means of getting where they need to go.

Q: What is the Traffic Signal Priority plan, and how will it help bus commuters?

A: The VTA used the TSP just south of us, in Santa Clara County, and it’s been pretty commonly adapted. Essentially, it’s for use specifically along El Camino Real, a major thoroughfare going through much of the peninsula and running somewhat parallel to [U.S. Route] 101. It’s also home to the ECR bus route, our most popular. [With the TSP,] when a bus would be cruising down El Camino, the traffic lights would recognize that it’s coming. A green light would hold another 10 seconds or so for the bus to make it. The idea is to have buses spend less time idling in traffic and more time keeping people moving.

According to our estimates, the TSP should result in about a 10 percent improvement in on-time performance, saving [an average of] about 12 minutes on the ECR. We’ve got the funding, and TSP is being implemented. We should have a final design by June of next year and be operational by about 2020.

Q: Do you think the young people moving in have a different mindset about the importance of convenient housing and transportation?

A: I think this idea of young people not wanting to have cars is a little overstated. Young people are less likely to own cars than folks in previous generations, but I don’t think as many people are willing to cut the car cord [as is sometimes claimed].

Q: Do you think it’s possible, with these various transit options, to live in this area without a car?

A: It’s more likely now than even a decade ago; technology is closing that gap.

Just recently I was at the ribbon-cutting for the new interchange at Broadway and 101; I learned there that a quarter of a million cars go under that interchange every day. This is a little north of San Mateo, so just about equidistant between San Francisco and San Jose. And I was thinking that if Caltrain wasn’t there, it would mean a 20 percent increase in people commuting on the 101 — which would be horrible. So this whole public-transit system is really quite necessary.

September 25, 2017 - 3:01am