The Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal recently released an article and an editorial about the El Camino Real BRT Project. Both require subscriptions to access the entire content.
The article concerns the effect that Sunnyvale’s council decision has on the planning process for BRT on El Camino Real, noting that the absence of Sunnyvale’s support for dedicated lanes combined with their geographical location in the center of the corridor make dedicated lanes outside of Santa Clara unlikely.
The editorial supports improving mass transportation as a way to address growing automobile congestion and focuses on the Sunnyvale BRT decision as an example of local politics holding back a worthwhile regional transit project.
Interestingly, both pieces present the El Camino Real BRT project in the context of a congestion alleviation strategy. The article features a quote from Sunnyvale Councilmember Dave Whittum who states that the BRT project was not among the city’s “traffic congestion priorities.” The editorial cites congestion reduction as a reason to support improved transit. While improving transit can be an effective strategy to address traffic congestion in certain cases, the notion that the purpose of the El Camino Real BRT project is to reduce congestion is not accurate. The editorial author and councilmember are not alone in this misperception. Several members of the public and elected officials have made similar statements to us over the past two years.
It’s true that some riders are projected to switch from autos to BRT with the project, but it’s also the case that the project would remove an auto lane from El Camino Real–not exactly a congestion-reducing move. In fact, our computer transportation model projects that the reduction of one-third of the auto capacity on El Camino Real would cause some drivers who would have used El Camino Real to opt for other, faster routes if a dedicated lane were installed. The end result is that traffic congestion in a dedicated lane configuration–measured in terms of seconds of delay at intersections–wouldn’t change much as the two-thirds of drivers who stay on El Camino Real would fit the two-thirds of the auto capacity that would remain.
The merit of the project, as VTA has presented it, is in the transit and bicycle improvements which provide better mobility options on a vibrant corridor. Increasing transit speeds with the addition of a dedicated lane moves people faster, increases ridership, lowers operating costs, improves fare-box recovery and improves on-time arrivals. The transit improvement and the addition of bicycle lanes attract some folks away from driving which reduces vehicle miles traveled and improves air quality.
So, it’s a bit odd that the prevailing narrative about the project is one of congestion alleviation. Are we naturally so auto-focused that the argument in favor of improving transit is based around the auto advantage? Or is increasing mobility options and improving the quality of a transit trip just not an appealing argument?