Last month, San Jose became the initial “Transit First” city in Santa Clara County. While it will take time for San Jose to truly become a city where public transit is prioritized, improved and seen as a better option than driving, this policy represents a shift in priorities.
For decades, the city has prioritized cars on city streets, but under this new policy, the city will play an active role in making public transit better.
People assume public transit is slow in San Jose and Santa Clara County because of VTA, but speed improvements are actually under the control of cities and the county for unincorporated areas and county expressways. Local jurisdictions can lead in improving transit speeds through various initiatives, including giving public transit vehicles priority at intersections and providing dedicated bus lanes.
Public transit speeds have slowed significantly in Santa Clara County over the past few decades because the population and traffic have been increasing. According to VTA, transit speeds have declined by approximately 20% over the past three decades.
This means VTA is spending more money to operate less service than they did in the past. This is because as speeds slow down, it takes more buses to maintain the same service frequency. So if transit speeds are increased, VTA can provide more service per dollar, and riders can get to their destinations faster.
As part of the transit first policy, San Jose will prioritize transit in future decision-making and plans with a focus on major streets such as Alum Rock Avenue and Stevens Creek Boulevard.
The first improvement will be transit signal priority on the San Jose portion of bus routes 66, 68 and rapid 568. These routes run through the Monterey corridor, one of the county’s busiest bus corridors. Transit signal priority helps to increase transit speed and reliability by giving transit vehicles—in this case, buses—priority at intersections. This means riders can get to their destination with less time waiting at red lights.
In the past, VTA and other transit agencies have attempted to gather support for rapid transit buses and other more construction-heavy transit speed improvements, only to see them fail or get scaled back due to a lack of support. There is value in these larger-scale projects, but smaller improvements like transit signal priority can be implemented more quickly with less pushback from elected officials, businesses and residents.
San Jose won’t magically have amazing transit overnight as a result of this policy. It will take planning, outreach, community support and money for transit to become a more viable option for San Jose residents. However, it’s a good first step and, hopefully, more cities will follow.
San José Spotlight columnist Monica Mallon is a transit advocate and rider in Santa Clara County, and founder of Turnout4Transit. Her columns appear on the first Thursday of every other month. Contact Monica at [email protected] or follow @MonicaMallon on Twitter.