Downtown San Jose could look very different in 30 years. There could be more two-way streets, bicycle lanes and faster light rail. The future is being planned right now, and residents are invited to join.
The city is working on a transportation plan for downtown San Jose, and wants feedback. The city’s goal is to create a more livable downtown over the next 20 to 30 years—attractive to both visitors and residents.
“We’re proud to say this is a transportation plan, and transportation is not the end goal of the plan,” Eric Eidlin, a department of transportation project manager, told San José Spotlight. “The end goal is the city we want.”
The city wants input from residents, spokesperson Colin Heyne told San José Spotlight. The website with details on the plan’s proposals is accepting feedback through Feb. 18. The plan will be finalized by the end of spring and presented to the City Council for consideration later this summer.
San Jose’s transportation department initiated the plan in 2019 in response to the city considering approval of Google’s Downtown West project. Approved by the City Council last year, the project will span 80 acres near Diridon Station and add up to 25,000 office workers in the area. Boosters hope the project will help rejuvenate downtown, which has suffered during the pandemic and struggled to market itself as the true heart of Silicon Valley.
Project manager Wilson Tam said the plan is meant to figure out how to accommodate the anticipated growth downtown while also addressing existing transportation issues.
“The outcome of this effort is really to identify a list of transportation solutions,” Tam told San José Spotlight.
To date, the plan envisions redesigning downtown into a network of streets tailored for drivers, transit riders, cyclists and pedestrians. It also proposes several big changes, such as transforming Santa Clara Street into a grand boulevard prioritizing transit and commercial business or finding a way to bridge the neighborhood barrier caused by Highway 87. The plan won’t implement these big moves, but will gauge community support for pursuing them down the road.
The plan already reflects feedback submitted by hundreds of residents over the past two years. Trami Cron, executive artistic director of Chopsticks Alley Art, served as a city partner, facilitating outreach to the Asian community.
“I would like to see downtown be safer—it does not feel safe to me,” Cron told San José Spotlight. “And public transportation needs to be easier to use—it’s very confusing.”
Cleaner, greener transportation
The downtown transportation plan is also supposed to be in alignment with San Jose’s goals to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions over the next two decades. The plan seeks to reduce the percentage of single-driver trips through downtown from 60% to 25% by 2040.
The project managers emphasize the plan isn’t a war against cars. Rather, the city wants to design streets to be more appropriate for different modes of transportation, such as installing dedicated bus lanes in transit corridors or building protected bike lanes on designated streets.
“We are trying to create a balanced network to accommodate the diverse needs of the street users, including drivers, the transit riders, the pedestrians and the cyclists,” Tam said.
Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association, told San José Spotlight for a decade his organization has pushed for a transportation plan to deal with growing density in the area. He supports the vision of transforming Santa Clara Street into a grand boulevard, but he’s less clear on how the city intends to make the downtown area less car-centric and more accommodating to other modes of transportation.
“I’m hopeful that’s something the transportation plan addresses as well,” he said.
There is no current cost estimate for the plan, and the big proposals—like finding a way to connect neighborhoods split by Highway 87—would require significant environmental reviews. Some of the ideas are more easily achievable: Heyne said tailoring certain streets to better accommodate cyclists or pedestrians could be funded through city programs. The city can also partner with developers to fund infrastructure changes.
Vignesh Swaminathan, a professional engineer and CEO of Crossroad Lab, said historically, people didn’t want to live downtown, so the area is covered in one-way streets to get people in and out faster. He approved of the plan’s proposal to transform some into two-way streets.
“Downtown—if this is all executed properly—could be one of the most active downtowns in the country,” he told San José Spotlight.
Jayme Ackemann, fund development and marketing manager for Community Bridges, says the plan proposes useful changes, but wonders if it’s too late.
“It remains to be seen whether traffic patterns and a regular workforce commute will ever really return post-pandemic,” Ackemann told San José Spotlight. “There will always be transit demand, but I don’t know whether the traditional service models will apply in the future.”
Tam acknowledged San Jose has never had an easy time attracting visitors outside of conventions, and this trend has worsened in the pandemic. He noted people who live downtown still need to be served by its infrastructure, and many of them have expressed a desire for enhanced safety and more open spaces. Adding these benefits will hopefully draw in more visitors.