San Jose Provides Model for Bay Area Growth and Transportation Needs

pbo31_sj_bus_small.jpgPhoto: pbo31

In our ongoing coverage of the adverse affects of traffic engineers’ over-reliance on automobile level of service (LOS) measurements, we’ve examined how new amendments to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) would allow local jurisdictions greater freedom in choosing whether they want to develop their cities for cars or for transit, cycling, and livable streets.  Simply put, if the CEQA amendments are codified, cities all over the state could become more like San Jose.

While San Francisco labors with the development of its auto trip generation (ATG) metric and could spend a year or more setting a development impact fee that would go to improving transit, cycling and pedestrian safety, San Jose completed a citywide transportation environmental impact statement (EIS) in 2002 and adopted its vision for sustainable, transit-oriented growth in 2005 [PDF]. What’s more, this transportation and land-use plan moves San Jose ahead of the curve compared to other cities in meeting the requirements under AB 32 (carbon reduction targets)
and SB 375 (limiting sprawl).

"We want to grow up, not out," said Hans Larsen, Acting Director of San Jose’s Department of Transportation (DOT), noting the city couldn’t accommodate the 400,000 new residents expected by 2030 within San Jose’s current boundaries by adding more sprawling developments and more traffic. "We had a policy conflict between our growth plan, which was really smart-growth, and our transportation management policies, which have historically been oriented toward providing enough capacity for cars."

Transportation Impact Policy 5-3 [PDF] outlines, in essence, two distinct visions for San Jose’s growth, one that preserves the suburban characteristics of far-flung San Jose neighborhoods (LOS level D is still the limit), the other that targets high-density development and growth along transit corridors within designated Special Planning Areas (SPAs), primarily in the downtown and along the light rail corridor in North San Jose.  In SPAs, LOS is still measured, but if a new development or a transit-only or bicycle lane project were to degrade LOS below level D, the city has decided that this would be acceptable. As a result, along transit corridors in SPAs, the DOT has prioritized the development of bus and transit-only lanes, bicycle lanes, neighborhood traffic calming to reduce cut-through traffic, and pedestrian safety measures, no matter how bad automobile traffic becomes. If a new transportation project improves conditions for efficient, sustainable, and human-scale transportation, it gets priority.

The DOT conceived of the division between the two LOS classification zones for political reasons: they knew they wouldn’t get the council votes needed for passage if they tried to push transit-oriented development on the suburbs. "We had political support from some of the council districts near the
downtown areas for density and lots of transit, [but] it was a
strategic move not to push it everywhere," said Manuel Pineda, Deputy Director of the San Jose DOT.

In essence San Jose DOT has codified the green transportation hierarchy within these SPAs, such that pedestrian safety and accessibility is the top priority, followed by transit and bicycle capacity, with motorist convenience at the bottom. What’s even more encouraging, the progressive transportation policy was promoted from within the agency, without the incessant hounding by advocates that is often required in other Bay Areas cities.

"They are adopting policies that are pretty forward-thinking and visionary when compared to other DOTs across the country," said Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Corinne Winter. "It’s interesting that the city did this on their own; well-meaning people in the DOT started this. It’s only come to the attention of the advocates recently."

Development Impact Fees and Protected Intersections

Because new development will inevitably bring additional car trips, no matter how well situated near transit, the DOT conceived of a development impact fee that is applied to improving pedestrian safety and the sustainable transportation network. In determining the impact fee, the DOT looked at how much, on average, developers traditionally spent on LOS mitigations to increase car capacity. This number, $2,000-3,000 per auto trip generated by the new development, is assessed for developments that create 400 or less net new peak-hour trips. If the project will create more than 400 new peak-hour trips, a fee is determined in the process of environmental review.

Through the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative (SNI) started by former Mayor Ron Gonzales, communities located in the SPAs developed lists of neighborhood priorities, most of them related to transportation and livability. The auto-trip fees from new developments are then distributed by the DOT to meet the needs elaborated in the community’s priority list.

In the process of creating this very strong link between new development and efficient transportation, the DOT designated Protected Intersections along transit corridors. At these intersections, no matter how bad auto LOS would degrade with a transportation or development project, the city will not widen the streets, soften turning radii, or otherwise add vehicle capacity. In fact, the only mitigations permissible are those that calm traffic further, improve transit and bicycle accessibility, or make pedestrian conditions safer. The DOT created an initial list of approximately twenty Protected Intersections when it completed the citywide transportation EIS and the public has added a handful more in subsequent negotiations with the DOT and City Council. 

Because of the broader economic downturn, the policy has yet to realize the full benefits of using development fees to improve sustainable transportation. Four development projects in the SPAs, totaling more than 3,000 residential units, have been approved by the city since the plan was adopted, but none of them has started construction, according to Pineda. The project closest to completing its financing obligations, a residential development that would build on the existing parking lot at the San Jose Flea Market, will provide $1.7 million in impact fees, much of which will go to improve streetscape and pedestrian conditions in a nearby commercial district as established in an SNI priority list.

brt_corridor_before.jpgBRT corridor currently. Photo: San Jose DOT.
brt_corridor_after.jpgBRT corridor as envisioned when develiopment impact fees are applied to transit, bicycle, and pedestrian improvements. Image: San Jose DOT.
  • Mark

    It’s good that they’re trying – particularly the notion of never making improvements for traffic flow – but they’ve got a ways to go. San Jose is a horrendous place for transit. They chose to build light rail because it costs less and can use tighter ROWs, but the net impact is that the LRT runs at 4 mph in a lot of places, and so no one uses it. Hence, no justification for building more.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Wow. Somebody’s furiously chugging the Kool Aid.

    I’ve been to San Jose. I’ve worked in San Jose for years at a time.

    I’ve rolled bowling balls along the sidewalks of TOD-o-riffic billions-wasted-on-light-rail ten-billion-to-DISAPPEAR-WITHOUT-A-TRACE-on-BART four-billion-in-Redevelopment-pork-vanished downtown San Jose and failed to hit a pedestrian.

    I’ve seen the malls that are nowhere near “downtown” San Jose.

    I’ve seen the tens of square miles of annexed sprawl that makes San Jose The Very Most Important City In The Entire Bay Area So Screw You San Francisco and Oakland.

    And as anybody who has visited or lived or worked there can tell you, all this SJ window dressing is purely a way to game regional funding allocation so that the apparatchiks of the City of San Jose (er, that is, San José, Capital of Silicon Valley) can continue to pay themselves and their consultant friends and produce not an iota of visible urban improvement. Look at the RA’s scandalous budgets and complete lack of results over 20 years! People ought to be in prison, but instead they’re greenwashing the same old same old. Buy hey, “Special Planning Areas!” Awesome!

    I’ve seen the intersections — and the only things “protected” are two left turns, two through, one right turn lane, and death to pedestrians.

    It’s a basket case.

    But good job on having a “codified green transportation hierarchy”. I’ll remember that next time I’m stuck there, up an urban expressway without a paddle.

  • I don’t know what Mr. Roth is smoking.

    San Jose is the “model” for producing slick pictures of TOD while continuing business-as-usual.

    I am typing this right now on a street a couple blocks from VTA LRT on a street that has:
    1. no sidewalks,
    2. no bike lanes,
    3. 45mph posted speed limit, 55mph typical traffic speeds.
    4. Developments just in the past year include: a Costco, a Lowes, a strip mall, and lots and lots of parking. All built in compliance with San Jose planning and zoning code.

  • Rich M’s comments re downtown — have you been downtown lately? Sure, San Jose has a _long_ ways to go, but the downtown has changed significantly over the past five years due to denser downtown development. What used to be a ghost town after 6 PM is now almost lively with a decent quantity of pedestrian traffic. Safeway on San Fernando and the Whole Foods going in at Stockton & Santa Clara are evidence of greater residential demand.

  • grounded in reality

    wow, upon reading this post’s title, i *almost* thought i had suddenly blasted forward several months into the future to april 1st. san jose a model for future? stop, please–you’re making my sides hurt from the laughter. when i think of san jose, i think “san fernando valley north”. sure, there are some bright spots in redevelopment here and there, but it’s not a cohesive model of bay area future urbanism–and it will be many years, if at all, before this overgrown suburb, excuse me, “city” gets to that point. it’s one thing to have forward-thinking policies on paper, and another thing to see tangible results from those policies. let me know when north first redevelopment begins to take shape. i’m betting BART will have service to geary and park presidio before then.

    in the meantime, please enjoy this delightful (in the most depressing way) site:

  • tommy

    the above comments basically just point out the obvious, except richard’s good point about this maybe being merely a way to secure funding that will then be used badly. but at least the piece does let us know that:

    1. LOS reform is possible, even in moderately conservative cities, as long as the local population isn’t as prone to selfish entitlement as people are in, say, san francisco.

    2. There may be a gradual increase in progressive-mindedness among staff of transportation departments locally.

    p.s. the sanjosehatespedestrians site referenced in another comment doesn’t even show the worst examples, and there are hundreds! I especially loathe the city’s penchant for installing or converting traffic lights with crosswalks for only some of the sides. these are common at full 4-way intersections as well, and have been much more common in the last 10 years or so than they used to be. unbelievable!

    and to “grounded in reality”: what do you mean by “bright spots in redevelopment”?? that’s an oxymoron. do you mean bulldozing good, unique old buildings to make way for parking lots and garages? do you mean gentrification? street widenings? mono-zoning? phony “beautification” that achieves nothing but higher rents for indie businesses, forcing them out to make way for more chains?

  • San Jose is not a good place to be, yet, but i have seen it change for the better over the past couple/few years. I was actually considering moving to downtown SJ because of the ‘sense of place’ that was starting to develop. For a bunch of reasons, I’m back in SF, for the moment, anyways.

    A buddy picked me up down there the other night — his first time there — and he was doing all this:

    “Holy cow! I can’t believe this place! There’s so much going on! Look at that street! So cool! We passed [this] and [this other cool building/thing] and there was this cool band playing right on the corner and…and…and…”

    This was on a Sunday night.

    I think it’s interesting that they didn’t have their own bike injunction — maybe you have to install some bike infrastructure to get that kind of attention?

    Hopefully BRT doesn’t get all the time/energy/money, instead of walk/bike issues, or even fixing their light rail system, or making access to the Caltrain station dignified.

    San Jose is a complete disaster, which makes it exactly like 99.9% of all other American cities, but it’s changing for the better, it seems to me. Policy changes are a big deal, so bravo to SJ — sounds like advocates have an opening — they/we just need to get organized, and get big enough to matter.

  • There is no policy change in San Jose. Their version of LOS “reform” is to allow construction of enormous parking garages in the downtown area without regard to LOS traffic impacts. It is not at all like San Francisco (or Oakland) where the issue is avoiding LOS impacts for bike and bus lanes.

    Also, most visitors to the tiny SJ downtown don’t realize how much of it is being subsidized with billions in taxpayer dollars to the politically-connected developers.

  • It appears Drunk Engineer is right. I live in the South Bay, and the City of San Jose is planning for redevelopment, along with a potential ballpark, near the downtown Caltrain station. I attended a neighborhood community meeting for this plan that focused on “Transportation & Parking.” Unfortunately, the DOT steered most of the discussion towards auto parking and parking management. They spoke about giant traffic conditions signs, massive parking command centers with giant boards reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove, and freeway congestion. Some time was devoted to public transit, but the analysis was pretty paltry. Forget any serious analysis of pedestrian or biking amenities. With the convergence of upgraded Caltrain, California High Speed Rail, BART, Light Rail, new BRT lines, ACE, and Amtrak all at this one location the myopic discussion of parking felt deflating and really out of context. Thankfully, members of the community advisory council challenged the slanted “transportation” discussion. We’ll see if it gets anywhere though.

  • tommy

    I agree on parking downtown. It’s just crazy that not only do new condos include a ton of parking, but the city still plans to build more public garages also (there are currently MANY). This summer they came this close to approving the purchase and bulldozing of yet another block (home to local businesses, an SRO the city already shut down, and a bus depot) to make way for a parking garage; as soon as the economy picks up, it will be approved.

    To get back to topic: if “North San Jose” ever does get built up, there will be thousands and thousands of parking spaces bundled with condo units.

  • I split my year between living in the UK & San Jose and am genuinly surprised by all the negative comments that people have left to this article.

    Coming from Europe, which is supposedly so much more bike-friendly than America I’ve been very, very impressed by how accepting San Jose is of Cyclists. There are storage racks all over the place, buses have racks attached (something you never, ever see in the UK), trains carry bicycles without reservations (or charge – in the UK you must book in advance and pay for them to carry your bike) and even light rail has storage facilities onboard for Cyclists.

    Yes, there is always scope for improvement. It seems the only Nation that really *gets* cycling is Holland, and it takes a long time to adjust / develop an infrastructure of that type – but San Jose has already made a great start on it. There’s a policy change taking place, they want to encourage alternative forms of transportation – this isn’t something to be mocked, it should be celebrated and supported!

    As for the comment from Mark regarding nobody using the Light Rail – What? My appartment overlooks the Light Rail station at 2nd & Santa Clara and it’s always, ALWAYS busy. I’ve taken Light Rail all over San Jose and have rarely seen it empty, during rush hour it’s often standing room only. How is that underused? It may not always be the fastest way to get around but it’s a good system.

    My suggestion to all the nay-sayers would be to take an active part in the planning process. Weight of numbers & opinion will speed things along and keep everything going in the direction it needs to but just sitting back and bleating on about how it’s all a waste and nothing will come of it or someone in private business will make a profit from it is pathetic.

  • tommy

    Isn’t Britain one of the most private car-friendly countries in Europe? your comparison isn’t very good.

    The reason for the negativity is that the bike-“friendly” measures you see in san jose are all the very EASY and cheap things to do. bike racks on buses? most cities in the u.s. have this. and it’s pretty cheap when you hardly have any buses anyway. most lines have frequencies of one per 1/2 hr.

    so what if a handful of intersections will be exempt from car LOS rules. san jose is so huge geographically, there are literally thousands of intersections.

    bike racks on sidewalks downtown are also cheap and easy. and anyway, think of all the parts of san jose oustide downtown (i.e. the vast majority) where there aren’t bike racks. even purely suburban cities like cupertino and santa clara have become more bike friendly than san jose, what with bike-friendly traffic signals and more bike lanes.

    so what if the light rail station you refer to is busy? it’s in the exact center of downtown, and is the transfer spot for the popular (relatively speaking!) east-west bus lines on santa clara and san fernando streets. light rail runs infrequently all day and has little or no service late at night. so even though most rush hour trains are crowded, it still doesn’t amount to very many riders. a trolley system worth its construction, maintenance, and operational costs is heavily used all the time. otherwise, all those millions could have been spent to provide a TON more public transportation options in the form of BRT, express buses, and increased frequency of the local bus lines.


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