Off the Rail

Interesting story on the front page of my hometown newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, while I was in town visiting my folks: "25 Years Later, VTA Light Rail Among the Nation's Worst."  After all the fanfare, the service is lightly used, to the point that the subsidy borne by regional taxpayers is $10 per round trip.  Ouch!

This must be painful for the area's environmentally minded citizens to realize, but overlaying public transit onto a sprawling region is not going to turn a place into Manhattan.  All the places you'd use transit for - residential neighborhoods, employment centers, retail clusters - are auto-oriented, with spaghetti streets and seas of free parking lots.  Even if you live near a transit stop and work downtown, you may be reluctant to be a regular rider - you drive to your stop, park your car, take VTA into the office . . . and then what happens when you have a meeting?

For these and other reasons, the density around stops that planners hoped would materialize - TOD was all the rage on the West Coast 10 years ago, remember! - never happened.  Rather than locating stops in already dense areas, stops were placed in sparser areas, since they were the path of least resistance, and since it was envisioned that they would densify with residential and retail.  But such access conferred too little value, because of the otherwise auto-centric nature of the region, to induce such new development.

Believe it or not, land use patterns are more conducive in car-crazy LA than in Silicon Valley.  As LA continues to grow - in population and pollution - and as it is hemmed in by mountains and ocean, transit use is growing there.  Not so in the South Bay, 25 years after the introduction of a light rail system intended to make it so.  There's still time, I understand.  But I'm not holding my breath.
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