Can Silicon Valley technology solve Cupertino’s traffic jams, connect to regional transit network?

Can Silicon Valley technology solve Cupertino’s traffic jams and connect the city to the regional transit network? On Monday night, the City of Cupertino hosted a forum on innovative transit, moderated by Mayor Rod Sinks, with panelists including Rod Diridon, dean of Silicon Valley transit, and representatives of Stanford, Apple, and Uber.   With Apple’s SpaceShip campus in the works, bringing 13,000 employees to Cupertino’s public transit desert, and an upcoming transportation funding ballot measure in 2016, the city is looking for innovative solutions.

New Apple campus in Cupertino

New Apple campus in Cupertino

Those who came to the event hoping that emerging technology will magically vaporize the city’s transportation challenges would leave disappointed.   New technologies offer significant promise, but are not magic bullets.  Some of the solutions to Cupertino’s transportation woes require familiar, fundamental steps of transit funding and transit-supportive policies including land use.

Will autonomous vehicles make public transit obsolete?

The short answer is no. Stefan Heck, who teaches transportation innovation at Stanford, walked attendees through the basic math.  Autonomous vehicles have the potential to use freeway space more efficiently than human-driven cars, once enough AVs are on the road to to be able to travel in platoons closer together.  Currently, a freeway lane can carry about 2000 passengers per hour.  Once autonomous vehicles can platoon, the capacity will increase, potentially carrying 8,000 to 12,000 passengers per lane.   Today, contrast, a bus can carry 20,000 passengers per hour, and a train can carry carries up to 40,000 passengers per hour.

Larger vehicles carrying more passengers are fundamentally more space-efficient than automobiles, and will continue to be needed for backbone transportation routes.   In fact, said Heck, autonomous cars have the potential to increase congestion. If we use them the way we use cars today, for most trips, with one person in the car, and on top of that add more robocar trips to pick up groceries and takeout dinner, there will be even more congestion on the roads.

The panel experts also cautioned that it will take some time to for the benefits of autonomous vehicles to be felt. The biggest benefits will be occur once a large proportion of cars on the road are autonomous.  But the installed base of cars takes a long time to be replaced by new technology – the average car on the road today is 11 years old.   Heck predicted that will take 20 years after before a large proportion of cars on the road are AVs.

Rod Diridon also anticipates that there will be political issues with AV adoption.  He agrees with agrees with Tesla CEO Elon Musk that in order to reap the congestion relief and safety benefits of autonomous vehicles, we’ll need legislation banning human driving.  And that will pose a major political challenge.   “The same people who don’t want you to take their gun won’t let you take their cars and trucks.”

While autonomous vehicles will not replace backbone rail and bus transit, they are likely to a critical role at connecting first and last mile. And before then, transportation network services are starting to fulfill that role.

Transportation networks – Uber/Lyft, the first/last mile, and changing economics of transportation

Transportation network services including Lyft and Uber are starting to play a key role in connecting people to backbone transit.  One of the major challenges in the Bay Area is that many jobs centers – including Cupertino – are not close to transit.

Lyft has reported that 25% of their Peninsula corridor trips connect to Caltrain, and Uber’s representative on the panel told a similar story.  Jason Dowlatabadi of Uber reported that that in the Portland suburbs, 1 in 4 Uber trips started or ended within a quarter mile of a public transit station.

Uber connections to transit in Portland

Jason said that Uber’s connections from Cupertino to Caltrain – a 4-5 miles ride – have more than doubled over the last year.   Uber is starting to create partnerships with transit agencies, including Marta in Atlanta and DART in Denver, to provide combined trip planning and mobile ticketing for rides incorporating Uber and public transit.

The extra connectivity also comes at extra cost, which could pose extra burdens on low-income commuters in Santa Clara County, which has the highest car ownership rate in the country including many low income workers who receive fewer transit benefits than Apple engineers. There may be opportunities for the public sector to subsidize some of the fare, to help increase transit ridership and reduce congestion.

One area of controversy with the “transportation network” companies is the sharing of data, which would help cities and transit agencies plan improvements to the transportation system.  Uber is piloting a program, starting with the city of Boston, to share ride data with the city. But currently that data is not expected to be made public, in order for Uber to protect is proprietary information.  Another concern raised is privacy; however it is possible to protect privacy by removing rider information, and abstracting the data about trips to the closest intersections.

Another role that transportation network companies are starting to play is plugging gaps in the public transit system for shorter trips in the 5-10 mile range.  Services including LyftLine and UberPool are starting to offer cost-effective ad hoc commute carpools.

Transportation network services are not only supplementing commute options, they are helping to change the economics of household transportation, and set the stage for reduced car ownership.  Stefan Heck showed analysis explaining that today, with the availability of carshare and rideshare services to supplement transit, it is not rational to own a car if you drive less than 5,000 miles per year.  These services are already reducing car ownership: research shows that each ZipCar or CityCarShare takes 9-13 cars off the road. People who don’t own a car, but use transit and subscription services incrementally, tend to drive much less.

Autonomous vehicles will remove another 60% of the cost, and will double the economic threshold where it makes sense not to own a car to about 10,000 miles. At that point, for most US households, it will make more financial sense to have subscription transportation services rather than owning a car.

Subscription transportation services.  

Heck painted a picture of universal, inter-modal transportation subscription service offerings that could combine transit, first-mile connections, bike share, and even the occasional use of a truck to move large loads.  One major limitation to achieving this vision in the Bay Area is the Clipper transaction backbone.  The region is planning the next generation system to replace current Clipper when its contract is renewed in 2019. Will the new system make it easier to plug in services including private services such as Uber, Lyft, ZipCar and Getaround?   Another key policy question is whether transportation network services will open their data for public transportation planning.

Building out the public transit network

The panelists agreed that with new technology, public transit will not become obsolete, but become increasingly important, complemented by new services and business models that make it easier to use private cars less.  Diridon and Heck agreed that it was important to build out the area’s backbone transit system. Heck explained the fundamentals of a successful service – with frequency of 7 minutes or less, and stop spacing of 1 mile between stops. Which raises critical questions about improving transit connections and service levels to Cupertino.

North-South light rail.  Santa Clara County did a studies 20-30 years ago looking at the potential to include light rail running in the median of the 85 freeway. The freeway was built with room for transit in the median, but the project was never built, and VTA is now seeking to use the space instead for a toll lane.  Cupertino and several other West Valley cities oppose the toll lane, and are hopeful that the transit plan can be revived.

Rod Diridon, who reviewed the earlier studies decades ago, said that he didn’t know whether that project would be a good solution, since land use patterns and transportation choices have changed since then. Rather than jumping to a specific conclusion, he urged the cities to commission a study of alternatives, potentially including an express bus option, and an option to use a conventional rail corridor currently  used by occasional freight. An alternatives analysis study would open the door for federal funding for a major transit project.  One issue that would be raised in a study would be transit-oriented development. VTA’s light rail system has taken decades to build ridership, since much of the system was built in low-density areas.  These days, federal guidelines favor transit-oriented development.

Regional express buses.  Ryan Kauffman from Apple talked about the very successful long-distance private express bus services that have been created by Apple and other major corporations.  Kauffman explained that Apple, Google, and others run these services to fill gaps left by the public transit system for commute routes, especially intercounty routes.   Most of Apple’s shuttle routes cross counties – from San Francisco, Alameda, Marin and Santa Cruz.  But the public transit system organizes most buses routes within each county, making it very difficult to serve commuter needs.

The Apple and Google buses are private, and the major corporations have enough commuters to far-flung neighborhoods to fill buses without having to share. However, this model leaves out smaller companies, part-time and contract workers – anyone who isn’t a full-time employees of the largest corporations. Mayor Sinks asked about the likelihood of shared express buses.  Other cities that have clusters of smaller employers are already heading in this direction, creating Transportation Management Associations to be able to share the costs and benefits of shuttles and other transportation benefits.

Another approach to meet the demand for long-distance express service is to partner with public transit agencies as Stanford as done with Dumbarton routes, and a new Santa Clara County route: utilize commute data to work with VTA to cost-justify the need for express bus service. To serve the regional need, there will need to be policy changes to liberalize the rules that make cross-county route difficult to create. Because Apple is such a dominant employer in Cupertino, and Apple runs its own system, the city has not yet started down this path.

Bus Rapid Transit.  Where an express bus service transports long-distance commuters without any intervening stops, a bus rapid transit system or light rail system, can serve a populated corridor, with widely spaced stops and offboard payment for speedy commuting. Mayor Sinks expressed disappointment that VTA never delivered on its promise for light rail on Stevens Creek boulevard.   However, this complaint glosses over VTA’s active plans to implement bus rapid transit on Stevens Creek Boulevard, a project that has been met with some early skepticism in Cupertino. It is not clear if there are reasons other than perceived prestige that Cupertino prefers light rail to BRT.

Pod cars.  Rod Diridon explained that these elevated monorail systems, transporting pods carrying people to their destinations, are deployed in a handful of places around the world as airport circulators, and campus transport systems in places that are too spread out to be walkable.  These might have applications for transit last mile connections, and for office park circulation, in areas where right of way is scarce and passenger demand is moderate.   These systems have lower capacity than buses or light rail, under 3,000 passengers per hour.

However, pod cars have also been marketed as lower-cost, less space-intensive replacements for full-scale light rail.  Diridon explained that in order to actually replace a light rail system, thousands of pods would be needed, running minutes apart with 4-5 people in each pod. There are no such systems in operation today.  Rod Diridon recommended in order to verify the claims about technology, pod car vendors ought up a demonstration track, for example an office park circulator at Moffett field. However, so far the technology vendors have not done this.

Transit funding. Whichever technologies are chosen, there will be costs to filling in the network. Rod Diridon estimated that it would take the Bay Area about $20Billion to fill in a complete, connected transit network.  The upcoming Santa Clara County ballot measure is an important tool to raise funding for key project including connecting BART to San Jose, and increasing Caltrain capacity. Cupertino and West Valley cities want some of the funding to address their needs; Diridon reiterated the need to start with a study to determine what sort of project would be most effective.

Today, the components of the Bay Area transit system don’t work together very well, with poorly integrated fares, schedules, marketing and planning. Rod Diridon suggested that mergers and integrations would help, but Stefan Heck vehemently disagreed.  In Vienna, where Dr. Heck grew up, and in other metropolitan areas in Europe and around the world, there are multiple transit agencies that work together with meticulous cooperation, because there is a coordinating agency with a mandate to enforce the integration of fares, schedules, and marketing, and the ability to financially incent the cooperation.  According to a recent study from UC Berkeley, a key reason Bay Area transit agencies don’t coordinate well is that even though they believe that coordinating would likely increase ridership, each agency fears they might lose financially.  The “transport alliance” model, which mandates cooperation and provides a financial backstop, solves that problem.

Housing as part of the transportation solution

Toward the end of the panel, the conversation turned to discuss the elephant in the room – housing.  In the last census period, Cupertino had 33,000 jobs (including about 15,000 at Apple), 23,000 employed residents and 21,000 housing units, and Apple is continuing to grow.  Part of Cupertino’s transportation challenge is that so many people need to commute to Apple, since there isn’t nearly enough housing for people to live near where they work even if they wanted to.  This is a common pattern in Silicon Valley, where cities have welcomed employment growth but resisted new housing.

Rod Diridon painted a vision of Silicon Valley addressing its housing shortage by building residential towers on the parking lots of backbone transit stops.  Diridon exhorted the crowd not to fight growth, but to embrace it and plan for it, and bring housing and jobs closer together.  Stefan Heck was even more pointed about the need to provide housing closer to jobs as part of the transportation solution. “We need to end the era of mutually assured destruction, when every city says we’ll take the jobs and you take the housing. “

In the last year, other cities with major employment centers, including Mountain View and Menlo Park, are contemplating building out neighborhoods, including housing and retail services, near the headquarters of Google and Facebook respectively, making use of land currently serving as surface parking lots and underutilized older office park buildings.  Mountain View’s environmental study found that adding housing in North Bayshore would generate less traffic, since, more people would be able live near where they work and commute without driving. Is this a path that Cupertino would be willing to follow?

Based on audience response, Cupertino residents reactions were mixed or inconsistent.  When Rod Diridon talked about adding housing near transit stops “on top of the train station, not in your neighborhood,” the crowd applauded.   When Heck exhorted Cupertino and Silicon Valley to accept the need for housing and to stop trying to force other cities to build housing, the crowd also applauded.  And yet, the proposed freeway light rail system would travel through neighborhoods that are currently low-density suburbs. Would Cupertino be willing to start to concentrate land use near transit in order to increase the use of transit?


The mayor asked the panelists what does would take to increase the use of bicycling?   Stefan Heck’s answer included technology – ebikes extend the range of cycling from about 3 miles to 5-10 miles; and a policy-related change, to allow.  Here, too, the fundamentals are critical.  Heck explained that we need to build out a full network of trails and cycle tracks, where people with bicycles are separated from fast-moving cars.  These trails and cycle tracks need to create a continuous network across jurisdictions.  “Sharrows” (lane markings encouraging drivers to share lanes with bicycles) don’t cut it.  Currently, Cupertino and neighboring cities have been considering a multi-jurisdictional extension of the Stevens Creek trail, which has incurred substantial opposition by residents in Cupertino and Sunnyvale who fear (despite evidence) that the trail extension will bring crime and lower property values.

Google reports that about 20% of employees who work within 5 miles of the North Bayshore campus commute by bicycle today.  The company plans to double that share to 40%, by working with all the jurisdictions within a bicycle commute radius to create a low-stress network and eliminate barriers. When Apple developed plans for the spaceship campus, they paid close attention to bike access immediately near the campus in Cupertino. Will they be willing to take on the more challenging effort of working with all the cities within a bike commute radius of campus, including Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Mountain View, and San Jose, to make a 3-5 mile bike commute a safe and attractive option for many more employees.


Heck noted that currently, most Silicon Valley commuters have car commutes subsidized through the provision of car parking free of charge to commuters.  Heck explained that ending this driving subsidy and charging for parking was an important part of solution to reduce solo driving and congestion.  The Calgary metro area is one of the rare places that has a successful park-and-ride transit system carrying riders from low-density suburbs, and its Central Business District has the second-highest parking rates  in North America after New York.

More vehicle lanes.  The panelists agreed that adding vehicle lanes to freeways was not the right approach to address congestion.  Research shows that new lane capacity quickly fills. Congestion helps drivers choose practical alternatives.  While Cupertino and other cities are fighting the widening of 85, the County overall is contemplating spending over a billion dollars in the upcoming transportation ballot measure to widen expressways.

In summary, the event did a great job exploring the promise of new technologies, while debunking myths and reinforcing fundamentals about the requirements for a high-performing transit system

  • carsharing/ridesharing and eventually autonomous vehicles will address gaps in the transit system, and create new business models that make car-light lifestyles attractive and cost-effective.
  • autonomous vehicles will not replace backbone transit
  • autonomous vehicles will not provide major congestion relief benefits any time soon
  • pod cars will not replace conventional rail and backbone bus service
  • there is no substitute for a coordinated network of frequent backbone public transit services
  • to increase bicycling, we need a connected network of trails and cycle tracks that separate bicycle riders from fast-moving cars
  • housing is a critical part of an overall transportation solution for Silicon Valley
  • charging parking is a powerful tool to encourage the use of transportation alternatives
  • mergers and acquisitions are not needed for a coordinated transit system in a metro area