Tonight at Sunnyvale Council – a chance to revisit transit improvements on El Camino Real?

Tonight, Tuesday December 19 at 7pm, Sunnyvale City Council will hear a presentation on a different and perhaps more politically palatable set of transit improvements for El Camino Real that might be helpful to support the city’s plans for housing and walkable, mixed use development.

VTA’s El Camino Real Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) proposal several years ago included dedicated center bus lanes that have made taking the bus quicker than driving. The project was all but abandoned due to opposition by cities along the corridor to the concept of a fully dedicated lane for the 522 bus.

Tonight, the Sunnyvale City Council will hear a presentation from VTA about the opportunity to do a pilot program for a modified concept – not for the originally proposed center-lane BRT – but a right-lane option that could support the 522 Rapid, the 22 Local bus, and also shuttles, vanpools, and even carpools.

In October, the ECR Rapid Transit Policy Advisory Board (PAB) met and considered a proposal to axe ECR BRT, but city council members on the committee, including Sunnyvale’s Nancy Smith, did not want to pull the plug given the growing transportation crisis and the need to integrate land use plans along the corridor with improved transit. At the meeting, staff revealed that during the time that planning for ECR BRT has taken place, bus rides have gotten significantly slower. In fact, the 522 Rapid travel time has declined from 75 minutes in 2009 to 97 minutes in 2017!

Instead of killing the project, there will be presentations made to the city councils along the corridor between now and Spring 2018 to see if cities are willing to move ahead with a pilot program of a right hand transit/carpool lane. The Sunnyvale City Council meeting tonight is the first of the series.

A right-lane pilot would have potential benefits and drawbacks.

Benefits of a right-lane pilot:

* Can be implemented as a pilot, unlike center-lane BRT

* Can accommodate transit vehicles other than the 522, including the local 22 bus line, as well as other kinds of high-occupancy vehicles, countering the objection that the lanes would be “empty”

Drawbacks of a right-lane pilot:

* El Camino Real has numerous cross streets and driveways, reducing speed benefits for transit

* Enforcement of the lanes could be difficult, particularly if carpools are given access to the lanes.

Is it worth trying? Clearly a right-hand lane will not perform as well from a travel time savings standpoint than a center-running lane as was originally proposed by VTA. Center running lanes are the gold standard in the transit improvement business. That said, the degree to which the right lane concept can provide real benefits to transit users, really depends on the details of how the lanes are managed and who has access to the lanes.

Some considerations for public comment:

* VTA has proposed timelines of up to 10 years (???!!!!) for a pilot. This is absurd.  If a pilot is chosen, it should be done as quickly as possible, with the easiest transit improvements implemented first. Certain transit improvements can be done more rapidly than others to speed buses and improve passenger experience including greater service frequency, improved signal priority, all-door boarding, and “next bus” signs.

* Figuring out how to enforce a carpool lane on El Camino Real is likely to be a challenge. If enforcement will take longer to work out, VTA should get started first with a transit-only pilot that allows for public and private buses, emergency vehicles, and potentially vanpools to travel in the lanes. Carpools can be permitted into the lanes later if and when it is feasible.

* The pilot program should support (or at least not conflict with) city plans to achieve a safer and more comfortable environment for people that walk and bike.

* In evaluating next steps after the pilot period, VTA should explore a range of alternatives including the potential for a center-running shared transit lane that would allow for transit, private shuttles, vanpools and emergency vehicles.
* The pilot should be evaluated with several metrics such as collisions, person throughput, transit ridership, transit travel times in the transit/HOV lanes and vehicle travel times in the regular lanes, as various improvements are phased in

What do you think?  Is it better to move forward with a compromise to improve bus service, rather than walk away from improvements? Should the ECR BRT project be shelved until the political appetite for more substantial transit improvements develops over time?

Come share your thoughts with City Council. The presentation is the first item on the agenda for a meeting starting at 7pm.

Or send thoughts by email to Council@sunnyvale.ca.gov

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