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Innovation for equity: The case for Bus Rapid Transit

Silicon Valley is a hub of innovation in the United States. But a commuter in the region might think otherwise — and with good reason. According to the US Census Bureau, Silicon Valley’s commutes are the country’s worst. Compared to their counterparts across the US, employees in Santa Clara County are four times more likely to be mega-commuters — traveling for more than 90 minutes and 50 miles to and from work. It is clear that Silicon Valley’s transportation system sorely needs to change.

A transformative new proposal put forth by the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) would bring that necessary change. The El Camino Real Bus Rapid Transit Project (BRT) would place dedicated bus lanes down the middle of El Camino Real. New hybrid electric buses would be able to bypass traffic, and would therefore run more smoothly and reliably. Service would be frequent, fast, and punctual throughout the day, thanks to innovations like level boarding and traffic signal priority. The project would act as an above-ground subway, with service every ten minutes and convenient connections to local bus routes, VTA light rail and Caltrain. Construction awaits approval from the VTA board and city councils along the El Camino Corridor, and while it does, this vision of effective public transit hangs in the balance.

For Stanford, this proposal matters. More than 20,000 employees commute to and from campus daily, placing a huge strain on transportation networks on and off campus. As a major employer in Santa Clara County, the University has agreed to limit the number of commuter trips that Stanford employees take each day. This is why Stanford offers an entire portfolio of transportation management programs, such as the Commute Club, that are designed to disincentivize driving and reduce stress on local roads. Despite this, nearly 50 percent of Stanford employees still drive to work in single-occupancy vehicles. In order to compete with driving, public transit in the region must be improved.

For many workers, a dependable public transit system is essential, because driving to work is simply not an option. Despite popular perception, the average commuter in Silicon Valley is not the highly paid software engineer. Over one third of workers that commute into Santa Clara County earn less than $40,000 per year — and many Stanford workers fall into this demographic. For these low-income workers, who on average spend more than a third of their paychecks on transportation costs, the potential savings from faster public transit can be incredibly significant.

Moreover, nearly 75 percent of VTA’s bus ridership are people of color — people who, along with low-income residents, have been historically neglected in this region. Skyrocketing housing prices are forcing Silicon Valley employees to live further and further from work, leading to commutes as long as six hours every day. El Camino Real BRT presents an opportunity to greatly alleviate the cost and stress of the daily commute for these demographics. The project would reduce bus travel times from Palo Alto to San Jose by more than 40 percent, saving workers precious time. In addition, lighting and cameras at stations would deter crime and make travel safer. Such reliable and safe public transportation is crucial to low-income and minority workers, and BRT would substantially benefit these disadvantaged communities.

Still, the benefits of El Camino Real BRT are not limited to just one demographic. As the threat of climate change looms ever closer, it is in the best interests of the community as a whole to invest in more sustainable infrastructure designed for the long-term. The El Camino Real BRT is a first step toward this future of transportation, but it will not stand alone; Santa Clara VTA has plans for other lines in the South Bay, for example. Consequently, approving El Camino BRT would help catalyze a wave of investment in public transportation, pushing the Silicon Valley toward a more sustainable future.

Silicon Valley holds a well-deserved reputation for innovation, and this forward-thinking spirit must be applied to building a just and sustainable transportation system. As Stanford students, we believe the El Camino Real BRT proposal is a straightforward way to progress along the path of equitable innovation in our own front yard. We call on VTA and the City Councilmembers of Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara to approve the El Camino Real BRT proposal for dedicated bus lanes and thus bring us closer to realizing the vision of a just, sustainable world.

Charlie Jiang, ‘16

Calum You, ‘17

John Zhao, ‘18

Sage Lagron, ‘17

Robert Young, ‘18

Josh Lappen, ‘17

Contact the authors through Calum You at zcyou ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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