San Jose traffic is often in gridlock. Most drivers just grit their teeth and deal with it. Few realize that it's due not to overwhelming traffic, but instead to a transportation department that focuses on spending money instead of achieving goals. Examples readily come to mind.
- No expense is spared on buying traffic signaling equipment. But due to poor programming, vast stretches of roadway go underutilized simply because vehicles cannot get through the preceding choke points.
- Roads do get repaved, at a cost of millions of dollars. But they're not necessarily the ones that are in bad shape; more likely, the chosen street is one whose resurfacing will result in the largest number of jobs and greatest amount of money spent.
New roads aren't needed to accommodate increased volume – just a little appropriately applied technology, a lot more sophistication in signal programming, and significantly less corruption in choosing the resurfacing projects to be undertaken.
A great deal of thoughtful planning was done for area transportation in the 1980s. Unfortunately, those planners moved on and left behind a generation that was not up to the task of following through.
- While many new traffic lights have been installed, none use traffic control techniques more sophisticated than were available 50 years ago.
- Costly traffic lights get installed without thought at every tiny intersection. The new lights are invariably unsynchronized to nearby lights (even within a few dozen yards).
- Traffic circles? Not a single one in San Jose, even where they would clearly be far superior to closely spaced traffic lights.
- The county light rail system, intended to correct the mistake of ripping out the original extensive trolley line system, cannot be properly integrated. Both light rail and auto traffic move at a snail's pace, due not to heavy traffic but to overly simplistic traffic signal programming.
- Bike lanes are implemented poorly, benefitting neither cyclists nor motorists.
The street traffic in downtown San Jose is particularly bad. Yet the number of businesses in the downtown core has been steadily shrinking. So why would traffic get worse?
- Parking has been removed virtually everywhere downtown, as have many traffic lanes.
- Most traffic nowadays is caused not by extra vehicle volume, but by lane removals (and by people circling looking for parking).
- The lanes given over exclusively to bus use are empty over 90% of the time. This number is actually increasing as fewer people opt to take slow transit and bus service is cut back.
- People have responded as expected - by driving to locales like Valley Fair / Santana Row where the parking is free and abundant.
As a result, downtown is a hard-to-navigate ghost town. Its population leaves during the day, by car, to go to jobs elsewhere, costing San Jose tax revenue. At night, its residents take their cars to one of many fine entertainment districts -- unfortunately, none of them in downtown.
Signal Sophistication from the Swinging 'Seventies
While the equipment may get updated, the programming for traffic lights throughout San Jose has never moved beyond the sophistication of the 1970s. Its capabilities are tied to the days of computer punched tape programming. Non-existent signal synchronization means lights 50 yards apart work against each other. Wasted intersection time turns 15 minute commutes into hour-long daily slogs. This situation is especially evident on any roadway named an "expressway".
For decades, other communities have used clever technologies to make roads safer and traffic faster.
- Sensor lights that stay green if you approach them slowly, but turn to red if you are approaching too fast (Virginia, 1980s)
- Light series over several miles that allow steady progress for drivers of a given speed, along with signage indicating what speed to travel to hit all the greens (Ohio, 1960s)
- Traffic lights whose green lamp starts to blink just ahead of the light turning yellow, to warn drivers that their turn is ending (Austria, 1970s)
In San Jose, transportation planners only know one way to do "traffic calming": use red lights and impede traffic flow completely.
How to Stop a Train in its Tracks
Light Rail in San Jose came about as a result of the light rail craze that came out of the Jimmy Carter years (late 1970s). The federal government was giving away scads of money to metropolitan regions to install the systems in hopes of luring commuters back to mass transit. By time the Reagan era arrived (1980s), funding was slashed -- but San Jose had gotten in under the wire. (Reagan was famously quoted as saying “In Miami, the $1 billion subsidy helped build a system that serves less than 10,000 daily riders. That comes to $100,000 per passenger. It would have been a lot cheaper to buy everyone a limousine.”)
Installed in the 1980s, the VTA light rail system was a worthy attempt to revive the efficiency of the extensive trolley lines whose tracks were ripped out in the 1950s. But this new system never moved beyond the crudest of capabilities, due to limitations of San Jose stoplight control. Even with freeways crawling at less than 20mph, light rail is still significantly slower.
For years, the system and VTA board have been criticized for poor operation. It's too bad the system never had a fighting chance due to the impossibly bad San Jose traffic infrastructure.
San Jose money politics prevents transit improvements
San Jose City Hall depends on cash flowing into all the right pockets. In many cases, this corruption works against basic common sense and logic.
Consider the light rail system. It really only had a single obvious destination that would have made it a huge success: the airport. But City Hall corruption left it a quarter mile away. Why? Because an airport connection would have reduced airport parking lot revenues to the City.
The City of Oakland had a similar situation with BART being separated from their airport by a freeway. Their astute leadership moved ahead with a successful connector train.
And here the tragedy of money-driven politics comes full circle. With the BART station in north San Jose (Berryessa) opening in 2020, people are realizing that they can take it to reach more cost-effective flights from Oakland than from San Jose. San Jose Airport will again be begging City Hall for more money, which will surely come out of taxpayer's pockets.
How to fix it
While there is no easy fix to San Jose's City Hall corruption, its traffic problems are readily managed. Silicon Valley technologies already track traffic. It wouldn't be difficult or expensive to:
- use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to monitor existing cameras at intersections and adjust traffic light performance dynamically
- use cell phone apps to let drivers' phones automatically report malfunctioning traffic lights
- change parking enforcement to a demand model where phone apps report cars at expired meters
- sharing light rail right-of-way with buses, as is done in Seattle
- restore auto traffic lanes in downtown in an intelligent manner, leaving them open for street parking during non-rush hours to give downtown businesses a chance.
Unfortunately, none of this will likely happen in San Jose. There's just no money in it for City workers or powerful political players.