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Sunnyvale Fine With Slow Lanes For Buses

Photo: Dan Malouff

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA)’s scaled-back Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on El Camino Real project received mostly positive reviews at Sunnyvale’s City Council meeting on Tuesday December 19, the third in a series of city council meetings where VTA staff are presenting the new concept. VTA’s El Camino Real BRT project was launched as part of the agency’s 2000 Measure A, which states that “VTA will make improvements to El Camino Real to increase bus speeds along the corridor.”

The new plan is to upgrade the right lanes in each direction where buses currently run to “transit lanes”, allowing buses as well as shuttles, van-pools, carpools, “clean air vehicles”, and motorcycles, but excluding solo drivers except those turning right on to or off of El Camino Real. These restrictions would be in place only during weekday morning and evening peak hours. The travel times savings for bus passengers, yet to be estimated and published by VTA staff, will be meager compared to the agency’s original median-adjacent bus-only lanes proposal.

VTA’s bus-only lanes concept would have slashed travel times for bus riders between San Jose and Palo Alto from 85 to 48 minutes during peak hours, cut frequency from 15 to 10 minutes, and boosted ridership by 6,000 daily passengers. This visionary BRT service would be operating next year if it had not been “effectively stalled” in 2015 by the VTA Board of Directors, after Mountain View was the only city council along El Camino Real with a majority who supported the project.

“Needless to say, we got a lot of push back on that,” said VTA Chair (for 2017) and Los Altos City Council member Jeannie Bruins during her presentation at the meeting. “Instead of [bus lanes] down the median, this pilot project has them down the right-hand lanes. In addition to transit, HOV, motorcycles, you would have clean air vehicles.”

But VTA’s Senior Transportation Planner Adam Burger then listed a number of the agency’s own objections to the proposal: that if confined to the right-hand lanes, El Camino Real bus travel times might actually get longer, that the effectiveness of the transit lanes to induce more carpools and fewer solo driving trips would be limited since total trip lengths are relatively short on El Camino Real compared to limited-access highways, that enforcing a restriction on single-occupancy vehicles using the transit lanes would be problematic since “how long is too long for an SOV to be in the transit lane?”, drivers accessing driveways or on-street parking will continue to make abrupt lanes changes and brake suddenly which is disruptive to fast bus traffic, that the weekday peak-hour solo driving restrictions might reduce total person throughput along El Camino Real, and that the restrictions might discourage the patronage of businesses located on El Camino Real.

“This pilot is an interesting idea, but I think it has a lot of shortcomings,” admitted Bruins. “We do have a dedicated [bus] lane segment over in Alum Rock, we constructed that and it is in place. I think we’re going to be better served giving that a fair shake and seeing how well that works. It doesn’t cost us anything to learn.”

Burger recommended that less ambitious alternatives be pursued to improved bus service on El Camino Real, including more bus shelters, and with real-time information on electronic boards, transit signal priority upgrades to reduce time spent by buses at red signals, and safer and shorter crosswalks for pedestrians to access bus stops.

VTA says it would be another 24 to 40 months before a pilot project of the proposed Right Lane Transit Lane concept could begin operating, and would cost $2 – $9 million depending on how many cities were included. The Sunnyvale City Council provided no formal direction regarding the proposal, as Mayor Glenn Hendricks urged his colleagues that “it was an informational item” only.