Planned Freeway Overpass Tests San Jose’s ‘Vision Zero’ Pledge to Reduce Traffic Fatalities

When San Jose mapped the path for a future overpass linking Charcot Avenue to Silkwood Lane on the other side of Interstate 880, only a few warehouses and empty lots stood on either side of the project.

That was in 1994.

Though still largely industrial, the neighborhood on the planned I-880 crossing’s western side is now home to Orchard Elementary School. If the city builds the Charcot Avenue extension as planned to ease traffic caused by commuters trying to find a way around stop-and-go freeway congestion, it would land right beside the children’s playground.

But it looks like that’s exactly what the city plans to do, despite backlash from parents concerned about how the inevitable influx of cars would affect their kids’ safety.

“We feel like we’re the only school in the city where they try to increase traffic instead of calming traffic, and we don’t think that’s fair,” says Robin Roemer, one of the parents organizing against the project.

The direct impact may be limited to only one school, but the conflict between the San Jose’s blueprint for future growth and traffic safety has broader implications. At least, that’s the way Chris Johnson sees it. As program manager of Walk San Jose, a pedestrian safety advocacy group, he wants the city to uphold the commitment it made three years ago when it adopted its so-called Vision Zero policy: to eliminate traffic deaths altogether. And he thinks the whole city—perhaps even other jurisdictions—could learn a lot from the hyper-local dispute over the Charcot-Silkwood extension.

“Adding commercial through traffic, inducing traffic into a school zone, is fundamentally incompatible with a commitment to Vision Zero,” Johnson says emphatically.

Vision Zero is part of a global effort to reduce traffic fatalities by identifying dangerous roadways, enforcing laws more effectively, educating the public and, ultimately, moving away from car-centric engineering by designing city streets for pedestrians.

In San Jose, activists have been trying to ensure that Vision Zero is more than just aspirational. Walk San Jose and its comrade-in-arms California Walks have been pushing city officials to turn streets, sidewalks and bike paths into a physical manifestation of that vision. That’s more than a feel-good ambition about designing some aesthetically pleasing city of the future, Johnson points out. People’s lives literally depend on it.

San Jose’s traffic fatalities have consistently rivaled the annual homicide count. The number of car-related deaths has fluctuated from 42 in 2013 to a high of 60 in 2015 and declined again to 50 in 2016 and 46 last year. The number of those deaths involving cars hitting cyclists and pedestrians went from 24 in 2015 and declined to 16 last year. On its website, the San Jose Police Department calls the statistics on pedestrian deaths “a disturbingly high number.”

Alcohol and drugs are a common factor, as are, increasingly, cell phones. But SJPD notes that the majority of the traffic fatalities happen on the busiest and widest roadways and often at night. Public safety advisories tend to warn pedestrians to look up from their phones, wear brighter clothing and avoid jaywalking. However, the fact that busy multi-lane thoroughfares are the most common denominator suggests that city planners have a bigger role to play in preventing pedestrian deaths.

There’s a cultural acceptance of traffic fatalities that makes cities complacent about that kind of long-term, systemic planning, Johnson says. San Jose saw 50 percent more traffic deaths last year than murders, “but we don’t talk about it the same way,” he says. “In the U.S., and in California, too, it’s the leading cause of preventable death of people under 40 and the leading cause of death for children.”

If communities expressed more outrage over car-caused deaths and channeled that into efforts to prevent future fatalities, he added, then cities would be more likely to prioritize pedestrian safety. That’s why the Charcot-Silkwood extension matters to more than just its immediate environs. It puts San Jose’s Vision Zero commitment to the test by forcing the city to balance conflicting priorities: pedestrian safety or easing rush-hour traffic.

The city warned the Orchard Elementary School’s parent district about building a campus on the Fox Avenue site. But that’s a moot point, parents like Roemer say. Now, the onus is on the city to adapt its conceptual plans to the realities of a school community that sprung up despite its warnings.

Orchard Elementary parents began meeting with city officials this past spring as part of the environmental scoping process. Concerned about the safety issues seemingly elided by the city’s plans, Roemer went about rallying the opposition, collecting 600 signatures in a two-week span to support her goal of going back to the drawing board. Many of those parents want to stop the Charcot extension completely, which Zahir Gulzadah, one of the city’s senior transportation specialists, says isn’t really an option.

The city has to follow through with the infrastructure projects laid out in the General Plan to accommodate population growth and the attendant influx of traffic. Plus, the Charcot overpass isn’t some isolated project; it overlaps with three others. Gulzadah says the extension was approved as part of the San Jose 2020 General Plan and its latest iteration, Envision San Jose 2040, as part of a specific plan called the North San Jose Area Development Policy.

At public meetings this year, Gulzadah told residents that the city had two rarely used options for removing the entire project. City staff could recommend its removal to the City Council, which would have to authorize it with a majority vote, or the council itself could initiate the process.Neither of those options appears likely to pan out, however. In June, the council authorized a $2.5 million contract with BFK Engineers to proceed with the Charcot-to-Silkwood extension.

Roemer and other critics of the overpass remain unsatisfied with efforts from city employees and their elected representative in council District 4.

“We are especially disappointed about our Councilman Lan Diep, who we feel could do more to help us make our voices heard [and] facilitate the discussion with the city,” Roemer remarked soon after the June vote. “He likes to compare himself to Captain America and the real Captain America always jumps in front of moving cars to save innocent lives. But he seems to be more concerned about the flow of traffic instead of the health of our children.”

Johnson agrees that city officials should have approached the project differently by looking at it through a Vision Zero lens. “The plan is from a time when this school wasn’t here,” he says. “It’s also from a time when our thinking on transportation safety and priorities was very different.”

The Charcot Avenue overpass extension would end up right next to Orchard School. (Photo by Grace Hase)

12 Comments

  1. Yes, this project “overpass linking Charcot Avenue to Silkwood Lane on the other side of Interstate 880” should be cancelled.
    1. This project is based on 1994 city plan. 1994!!!!, 24 years ago, can you imagine it!!!!.
    in 1994, if you build that overpass, maybe it was OK. but now, it is obviously bad bad idea.
    now, orchard elementary school is there, around 200 family are near by silkwood lane. who will be responsible for potential safety danger if this ugly overpass get implemented.
    2. Just 1.5 miles between Brokaw & Montague along I-880, another overpass across I-880?
    This is what San Jose city planner’s vision? I am speechless.
    Maybe San Jose planner just want to spend some tax dollar, not really want to release traffic congestion.

    what city really need to to expand Brokaw & Montague, make them more complex. not another silly overpass!!!!!

  2. I agree, the councilman for district 4 —- Lan Diep, he is worst councilman in my mind.
    look what he did:
    He support a homeless shelter project in Berryessa Area.
    He support overpass project between Charcot & Silkwood without considering safety of school.

    we should vote him out 11111

    • I totally agree, that clown diep is a joke and he needs to go. How can he support homeless tiny house in his own district? I don’t think he can represent the interest of all residents in district 4.

  3. “Vision Zero” is part of a global effort to reduce traffic fatalities by identifying dangerous roadways, enforcing laws more effectively, educating the public and, ultimately, moving away from car-centric engineering by designing city streets for pedestrians.

    This is why your gas tax dollars go to “bike lanes” and “transit”. The ultimate utopia (heaven on earth, end of history, what have you) is no one drives. They just get commuted in from parts unseen to generate profits and sales tax for the overseers, and then railed home. Perhaps they will move you around between home, station, job site on a bus, as long as you conform to their timetable. Or, for some higher on the progressive stack, a prescribed-route car. That way they can control where you work, where you live, and where you spend. The good news is no one will die because they will already be dead.

    Sound familiar?

    Wake up!

    • I agree, these carless visionaries just have this view of life that is… weird. Like people are going to be happy to spend their free time trapped in their 6-block pedestrian friendly neighborhood, with nowhere really to go. Carrying groceries home on a bus. Weekends? Go for a walk around your 6 blocks.

      • I’m really confused about these comments. Have you ever been to Europe Sarah? You can literally take a train from Paris to Rome, or to the Alps, or to Barcelona… There’s no reason we can’t do the same thing and have a train from SF/SJ to LA, or a train from SJ to Yosemite.

        • > You can literally take a train from Paris to Rome, or to the Alps, or to Barcelona…

          Max:

          Europe didn’t know any better. They built the trains back in the days before automobiles and airplanes.

          The smart people left Europe and came to America and invented automobiles, and airplanes. And self-driving cars. And hyper-loops.

          I predict that in a few years Europe will discover telephones with rotary dials and 45 RPM records.

          • I have been to Europe. We don’t have that infrastructure here and it would cost billions to build it. But in any event a cross country train doesn’t solve the problem of daily needs for travel and errands especially for anyone who is not an affluent white male bike bro.

        • Europe, Paris, Rome the Alps??? Good lord! How much for just a train to carry my kid across 880 to get to school? Take your head out of your fanny perpendicular and try to focus.

      • A more relevant number would be based on fatalities per capita, given the influx of people here now.
        Carrying groceries on a busis not my idea of how to spend an afternoon.

  4. Catch a clue… At any time MAYBE 75 cops patrol your city… Even though you pay top dollars for your property and county taxes… And no police want to work for the same city that couldn’t manage a garbage company. 1.5 million people moving around your city on any given weekday. Do the math… A football stadium with 70k people has 150 security personnel…your city doesn’t… So people drive HOWEVER THEY WANT…

    Seriously… Catch a clue

  5. We must all care about car-pedestrian/cyclist crashes but we must also ask, what if there was a way drivers could start the braking ¾ of a second sooner and stop 30 – 40 feet shorter. There is. Sad that AAA, NHTSA and those in charge of driver legislation and training refuse to teach student drivers the safer (But girly!) left foot braking method and ban driving instructors from teaching the very complicated and difficult to mentally maintain especially for older drivers (over 40!), inefficient (poor stopping distance) and dangerous (right foot pedal errors) right foot braking method on automatic transmission cars. See DOT HS 811 597, 812 058and 812 431(spaces required). NHTSA insists on calling it “pedal misapplication” and always blames the driver rather than their beloved right foot braking method. Score to date 150,000 dead, millions injured, and billions in costs. The price men both in and out of government are apparently willing to pay to maintain their systemic belief in the “Killer” right foot braking method on automatic cars even though they have zero scientific justification. As one transportation “expert” said “That’s the way it’s always been taught”! This is not about who has the safer braking method but rather why they refuse to scientifically compare the two methods! Was it driver error or the way we taught them to brake?

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