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.”