What’s the Future of South Bay Transit Post-Pandemic?

When Silicon Valley came under a shelter-in-place order last March to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, its typically gridlocked roads went quiet as businesses shuttered or moved their employees to remote work.

By April 6, Santa Clara County saw its biggest decrease in driving with 64 percent less vehicle miles traveled than usual, according to INRIX and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Greenhouse gas emissions declined and cities across the Bay Area closed streets to through traffic to offer more room for social distancing, outdoor dining, bicyclists and pedestrians.

Now transportation experts wonder how long the changes will last—and whether Silicon Valley will return to its bustling car-dependent lives when the pandemic ends.

Kevin Fang, an associate professor at Sonoma State University and a research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute says traffic volume has already started to rebound from its lowest point—to be expected as restrictions loosen. But what comes next will rely largely on the region’s businesses, he said Tuesday during a panel for Joint Venture Silicon Valley’s annual State of the Valley conference.

“Will companies let their workers keep working from home?” he asked. “Do workers like working from home? Or will companies bring them back?”

That is the question on everyone's mind, from big tech, to the workers that typically staff pastoral office campuses, and even real estate agents and owners.

Already, Santa Clara County and regional leaders are pushing for a long-term change. Santa Clara County officials and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District asked employers last July to commit to making work-from-home a more integrated option for employees long-term, even after all pandemic restrictions are lifted.

Cities across the county signed on, and some companies publicly made the commitment, but the biggest names in Silicon Valley don't currently appear on the list of pledges to reduce the number of commutes for their workers.

Demand, Then Supply

But perhaps even more importantly, Fang wonders whether workers and residents will “demand things” now that they’ve been exposed to different processes and systems.

“The Covid-era has changed how we interact and advocate for things in terms of participation in public meetings and we are reaching out and making our voices heard as citizens,” he said. “Shaking that up from, say, the traditional meeting at 7pm that’s accessible to some, but not everybody—might there be other ways that societies change?”

Indeed, Shiloh Ballard, executive director for the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, says people adapted to the changes that came with the pandemic fast. And even when people begin filing back into office buildings, she's not convinced everyone will be eager to return entirely to the way things were before—traffic jams and all.

“What should the ideal transportation ecosystem look like in the future?” she asked during Tuesday's panel. “Bikes, public transit, walking, 15-minute communities and potentially shared automated vehicles—is that what our system should look like? Probably. And so if that’s the case, what are we doing now to move us towards that?”

The discussion Tuesday came on the heels of newly released data from a report commissioned by the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition and the Santa Clara County Public Health Department. The study, which was conducted by Change Research, interviewed 1,009 participants from March 6-11, 2020 on their transportation behaviors. The Mineta Transportation Institute analyzed the results.

With many Silicon Valley residents relying heavily on cars, researchers asked respondents whether they agreed with the statement: “Many of the places I need to go are close enough to reach by bicycle.” The only respondents to say that was true lived in downtown San Jose.

Only respondents living in downtown San Jose said that it was possible to get to places they wanted to go by bike.

Ballard says those results are due to the way cities are being planned and built.

“This data shows us that if we’re trying to build a transportation ecosystem where the system is resilient—it’s affordable, it’s accessible, it’s environmentally sustainable, it’s healthy—land use matters," she said. “We have to build more densely. ... In the downtown area people are riding for transportation because we’re building those areas in a way everything’s kind of within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. But once you get to areas like Gilroy, it’s not that feasible for people to ride their bike to the grocery store.”

Watch the full discussion from Tuesday's panel below.

8 Comments

  1. Does anyone who inveighs against the Evil Automobile really believe that post-pandemic changes are likely to favor increased collective transport use? (ah-choo being the least of one’s worries or worse)

    Meanwhile, pre-pandemic and in the real world, realize how much the South Bay is like Orange County. It even has arguably more examples of classic post-war and Sun Belt suburban business parks than in Orange County, Irvine (instead of Santa Ana or Anaheim) notwithstanding.

    Now, getting to and from San Francisco despite its watch-your-step-wallet-and-life decline using Caltrain is hard to beat. (BART to San Jose someday offers an alternative and the Tube and East Bay viaduct are good rides by themselves, but BART brings crime and filth nowadays versus earlier.)

    If you ever (re)build seriously east from downtown on Santa Clara Street, it would be good to see bike improvements or new facilities if possible to do them right. It should be a huge student community there already, but isn’t. (Yet?)

  2. Dude

    I watched some of this video. I haven’t seen so much delusion coupled with confirmation bias in my life.

    This Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Shiloh Ballard can ignore all the basic facts and still think people will ride their bike to work or the store. Only rich people and the homeless have the time and money to do so. People drive ~85% and ride a bike 7%, but somehow we are supposed to reimagine society and land use to satisfy that 7% and make the world a bike riding and transit taking society. And those are self-identified 7% via survey, not measured. Realistically 1 in 20 ride their bikes to anything other than the bottom of some mountain biking trail and 99% of those that can drive do in a given week.

    Most everyone says they want to exercise, do more for the environment, be better, and otherwise conform to the dominate narrative, in a survey. Thats true right up to the point they are late for work on (every) Monday, its cold, its rainy, its hot, its windy, it could rain, they have a lunch meeting, they have an errand after work, they have gotten a flat tire 3 times in the last week, etc. etc. etc.

    I hope these people are doing “advocacy” and “reimagining of your world” on their own nickel and not subsidized by the city. But they probably are getting massive NGO dollars funneled through some governmental agency.

    This kind of oversized influence these tow have is a big reason gas-tax monies (regressively taxed) get redirected to bike lanes that, statistically, only old, rich, white males use. This is why the roads suck and are so congested. Ms. Shiloh’s progressive ideas, HER vision, that are not grounded in human nature, actual travel patterns / usage, or common sense. Its light rail all over again.

    When will people get it in their head SJ is not Manhattan or even San Francisco. It is big, very big. And people are bad drivers, very bad. And it is very dangerous to ride your bike when people are distracted with iPhones, can’t see you, and you have to drive in massive traffic to get anywhere useful.

    Keep paying this man and woman, and you are volunteering to 15-20 more minutes in commute and a $1 more in gas tax so the VP of Marketing can ride his $15000 Pinarello to work on Central Expressway and signal his dominance by clicking his clipless shoes all the way to his cubical.

    Hey, its your time and money.

  3. Kulak, I commuted by bicycle on Central Expressway for three years, 2000-2003. I still bike on it whenever I’m headed in that direction. It is actually a very nice bike route already, for the same reason that it is good for motor vehicles – limited intersections and traffic signals. Did Shiloh suggest “improving” it in that video somewhere?

  4. I’m one of the cycling veterans who has commuted (13-35+ miles each way) as well as taken innumerable long day trips and multi-trips (including camping) before. (Mr. Krinock is a real cyclist, knows that cyclists use arterials and other principal routes for the same reasons motorists do, his two reasons plus they’re often more direct and they have priority of right-of-way over cross streets.) I have always lamented and often resented the polo club mentality (with fashion and gadgetry, increasingly) from late 1970s-early 1980s, and the irritating and often stupid as well as loud-mouthed activism. (I also don’t recognize any of these organizations like the Bike Coalition as being in any way authoritative and resent if they behave wrongly as such.) Failure to follow the rules of the road makes many cyclists their own worst enemy. The vacuous cycle track and related facility crowd of recent times is just more of the show today, and they’re largely a bit sad in their naivete, except with tax money and road design at stake..

    Drivers as well as cyclists have gotten worse, so riding became more selective and less frequent. That’s part of the state’s decline. Too bad. I even sympathize with the cycle track crowd sometimes these days (separate facilities that are well-designed and maintained being the never-reached ideal).

    Yes, cycling (like Amtrak long-distance train riding) is overwhelmingly recreational, not utilitarian. It’s also even more overwhelmingly fair-weather, as can be seen even in coastal California winter rains.

    More could be said now, but — nope.

  5. The major arterials need to be grade-separated, the expressways obviously among the foremost.

    What would be nice is to use something like what was studied for Lawrence Expressway on the other expressways. It includes a bike-ped path while also allowing bikes on the roadway.

    https://countyroads.sccgov.org/sites/g/files/exjcpb681/files/Lawrence%20Expy%20Study%20093014%20noappendices%20lowres.pdf

    Nothing like that apparently is planned at this time for Central Expressway.

    Grade separation of major arterials (ideal with surface streets continuing at-grade) is long overdue.

    We’d be likely to see activists try to convert the expressways to VTA light rail before improving them.

    Plus BART is the giant money black hole, wanted as much of Measure B money for it up front, etc.

  6. Mr KRINOCK

    I may have written my comment poorly. No, central expressway is my reference.

    She wants to reimagine san jose to make it bike centric.

    I would agree central expressway is choice, but most of the normal people, ie poor, dont have occasion to begin or end their commutes on it. San Jose would essentially be rebuilt from the ground up to acheive such golf course like road design and beauty.

    The problem with these movements, with all due respect, is that funds for road repairs, widenings, etc are starved to road diet and add bike lanes, which are frequented mostly by affluent, old, white males.

    I dont see how, in a world many poor drive from Manteca et al over the Livermore Pass or from S San Jose or East side to various job sites around the Bay Area to make a living, adding time, cost and unnecessary wear and tear on their essential asset is equity.

    I can see how a small stubborn minority may gain traction in redirecting road funds, but a complete reimaging of san jose is deluded and if you read into the statistic that 7% ride their bikes once a week to get somewhere as a justification to actually do it, that is confirmation bias.

  7. New (Nieuw) Amsterdam

    (Don’t forget Nieuw Centraal Diridon Station someday, too)

    In older times separate bike facilities were often poor — winding, undulating (with gradients), full of debris, and we all just used the road, straight without gradients added, because it was superior.

    Now it’s not just pro-bike, though. Now it is — as many of you know or at least smell — anti-car.

    Rather than BART to San Jose, another highway or highways over the mountains from San Jose to the Central Valley (as freeway all the way across to Merced) would be a gargantuan expenditure that makes sense. (Not just for commuters, of course.) Such routes are possible, as a study the state high-speed rail project conducted showed. (The results were promptly discarded in favor of much more tunneling in Pacheco Pass than the limits achievable that the study showed.) Where a rail route can go, a highway can go, in this case a highway to I-5, then to Merced at least as far as 99.

    https://cdn.gilroydispatch.com/2019/11/http3A2F2Fgilroydispatch.blvds_.com2Fassets2F39c30d3c22d9ece567e6c5add68d5db8.jpg

    Anti-car types need not worry; a highway on such a route won’t be built in this “progressive” state, and BART to San Jose gets yet another Big Gulp of other people’s money thanks to friendly members of Congress, in the “COVID-19” relief measure just passed. There could be Bike Stuff (such as in an “active mobility” category) in it, too, we may learn.

  8. Mr. Krinock, if you are wondering if there could be the barest hint at an improvement like that proposed for the Lawrence Expressway grade separations, it would be nice if all the expressways were fully grade-separated and had bike paths, too, but I doubt that will ever happen in Santa Clara County.

    See page 19 and following, with illustrations.

    https://countyroads.sccgov.org/sites/g/files/exjcpb681/files/Lawrence%20Expy%20Study%20093014%20noappendices%20lowres.pdf

    I’ve always wanted to see a 12-foot paved service and emergency access road on each side of freeways, that would be open to bike-ped use ordinarily. That would be true for any new Bay crossing, too. Don’t count on it, though.