Technology and traffic are pervasive and fundamental to urban life. As Santa Clara County grows in population, we have to start thinking about ways to leverage new technologies to manage traffic and better navigate our rapidly changing urban landscape.
As a community leader in a fast-growing corner of San Jose, I am particularly interested in the intersection of traffic and emerging technologies. These tools, whether we use them or now, affect us every time we drive, take the bus or hop on the light rail.
But many people don’t realize the behind-the-scenes mechanisms of our regional roadways and transportation systems.
Last month, I attended the Intelligent Transportation Society of America's ITSAmerica2016 conference and trade show in San Jose. The mid-June event introduced me to some of the most advanced traffic and transportation technologies in the world today.
Of course, new technologies come at a price. Not just a monetary cost, but time, societal, environmental, political, personal—you name it.
Have you ever considered the cost in time when you wait at a red light at an intersection at midnight with no other headlights to be seen within half a mile? Those idle moments cost you time (personal) and gas (monetary) while unnecessarily spewing emissions from your tailpipe (environmental).
What if you run that red light, figuring no one else is around to see you do it? That would cost you even more time and more money—if you were caught. Even worse, what if you struck a pedestrian? Better to just sit it out and wait for the green light.
The above scenario could be a thing of the past if San Jose installed adaptive signal controls at that intersection. These devices can detect your car as the only one around and switch to a green light to let you drive on through. It could even detect that lone pedestrian and alter the signal accordingly.
Imagine the collective time saved if we adopted such a technology.
San Jose officially launched a state-of-the-art Transportation Management Center in April this year. I was fortunate enough to attend the grand opening, where I got to meet the system operators who work so hard to keep us all moving. They showed me how they use signal sequencing and timing at busy intersections in my part of town—the Valley Fair, Santana Row area.
This wasn’t my first look at San Jose’s elaborate traffic operations system, a system that needs constant updating to remain state-of-the-art. That should hold especially true in San Jose, the largest city in Silicon Valley.
As the transit liaison for the Winchester Orchard Neighborhood Association, I have the responsibility of staying up to date on the state of our roadways, new technologies and their potential applications as well as the traffic impacts of new developments.
In my neighborhood alone, we have several major developments on the horizon, including large-scale expansion at Valley Fair mall, Santana Row and the Century Theater site. We will also see new construction at The Reserve apartments, the old Toys R Us site and the Garden City property.
We can't forget Volar, that high-rise apartment building planned to extend as high as federal air space regulators will allow in proximity to San Jose’s international airport.
I can’t help but think of the firefighters at my local station, who have a huge amount of work cut out for them now and even more so once these projects are built out. Unless we keep our traffic technologies up to date, we will see gridlock that threatens to slow ambulance and fire truck response times. We can’t let that happen. We can’t let poor planning get in the way of the men and women who respond to life-threatening situations in our community.
The above projects alone will bring upward of $10 million in traffic impact fees, something developers have to pay the city to mitigate the inevitable impacts of new construction. In cash-starved San Jose, I believe that we should spend the traffic impact fees from each project only and completely within that given project’s vicinity.
I also believe that those fees should be spent first and foremost on ensuring the emergency vehicle pre-emption system works as flawlessly as possible. We should also spend them on technologies that can better enable our traffic system operators to move and manage traffic. Lives are on the line, not to mention our personal time.
How do we bring these new technologies to San Jose? Through policy changes? Through budget allocations? How do we keep our roadways as free flowing as possible for as long as possible?
It’s up to us, the public, to determine how to prioritize these improvements and to figure out the price we are willing to pay as individuals, neighbors and as a community.
In his welcome speech at the conference, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo told the audience about some of the technologies already in use in our city—electric car charging stations installed nearly 10 years ago, a new traffic management center and autonomous vehicle testing. He then invited innovators to use San Jose as a living laboratory.
“We have a lot of ambitions in Silicon Valley and here in San Jose, it's simple: to leverage this incredible technology that is all around to make San Jose the most innovative city in the country by 2020,” he said. “Here’s where we need your help. We would love to partner with you; please reach out to us. If you have technology that you would like to see tested and demonstrated on a stage that enables the rest of Silicon Valley to take notice—indeed, the whole world to take notice—we would love to be your laboratory. Please reach out to us, we look forward to partnering with you to help transform how we can improve mobility for the rest of the world.”
Next time you’re on the road or in the bus, think about the various technologies that make your commute possible. If you think there’s room for improvement, reach out to your elected officials and San Jose’s Department of Transportation to let them know that you’d like to have a say in our city’s transportation future.
Chris Giangreco is the Traffic and Transportation Liaison for the Winchester Orchard Neighborhood Association.