A recent report released by the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California and Urban Habitat raises concerns about the lack of transportation and housing options available to lower income residents.
The authors of the report, entitled “Moving Silicon Valley Forward”, contend that more funding should be given to bus systems such as VTA and Sam Trans over Caltrain and VTA's Light Rail because bus systems cater to lower-income people, particularly of minority backgrounds, while Caltrain and Light Rail tend to serve the middle class.
The report cites the three most heavily used VTA Bus Lines (Lines 522, 22 and 23) have nearly as many riders as the entire Light Rail network. The report also claims bus lines are subsidized by nearly half the amount of funding per rider as Caltrain and Light Rail.
The authors contend building should be halted on future rail projects until bus subsidies are increased and service cuts are stopped.
The report proposes the creation of dedicated bus lanes along main roads such as El Camino Real.
The report offers controversial problems and solutions. The authors note there can be a 'zero-sum game' issue when it comes to subsidies. An increase in bus subsidies may come at the expense of Caltrain subsidies. Creating dedicated bus lanes can potentially threaten establishments along the road, and may inconvenience motorists.
Rod Diridon Sr., Executive Director of the Mineta Transportation Institute and former Chair of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, said characterizing Caltrain as appealing primarily to high income commuters is unfounded.
"People need to ride the transit before they criticize it," Diridon said.
While 75 percent of VTA’s riders are from minority communities, 40 percent of Caltrain riders come from such communities. In that sense, Caltrain’s ridership is more representative of the Bay Area demographically, where 52.5 percent of residents are Caucasian.
Diridon points out that Caltrain has a high amount of ticket revenue compared to the cost whilst VTA has lower revenue as compared to the cost. He added, however, that subsidies for VTA and Caltrain are not mutually exclusive.
Interviews with commuters at the Redwood City Station, where a major bus stop and train station are situated side by side, cast doubt on the contention in the report that higher bus subsidies have a significant impact on reducing congestion. The interviews were conducted during a weekday rush hour between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Of the people surveyed at the bus station, none had access to a car. In addition, none were going to or from work, rather, most were attending to personal business.
In contrast, of the people surveyed waiting for Caltrain, all were coming from work and all had access to a car. The primary reason for using Caltrain was to avoid traffic and save money on gasoline.
According to this survey, a reduction in Caltrain subsidies would have more of a direct impact on traffic conditions.
The counter point is that since bus riders have no other transportation options, funding bus service is far more critical to those users than Caltrain is to commuters who already have access to a car.
When it comes to building dedicated bus lanes, many communities have expressed significant concerns.
There are two options in building bus lanes. The first is to build them using existing lanes, which leaves fewer lanes for automobile traffic. The second is to expand the road, which could involve tearing down buildings.
Atherton Mayor Bill Widmer expressed concerns that dedicated bus lanes, particularly along El Camino Real, would hurt surrounding businesses.
Businesses are already built to the sidewalk," said Widmer, who added the cost of compensating business owners for the destruction of their property would be prohibitive.
Widmer said that transportation planners should focus on improving Caltrain service, particularly by reinstating regular service to the Atherton Station, which was reduced to weekend service only.
Politically, the only way to create bus lanes is by expanding the roads, and then only in areas without existing buildings, according to Diridon.
"Bus Lanes will work only in areas where you have the space," he said.
The issues of affordable housing and public transportation often sound complicated but hit close to home for people impacted by these programs. Throwing race into the mix of variables can only further inflame sentiment on this already sensitive issue.
In short, the issue of whether to concentrate on Caltrain or bus service comes down to the difference between looking at the overall investment, where Caltrain wins due to taking more cars off the streets and providing greater convenience and productivity to commuters; or a humanitarian perspective, where bus systems serve people who otherwise would have limited ability to get around.