Its Silicon Valley location has long been a boon to the tech-forward city of Fremont, but that proximity has brought with it a significant rise in commuter traffic. Now, city officials hope that joining a well-known startup collaboration and leveraging a partnership with the makers of a popular travel app will help them manage gridlock by keeping drivers on the freeway.
Overcoming incoming regional traffic, however, has historically not been easy, as a perfect storm of unexpected events illustrated last year. The surrounding region added 152,000 jobs in the last four years, Public Works Director Hans Larsen said, but only around 28,000 new housing units — creating "huge, monster commutes." Fremont's location, between affordable housing to the east and tech jobs to the south, accounts for about 40 percent of its congestion as commuters enter the city on the freeway, but switch to surface streets and highways when it backs up.
Last summer, a routine road project on one freeway grew quickly, creating monumental gridlock and epitomizing the problem at hand. Dubbed “Carmaggedon,” a regular pothole fix by Caltrans on Feb. 28, 2017, began with the closure of one northbound lane on Interstate 680. Then it grew into an all-day bridge structure repair that continued until around 8 p.m. — shuttering additional lanes and an on-ramp — and prompting navigation apps to divert drivers onto residential streets. The congestion made it impossible for police officers and firefighters to respond to some calls, vehicles were spotted driving on sidewalks and on the wrong side of the road, and city call staffers reported that what should have been a 15- to 20-minute drive was taking at least two hours.
“That day was just a day where it showed where our communication breakdown was. And the benefit of that day is that we’ve strengthened those communication lines and partnerships. But the congestion and the traffic issues are something that we deal with daily and we’ve been trying to attack that issue from multiple angles,” said Sheila Marquises, a senior transportation engineer with the city.
Fremont’s existing Smart City Plan has helped it match innovation with the traffic challenges, Economic Development Director Christina Briggs said via email. In the past few years, the city also has mounted strategic partnerships with Caltrans, working since 2015 to monitor and adjust freeway ramp meters to meet vehicle volume and discourage leaving the freeway; with Nixle’s traffic alert system to text subscribers about road closures and highway incidents; and with Palo Alto's Waze.
City officials joined Waze's Connected Citizens program around 2016. The program engages officials in transportation, safety and related departments in an effort to build dialog around creative traffic management solutions. Talks with Waze led to the company sharing driver data with Fremont, allowing the city to get a detailed, real-time look at traffic flow and insight into how it could be better managed. From that data, traffic planners determined that restricting turns at certain intersections during specified times could cut down on the local traffic.
"And then when we make a change, they will immediately acknowledge that, sort of within their algorithm," Larsen said.
Turn restrictions placed at six locations and supplemented with enforcement resulted in a 70 to 90 percent reduction in cut-through commuter traffic, the public works director said. The city worked with Caltrans on ramp metering at freeway interchange ramps and intentionally adjusted signal timing on main thoroughfares, all aimed at sending a message to commuters.
"The purpose is to eliminate any travel time benefit on our local streets and try to keep the regional traffic on the freeway system. If you're getting off the freeway and having to get back on, you're going to pay a bit of a delay penalty," Larsen said, noting that the changes achieved a roughly 50 percent reduction in traffic on those streets.
But more work needs to be done. Communicating to the right drivers remains a challenge despite the availability of social media, Marquises said. A central issue is reaching commuters who may be traveling through Fremont but are not subscribed to the Nixle traffic alert in the area. Improving upon delays that sometimes occur when the agency sends Nixle alerts is another need.
The city is home to employers like Tesla, Infosys and Logitech and wants to “emphasize innovation in as many different government processes as possible,” Briggs said. In August, the city announced its plan to join the latest Startup in Residence (STiR) cohort, partnering with the San Francisco-based group that connects government to innovation in hopes of easing traffic woes that regularly snarl its streets.
Challenge proposals are being finalized, Marquises said recently. An RFP is expected this month and the city intends to review applications from interested startups during November and December. A 16-week residency to design, build and test a solution should happen from January to May 2019, with a demonstration day likely in May or June.
“We wanted to participate in the STiR program so that we could tap into those resources, the startups or the think tanks to help us develop or create a solution, to try to communicate to those drivers who are just passing through our city,” Marquises said.
“Carmaggedon does, in fact, epitomize this dilemma, because commuters might have been able to plan an alternate route had they known about the road repairs occurring at that time,” Briggs said.
Ultimately, the city hopes to move beyond real time to proactive communication, letting commuters know not just about immediate roadway issues, but about nearby current events or schools that may be dismissing students and affecting city street commutes, and informing drivers of alternate modes of transportation as well. Officials said joining the STiR cohort could also help Fremont modernize its procurement process, as STiR’s streamlined approach could generate a potential cost savings. And, the economic development director pointed out, the teamwork could stimulate business.
“Participating in STiR is the perfect opportunity for the city of Fremont to support local entrepreneurship by integrating the innovative spirit of Silicon Valley startups into our problem-solving processes, especially as they relate to traffic communications,” Briggs said.
The city is also nearly ready to release a draft Mobility Action Plan (MAP), created during the past 18 months by a community task force that studied transportation issues and explored how to better educate the community about the causes of traffic and its solutions. The MAP represents a five-year strategy to outline various traffic planning and mitigation efforts. Improvements to regional transportation, including added high-occupancy vehicle lanes and an extension of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) commuter rail line farther into Silicon Valley, may also bring needed driver relief.