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Fixing Silicon Valley’s Traffic Woes Will Take Planning, Tech

At the inaugural Fremont Mobility Summit last week in Silicon Valley, officials presented the city's newly released Mobility Action Plan. The plan centers on rethinking transportation and infrastructure in the region.

Hans Larsen, director of Public Works in Fremont, Calif., presents the city's Mobility Action Plan on Feb. 6, 2020 in Fremont.
Skip Descant/ Government Technology
FREMONT, Calif. — Rocket-level job growth in California’s Silicon Valley in recent years far surpassed housing development and left the region with gridlocked traffic and too few transit options.

These are high-level trends officials in Fremont, a city in the southern section of the area known as the East Bay, will try to alter with a new Mobility Action Plan, which calls for technology upgrades around infrastructure like traffic signals, freeway improvements and rail transit expansions.

“Planning is the first step to getting anything done. And you have developed a very good, very clear, really, action plan,” Tess Lengyel, executive director for the Alameda County Transportation Commission, told public officials and others at the inaugural Fremont Mobility Summit last week. 

Of the numerous cities that make up the Bay Area, Fremont may be one of the most impacted by traffic, given its central location, particular geography and the location of jobs compared to where people live, said Hans Larsen, director of Public Works in Fremont, in his comments to summit attendees. 

In the last five years, the area around Silicon Valley added about 150,000 jobs, while only adding about 28,000 housing units. And many of those jobs were in the area known locally as the peninsula — the area south of San Francisco and home to cities like Palo Alto, Mountain View and Cupertino — with workers often traveling from cities from the east, creating a significant cut-through effect. 

“We’ve termed this the funnel effect, and the triple tidal wave of traffic that rolls over Fremont in the morning,” said Larsen.

Traffic congestion, across the nation, is on the rise. Americans spent an average of 54 hours in congestion in 2017, according to the 2019 Urban Mobility Report released by the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute. This represents a 15 percent increase from the previous five years.

“We are part of a mega-region,” said Lengyel. “People and commerce are moving amongst a multitude of counties. And that traffic and transportation and commerce hits here.”

The Action Plan, drafted following numerous community meetings and online surveys, helped to identify community priorities in Fremont.

“The No. 1 theme was development and job-housing imbalance,” said Larsen.

“There was a big interest in other travel alternatives,” he added. “I think the community recognized, we can’t build our way out of this with 16-lane, double-decked freeways, moving people by cars. And we need to find other alternatives. We need people to take transit, walk, bike, and shift the amount of driving that occurs.”

One area where the city will take the lead will be with a traffic signal modernization project.

“Fremont has a very old traffic signal system. Most of the hardware and software that’s running it is 15 years old. It’s not very nimble, efficient, and it limits how efficiently we can process traffic,” Larsen explained.

The modernization project, which the city plans to fund nearly half of in the next three years, will include adaptive signal timing, data collection, real-time monitoring and other features like emergency and transit vehicle priority. Twenty percent of the project will be completed this year.

“New technology could be kind of a game-changer in addressing the traffic,” said Larsen.

Getting drivers out of their cars by giving them more opportunities to walk, bike or use transit also ranked high with the community.

“This mode shift was extremely popular with the millennials and the younger community, but I was also surprised to see very bold interest in this from our senior members of the community as well,” said Larsen.

Other projects like expanding rail options via services by commuter providers like Caltrain, Capitol Corridor — an Amtrak managed route connecting the Bay Area to Sacramento — and the Altamont Corridor Express serving cities from Stockton to San Jose are also part of the larger vision for transportation improvements in the area. These will compliment the extension of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) down to San Jose.

This multibillion-dollar project, more than 20 years in the making, “is the equivalent of adding a new freeway system from the east Bay to Silicon Valley. This is a big deal,” said Larsen.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.