Wednesday, April 18, 2007

How to fix the traffic problem

Polls of people living in Silicon Valley show that the top two problems are the cost of housing and traffic. The former is a simple problem of supply and demand - too many people want to live here and mountains and water hem in the available space.

Traffic, on the other hand, is a messier problem. In part, it's simple: too many cars in not enough road. Here's the crux of my hypothesis - too many cars isn't the's too little decent public transportation. If anything, the California car culture makes it harder to fix this. This will anger a bunch of people that I know, but I think we're just propping up a failed freeway system with the network of carpool lanes and metering lights. If I had my way, we'd remove the carpool lanes and turn off the metering lights. I used to be a big fan of them, but I've come to the conclusion that they simply prolong the agony of our traffic issues. Perhaps removing them will force the issue a bit sooner.

One of the problems we have is the state of public transportation in silicon valley. Frankly, it stinks. There's not enough of it, and it runs along less than useful routes. My favorite example is Caltrain. I like taking Caltrain, but it's not a substantial time saver for me. In particular, the Tamien station may be the stupidest place for a train station on the planet. It's the southern terminus for most trains in the system, so most riders would be coming from farther south. The way Highway 87 is setup, on the other hand, makes it trivial to get to the station from the north, but it's a real pain from the south. On most days, it takes me about five minutes less to get to the Caltrain station than it does for me to get to work in Mountain View. That's crazy.

To be fair, Caltrain follows a historic route along the old Camino Real that originally connected the California missions together 200 years ago. That route has nothing to do with the modern freeway system.

The station placement problem could be alleviated by making other public transportation work with Caltrain. Indeed, the Tamien station is located alongside a VTA light-rail station, and I live within walking distance of a light-rail station. Of course, it takes even longer for the light-rail to deliver me to the train station than it does for me to drive all the way to work.

What we really need is a more coordinated transportation system. Frankly, that's going to be expensive. Of course, it's no more than the cost of all of the wasted gas from people idling in traffic everyday. It's mostly a matter of political and popular will, which, alas, means it isn't going to get solved anytime soon.

I'll make another unpopular suggestion. The gas tax in California should get raised $0.50 per gallon. There is a caveat on that - the income derived from that tax should get pumped directly into public transportation issues. (At present, it just goes into the general fund, which is just crazy, in my opinion.) I'm a huge fan of usage taxes. If you chose to drive a low-mileage vehicle, you would end up paying a larger proportion of the cost to support the road network. Perhaps that would be an encouragement to get on a bus or train instead.

In any case, I've blathered on for long enough on this topic. I hate the traffic here. It's the one thing that makes me want to leave...and I don't think anything we're presently doing is going to help the situation at all!

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