Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Wednesday Wishlist: Transit Innovation

This summer I spent quite a bit of time in London and Paris, cities that are known to have some of the best public transportation systems in the world (definitely the best in Europe). You can get pretty much anywhere in either of this cities by subway. For several years, I have fantasized of one day (many decades from now) having a similar system in San Jose. After extensively using underground, overground, and light rail systems this summer... I'm actually going to have to retract this fantasy. I think we can and should build something much better that reflects Silicon Valley's innovative capacity.

The subway concept is actually 150 years old and has evolved at a snail's pace. Key improvements include electrification, escalators, and better tunneling... no dramatic recent innovations. The London tube system today (pictured way below) and the technology behind it, shockingly isn't that much different than it was 60 years ago in 1950. Think about what this means. This is a systems that was mostly built long before personal computers, the internet, even before microwaves became commonplace. If you really think about it, it's archaic tech. Here are some negatives that really stood out during my trip (and can also apply to public transit in general):

  • It's not that fast. The underground trains' max speeds are around 40mph and if you factor in stops your average speed is 20mph. If you also factor in the time takes to walk down into the station and wait for a train, then it's actually faster to walk in many instances if your stop is only 2 to 3 stations away.
  • It's not that efficient. London has a system that specifically tries to minimize transfers, and sometimes you still have to do 2 transfers to get where you want to go.
  • It's not that comfortable. I would say 90% of the time in London it was standing room only when boarding the trains. In Paris it was a little bit better in terms of seating, but the constant bad smell in the trains made it equal or surpass the uncomfort level in London.
  • Zero privacy
Now let's circle back to San Jose. We're in an interesting position thanks to the lack of transit development and in the end it might even be a good thing. It's almost like we have a blank page to work with and have to luxury to ask "SHOULD WE MIMICS SYSTEMS THAT ARE CONCEPTUALLY 150 YEARS OLD OR IS THERE A BETTER WAY?"

I think the answer is that there is a much better way, and that it will eventually be some form of high speed personal rapid transit. This is pretty much a hybrid between a car and public transit. You walk into a station, get into a private pod, tell it where you want to go... and that's it. There are no lines, no stops, no transfers, the comfort level is equal to a car, and you have total privacy (including peace of mind to use a tablet or laptop without thinking twice). The tracks and stations would also be smaller and dramatically less expensive than traditional transit and could be placed in many more locations (if underground, you could literally have a stop at every block). The real trick is developing the computing brains behind the system that will manage all of the pods, and that my friends is familiar territory for Silicon Valley.

To summarize the longest Wednesday Wishlist ever, we should be devoting most of our transit efforts to a contemporary system that will create a new paradigm for other cities to follow instead of going with a traditional and infrequently questioned model. This is a geographic area that has spurred innovation across a dozen different industries, perhaps transportation could be our next one?


  1. I really like thinking ahead about something new and different. Just to note though - London and Paris are both very densely packed cities. The fact that the trains don't move all that quickly is greatly mitigated by the fact that you're probably not going very far.

    San Jose, on the other hand is extremely low density and wasn't planned with transportation in mind. Our light rail trains only move about 15 MPH, and it's not at all unusual to have to go the full 15 miles (or more) to get from one side of the city (where there are only houses) to the other side (where there are only jobs).

    Again, I like the idea of some newer-style mass transportation system. The area sorely needs something that's faster than the existing system. I don't know that it would involve individual pods or smaller train cars with custom destinations.

    However, there is a reason subway systems work in cities like Paris, London, Washington and New York: Density.

  2. I concur with Anonymous.

    There is no density in San Jose to pull this off, even after a few more decades.

    To be frank, where would you like to go in San Jose? There are no big attractions. There are no nice neighborhoods (besides Willow Glen really). San Jose are just a bunch of strip malls that are designed for car-oriented transportation. The only locations I can see people go for leisure stroll are downtown and Santana Row and neither are big enough to make a comprehensive subway system necessary.

  3. Density would absolutely help, but there are MANY locations in San Jose that should be connected via some sort of modern transit. Key stops should be:

    - Multiple areas of Downtown San Jose
    - Multiple parts of North 1st St., Alviso
    - SJC
    - Santana Row / Valley Fair
    - Japantown
    - Berryessa
    - Evergreen
    - East San Jose
    - West San Jose
    - Almaden
    - Willow Glen

  4. I've never had to delete posts before, but I'm going to start doing this for posts that are disrespectful.

  5. I would just be happy with an expanded VTA light rail. And the one route I would love to see would run from DTSJ along San Carlos/Stevens Creek. That way we could immediately connect DTSJ, Valley Fair/Santa Row, De Anza, and Apple.

  6. Oh, and the density argument posted previously makes little sense. If the subway builders in NY or London thought that way they wouldn't have built their systems 50-100 years ago. You need to build a system that will service the Valley for the next 50 years, not just today.

  7. I'm with anon 2:00,
    Definitely need a rail line from DSJ down San Carlos/Stevens Creek. Either light-rail or monorail. Not to thrilled with bus rapid transit idea.