Speedy bus service planned for El Camino

VTA's Bus Rapid Transit would include dedicated bus lanes, spacious stations and bulbouts

While Caltrain dreams of electrification and California's high-speed rail project slogs ahead through its design process, Santa Clara County officials are pursuing their own solution to Peninsula's future congestion woes: a fleet of speedy, spacious buses ferrying passengers up and down the El Camino Real corridor.

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is in the midst of designing what it calls the "Bus Rapid Transit" project -- an initiative that seeks to encourage more commuters to eschew their cars in favor of buses. The new buses have more seating and better lighting than existing VTA buses. They would travel from San Jose to downtown Palo Alto and would whisk passengers 30 percent faster than the local buses currently in operation.

"We want our passengers to differentiate these vehicles from regular buses and identify them with greater frequency and faster service," said Steven Fisher, senior planner with the VTA. "We hope to grow our market share by doing this."

With proposed road changes, including dedicated bus lanes in some cities, VTA officials believe the new buses will achieve travel times within 10 percent of automobiles. The agency is now designing the new system and intends to have it in place in 2016.

The project, which VTA officials presented to the City Council Monday night, would involve major changes along certain segments of El Camino. Some stretches could see their turning lanes and medians altered, while others could lose curbside parking spaces. The system's design would also include new bulbouts and fancy bus stops with wind screens, ticket machines and canopies.

In Palo Alto, the three stations for the new bus service would be located at California Avenue, Arastradero Road and the transit center at University Avenue. Riders would buy tickets at the station and then board the bus from any door.

There would be a total of 16 stations along the proposed route.

The goal is to reduce road congestion and promote El Camino as a pedestrian- and transit-friendly boulevard. But the new line will also force communities to assess their transportation priorities, particularly in cases where a new bus lane could impact bike lanes and parking spots.

Cities, such as Mountain View, that could get new dedicated bus lanes, might see their curbside parking eliminated or their medians and left-turn lanes shortened, according to a report from Palo Alto Traffic Engineer Shahla Yazdy.

In Palo Alto, meanwhile, the buses will likely share space with cars in a "mixed flow" configuration. Lanes would stay the same for the most part, but areas around bus stations would be equipped with sidewalk bulbouts and station platforms leading to the travel lane.

The VTA plans to complete design and environmental analyses for Bus Rapid Transit by summer 2014 and begin operation of the new bus service in 2016.

The proposed plan is consistent with Palo Alto's goals of turning El Camino Real into a more pedestrian friendly and aesthetically pleasing stretch. The City Council was generally sympathetic to the plan, with Greg Schmid calling it a "great, bold proposal." But council members also questioned the VTA's ridership numbers, which are based on housing projections from the Association of Bay Area Governments, a regional planning organization. Council members have consistently questioned the agency's assumption and argued that its projections for Palo Alto are vastly exaggerated.

Councilman Greg Scharff asked if the El Camino route would generate enough passengers to justify the new service. Schmid also wondered what impact the bus stations and bulbouts would have on the city's already congested intersections. Councilman Pat Burt also questioned the bulbouts, which would be designed to have the portion of the sidewalk at the station extend to the road and require cars driving behind the bus to stop and wait until passengers get on and off.

Fisher said the buses would only stop for about 20 seconds at the stops. Passengers would not be able to buy tickets on the buses and would not be required to show a proof of payment upon boarding (a transit officer would be on board, checking for tickets).

Fisher also said the El Camino corridor is already one of the busiest in the system and that the new bus service would constitute a major improvement, even if the regional projections are off.

"The worst possible outcome is that you'll be providing better service to the best transit corridor in Santa Clara County," Fisher said.


2 people like this
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 22, 2011 at 10:57 pm

How will this affect cross traffic delays at Oregon Expressway and Embarcadero?

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Posted by RS
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 22, 2011 at 11:48 pm

"With proposed road changes, including dedicated bus lanes in some cities, VTA officials believe the new buses will achieve travel times within 10 percent of automobiles."

I assume they mean 10 percent of the travel times of cars on El Camino Real. People driving from PA to San Jose dont drive on El Camino Real, so it will still be slow. They also dont travel from an El Camino Real Destination to an El Camino Real Destination, so they will have to change buses. The Caltrain goes on almost the exact same route, goes faster and allows bikes on board. This seems like an inferior redundant solution to the caltrain.

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Posted by Steven
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 23, 2011 at 5:19 am

I think VTA may be doing a trial run of the proposed pot establishments. Are they planning on running the bus in a tunnel or a raised platform? BTW, how many people really ride the bus from Palo Alto to San Jose vs. like Mountain View ti Sunnyvale. On a shorter trip, what is the real savings - maybe 10-15%. Door to door, even less. Perhaps VTA should beef up Caltrain, and invest in the last couple moles to caltrain.


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Posted by Buses-Yes!--Caltrain-No!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 23, 2011 at 5:42 am

There is already an express bus (522) that runs along much of El Camino Real (ECR). It moves along during the non-prime time traffic, and is not a bad alternative to travel by car, if it weren't for all the crazy people that ride the bus.

Not certain what the travel time during rush hour is, but the schedules don't seem to show much more than a five minute variation for drive-time trips.

Caltrain is a disaster, financially. The taxpayers are taking it in the shorts every day this black hole of Northern California is in operation. A little less than half the Caltrain passengers travel less than twenty miles, it makes no sense to run a money-losing railway, and a money-losing bus line so close to each other.

El Camino is clearly of more interest to shoppers, and people looking for access to government services. So it makes more sense to try to make the VTA offering more attractive to these short-haul passengers, than to make Caltrain more expensive to operate--such as the insane electrification idea.

It would also make a lot of sense to look at trying to get a private sector company interested in SF<>SJ bus operations.

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Posted by who cares
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 23, 2011 at 6:40 am

Who cares that VTA is doing this. Honestly all this will turn into is another "Motel 22" for the homeless in the area.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 23, 2011 at 7:52 am

As someone who is normally very pro public transit, I have my reservations about this.

At present, the buses on this route run all night and are used by homeless people as somewhere warm to sleep. Is there really a need that this route will fill that isn't already being filled by Caltrain?

Secondly, the result sounds more like a desire to prevent traffic from moving at the speed limit on ECR. With dedicated buslanes, bulbouts that mean cars have to wait behind buses while they let off and pick up passengers, and the type of bus stops that prohibit visibility to drivers, it sounds as if ECR will be the type of road nightmare we don't want.

ECR is the type of road we drive on to reach the businesses on ECR rather than as a route to get somewhere (except in Palo Alto of course where we have to use it as an obstacle course to get from Alma to Sand Hill). But, even with say a trip from South Palo Alto to get to Stanford Shopping Center, or the homes in Southgate rabbit warren where we have no alternatives, ECR will become horrendous!

I suspect the through neighborhood roads will get more traffic and start asking for road blocks too!

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Posted by Steve Ly
a resident of Los Altos
on Jun 23, 2011 at 10:44 am

Why the need to say "a fleet of speedy, spacious buses ferrying passengers up and down the El Camino Real corridor? For clarity and brevity, why not just say "a fleet of speedy, spacious buses ferrying passengers up and down El Camino Real?

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Posted by Public Transpot Rider
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jun 23, 2011 at 10:48 am

For the number of people that use the buses that go and up and down, the current bus service is sufficient or at least close to. WHAT WE REALLY NEED IS PUBLIC TRANSPORT ON OTHER STREETS to get people to El Camino to use express buses, like for one Marsh Road that currently has no public transport. Marsh Road is extremely very congested with drivers cutting though the surrounding neighborhoods to avoid the congestion. Public transport in the area is piecemeal and infrequent. Getting people in the area out of their cars and onto reliable public transport could reduce the congestion. People do not just live on El Camino or close to it. And Samtrans and the VTA should work together to service those other areas...

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Posted by @ Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 23, 2011 at 10:49 am

Think of it more as an upgrade for the existing 522 service than the existing 22 bus service. 522 does not run all night and has the exact same three bus stops in Palo Alto as the new service. The main improvement to the bus service is in dedicated traffic lanes in other cities, as well as newer vehicles. At least they're not proposing to take away traffic lanes from El Camino Real in Palo Alto, so there should be minimal affect on other roads in Palo Alto.

The bulb outs for the new service are not necessary and will delay other traffic, causing more congestion. Whoever heard of a bus stopping for only 20 seconds, especially if ridership is what they expect. We don't need more congestion at California Avenue, where one stop is. Improvements to Charleston/Arastradero and El Camino could be done as part of this project.

Bus Rapid Transit is a much better idea than the boondoggle that is VTA's light rail.

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Posted by Greg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 23, 2011 at 11:49 am

VTA seems to be awash in funding so we have empty light rail cars to nowhere and now this. Caltrain already has a dedicated right of way on the same route and can make the trip much faster than these busses. Caltrain should be funded directly and not have to rely on handouts from VTA.

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Posted by Chris
a resident of University South
on Jun 23, 2011 at 11:49 am


VTA loses much more money than Caltrain.

You are not the right person to call Caltrain a financial disaster.
You are living in the proverbial glass house.

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Posted by Dan
a resident of Southgate
on Jun 23, 2011 at 12:28 pm

"We hope to grow our market share by doing this."

Gain market share from whom? Caltrain? Aren't you guys supposed to be on the same team? Caltrain is already hurting for money. Sucking Caltrain's passengers away to another mass transit alternative will only exacerbate Caltrain's financial problems.

It's all very sexy to come up with "great, bold new proposals". So boring to fix what we already have. Question is: which is more fiscally responsible?

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Posted by John
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 23, 2011 at 12:44 pm

Bad English:
"Stretches" don't see their turning lanes altered. People see them altered.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 23, 2011 at 12:47 pm

Some very sensible discussion here.

Rather than improving a service which doesn't need to appear improvements, it would definitely be a better idea to improve local short distant services.

As an example, there are many Paly students who have no bus service to take to school. Paly's boundaries extend as far south as Loma Verde and Bayshore and are not served by any type of service.

Another example is the fact that no bus services meet Caltrain in time to catch a train and wait until after the train to pick up those coming off the train. There are also no bus transfer tickets, so for 2 short journeys, a passenger has to pay twice. A sensible pricing ticket would enable a journey of any length with any number of transfers between buses and trains that lasts less than 1 hour to have a single standard fare.

Improving local transit would actually get people out of their cars. I can't see this proposed service doing that.

1 person likes this
Posted by Jim H.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 23, 2011 at 2:14 pm

Here's a video showing how the plan will work. Looks promising...
Web Link

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Posted by Donald
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jun 23, 2011 at 3:01 pm

The 522 bus to San Jose is considerably cheaper than Caltrain and it runs longer hours, but is slower. If you want to get to an early morning flight from SJC Caltrain won't work.

The 522 line is now one of the most popular and heaviest-used VTA routes. A couple of years ago they dropped a lot of lesser-used routes and are working to improve the busy ones. I can see the financial sense in that, but it leaves people with a bigger "last mile" problem. I live about 2.5 miles from El Camino, which is a time-consuming walk. If I bike I can do it quickly and I know I can get my bike on the train these days. On the other side, a double-length VTA bus only has a single 2-bike rack on the front, not much for approx 80 passengers. Also, a 20-second stop is not enough time to load or unload a bike.

I think the express bus is a great idea, but is only part of the solution.

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Posted by Buses-Yes!-Caltrain-No!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 23, 2011 at 6:00 pm

> VTA loses much more money than Caltrain.

Duh .. at the agency level .. yes. It's much larger, and has a much larger mission. Direct comparison is not very useful.

However, given the high capital expenditure involved in building/running a train line, and the almost non-existent passenger load .. which can only deliver passengers to stops on the train tracks .. it's hard not to see that Caltrain costs more money than VTA, and does not recapture its costs--thereby losing more money than VTA.

> You are not the right person to call Caltrain a financial disaster.

Really? And who says that anyone who can read budgets, and draw straight lines between the dots, isn't the right person to call a spade a spade, or see the truth for what it is.

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Posted by Milt
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 24, 2011 at 8:57 am

The county wide bus service is becoming outdated, undesirable for most, inconvenient, and for the most part relegated to students, low income commuters, and sadly many degenerates who I have no desire to be around. Public transportation is not embraced entirely in the bay area because people are linked to their cars. It's part of the California culture.

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Posted by Almencista
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 24, 2011 at 9:44 am

Steve asked "Why the need to say "a fleet of speedy, spacious buses ferrying passengers up and down the El Camino Real corridor? For clarity and brevity, why not just say "a fleet of speedy, spacious buses ferrying passengers up and down El Camino Real?"

Maybe the answer is that they plan to close Alma to cars and run the buses there.

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Posted by YIMBY
a resident of University South
on Jun 24, 2011 at 2:40 pm

YIMBY is a registered user.

This is HUGE! Folks may not see this readily, but with BRT, the next phase of improved bus service comes to Peninsula - or should I say Santa Clara County, as the poor folks in SM County are still fending off bankruptcy due to a poorly financed BART expansion (to SFO) leaving them with the likes of a $100 million debt, about $12 million annually.

BRT is a bit like the baby bullet train compared to the local service.
Bravo VTA!

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Posted by south bay resident
a resident of another community
on Jun 27, 2011 at 1:29 am

I don't see VTA's BRT plans as having to be in competition with Caltrain at all. It should be seen and designed as a complementary component. Currently the problem with VTA route 22 and 522 service is that it only connects with Caltrain at the Palo Alto, Santa Clara and San Jose stations. With both 22 and 522 service running along the same route I think the route 22 service should be modified to connect directly to more Caltrain stations such as at Mountain View and Sunnyvale. The 522 service should stick to it's current El Camino route with reasonably timed transfers between the 522 express and 22 local service. Route 22 would then serve more people and feed more passengers to both Caltrain and route 522. That basic sort of route structure could be implemented very quickly before any true BRT systems are built. Later on they can build the BRT but the most essential thing is to get a more effective route structure in place. Everything needs to work together to create a solid network. Caltrain will remain essential for longer distance commute travel and feeding passengers to high speed rail. The VTA local and express busses will feed passengers to Caltrain or just take people places Caltrain does not and cannot serve.

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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 27, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

"if it weren't for all the crazy people that ride the bus."
That says it all.

1 person likes this
Posted by Eugene B.
a resident of another community
on Jan 26, 2015 at 12:41 pm

Wow. It seems people on both sides of the BRT issue have much to learn
in terms of:

* how the BRT project was conceived in the first place
* how local and regional governments work
* how VTA is primarily funded

Please join me and my group this Thursday evening in San Jose to discuss these issues and how to make this BRT project and connecting bus service happen. Agenda is at the link below.

Web Link

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