Teslas zooming through a tunnel? Battery-powered shuttles gliding over roadways? Autonomous mini-trains delivering you straight to your destination?
The ideas may sound fantastical, but San Jose thinks they’re worth a closer look.
With one of the nation’s fastest-growing airports and a booming development scene in and around its downtown core, San Jose is taking a renewed interest in its longtime goal of creating a transit system to connect some of Silicon Valley’s largest attractions and employers, mostly along the Stevens Creek Boulevard corridor — from De Anza College to Main Street Cupertino and the Apple headquarters to Valley Medical Center to Valley Fair and Santana Row.
About a year after the Valley Transit Authority and the cities of San Jose, Cupertino and Santa Clara asked companies to submit proposals for innovative transit modes between Mineta San Jose International Airport, Diridon Station and destinations along Stevens Creek Boulevard, a consultant hired to evaluate the proposals has released its findings.
Officials received 23 responses that ran the gamut — from small personal “podcars” to driverless trains traveling on exclusive guideways to magnetic levitation vehicles.
Although city officials and residents alike are eager for a more efficient public transit option to the airport and along the Stevens Creek corridor, the immediate goal of the project was to suss out the reliability of new transportation models, not select one for deployment.
Adam Dankberg, an engineer with the planning and design consultant group Kimley-Horn who evaluated the proposals, deemed that at least a handful of them appeared to show promise of a quicker and cheaper implementation than the city’s current light rail model and were worthy of more exploration.
“This isn’t just doing the same transit for a little cheaper but really fundamentally changing what transit is, how people interact with it and using technology to make a better transportation experience,” Dankberg said in a recent interview.
The five proposals Denkberg found especially noteworthy were:
- 2getthere: Autonomous mini-buses — holding up to 22 people — operating on an elevated guideway or dedicated transit lane
- BYD: Driverless, battery-powered shuttles that would run on an elevated guideway and could hold 50-75 passengers
- Modutram: Driverless, battery-powered mini-trains on elevated guideways that each hold up to eight passengers
- Plenary Glydways: Small “podcars” that hold less than six people operating on an elevated guideway and taking passengers to their destinations without any stops
- The Boring Company (Elon Musk’s tunneling firm): Autonomous vehicles — Tesla Model X — traveling through underground tunnels
Estimated costs to build the projects range from about $20 million to $60 million per mile — far lower than legacy transit projects currently in planning, such as the BART extension into San Jose that is estimated at $930 million per mile, according to the analysis from Kimley-Horn.
But, as the report notes, most of the technologies proposed are still in their infant stages, have yet to be tested and are close to eight years away from becoming a reality, which means the cost estimates and timelines should be “treated with some skepticism.”
Right now those who want to access Mineta San Jose International Airport via public transit often encounter a cumbersome journey that requires transferring from Caltrain, Light Rail or BART to an airport shuttle. City and transit officials have discussed and studied various solutions for more than two decades, but none gained enough momentum.
After the passage of Measure A in 2000, San Jose worked with the VTA and various other partners to analyze potential options — from standard rail connections between the airport to the future Santa Clara BART station or North First Street Light Rail stations to more innovative personalized transit options like those recently proposed.
With the estimated cost of a standard rail extension at more than $800 million per mile, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo in early 2019 implored city staff to explore various transit options and public-private funding mechanisms for connections to the airport and Stevens Creek corridor.
San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, who represents part of the Stevens Creek corridor, said the location is a “perfect candidate for this type of high-efficiency transit effort.”
“I’m anxiously awaiting to see what comes out of it because we can do something really innovative down that corridor,” Jones said. “A lot of the groundwork has been laid, so now it’s just about how we identify the right solution, finance it and get it up and running.”
For Ramses Madou, division manager of Planning, Policy and Sustainability for San Jose’s Department of Transportation, this project is more than just building a new mode of transportation for residents and visitors — it would also go a long way toward helping the city meet its obligation of addressing climate change.
In San Jose, transportation accounts for 63% of the city’s carbon emissions — far greater than the statewide average of 40%. Although the city is making headway in reducing its carbon pollution, San Jose still has far to go to meet both city and statewide climate goals.
“They’re really big huge cuts we’re being asked to make, and right now we don’t have the mechanism to get there,” Madou said. “So what we’re hoping to do here is start moving the systems of how people get around out of cars and into a shared mobility system.”