City looks to the sky for future transit line

New technologies studied as solution to Mountain View traffic congestion

In their quest to lay the groundwork for a future transit system, members of the Mountain View City Council are grappling with more than one paradox.

To give just a few examples:

-- They want a system customized for solving local traffic congestion, but that can be linked across Santa Clara Valley's cities and transit lines

-- The system should be proven and reliable, yet won't be eclipsed by new, cutting-edge technology

-- Any new transit project should be elevated to ease traffic congestion and costs, but must not block views, impose heavy shadows or allow peeping into resident's backyards.

The list could go on, but the point is clear. Any transit system that could actually satisfy all those demands might as well include a stop at Hogwarts.

This multifaceted dilemma once again reared its head on Tuesday, Oct. 17, as the Mountain View City Council revisited its long-term study on building an automated guideway system. The meeting was a demonstration of the immense challenges inherent to transportation, even for a city with access to an enviable supply of money and brainpower.

Mountain View officials were trying to start small by targeting only the city's worst traffic hot-spots. They asked consultants from the firm Lea+Elliott to focus on a transit line connecting the city's downtown transit hub with jobs-heavy North Bayshore and the NASA Ames Research Center. If that could be achieved, then the city could someday expand the system to other neighborhoods.

"It's clear what we're trying to achieve here -- we're trying to get more cars off the road," said Mayor Ken Rosenberg. "If we design a system that's user-friendly, people will be happy to get out of their cars."

The city's consultants presented a list of four general transit technologies that they studied for Mountain View. Right from the start, they advised eliminating two of those systems from consideration. Aerial gondola cars, like those found at ski resorts, would be too slow and difficult to expand, they said. Automated people-movers and monorails would be hard to adapt and require the most expensive infrastructure of the four options.

What was left was two newer technologies that are still far from perfect. This included what they dubbed an automated transit network -- perhaps better known as podcars -- aerial vehicles intended to ferry just a few people at a time to a wide range of destinations. City consultants suggested this idea could be tweaked to include larger cars to hold more riders, which they called "group rapid transit." This would cost up to $130 million per mile to install, the consultants reported.

The second idea they supported was autonomous transit, much like the ubiquitous Waymo cars, that could transport large groups of riders quickly across town on a dedicated roadway. This would also cost about $130 million per mile, they reported.

"These are the (technologies) that are least mature, but have the best options for service and flexibility," said Jim Lightbody, the project manager. "These will be viable systems in the future."

Multiple public speakers assured the council that even better technologies would soon be coming. Burford Furman, a San Jose State University mechanical engineering professor, described how his team hoped to break ground next year on a test track for an automated solar-powered transit system. Representatives from local start-up SkyTran explained they would be developing their first full maglev transportation track in 2020, which would reportedly go in Lagos, Nigeria.

"We urge the council to consider our technology," said SkyTran founder Robert Baertsch. "You're setting the system that can grow across Silicon Valley. I urge you to think this can grow across all the Bay Area."

Both Furman and Baertsch said their systems could be built for about $15 million a mile, a fraction of the cost of any of the four technologies examined by the Lea+Elliott team. In response, the council asked its consultant team to research the emerging technologies.

The city has the benefit of time to explore emerging technologies since this ambitious project would likely take more than a decade to achieve, said Councilwoman Pat Showalter. Along with others on the council, she suggested the best immediate preparations would be to secure the property needed for a future transit line.

"This is going to be a protracted project because it's so complicated and expensive " she said. "We need to keep an open mind and design the infrastructure to be retrofitted with other systems."

Exactly how the city would pay for any future transit project remains unclear. Lea+Elliott officials said the city could seek a public-private partnership with local companies along with aid from the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA).

But the city's obvious partners are in the middle of developing their own solutions for Mountain View's traffic woes. VTA and Google have been working for nearly two years on a study of extending the existing light-rail system into the North Bayshore area. That study should be completed within the next few weeks, said City Public Works Director Mike Fuller. Meanwhile, Councilman John McAlister reminded his colleagues that VTA was also investigating a new transit line along the Highway 85 corridor. For that matter, the city transit needs could drastically change as the autonomous vehicle technology being developed right in Mountain View begins saturating the consumer market.

The City Council agreed to continue investigating podcars and autonomous transit technology. City staff said that they will continue working to finalize a report by early next year.

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19 people like this
Posted by Otto_Maddox
a resident of Monta Loma
on Oct 19, 2017 at 3:02 pm

Otto_Maddox is a registered user.

Great.. no on rides the current mass transit. But let's plan for more!

47 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Oct 19, 2017 at 3:34 pm

@Otto_Maddox - I don't know what mass transit you ride, but I regularly use Caltrain, BART, and Muni and these are all frequently full or standing-room-only. Even 1 hour train rides are standing-room-only. Without mass transit, Bay Area highways would be much more crowded.

8 people like this
Posted by NO TECHFAN
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Oct 19, 2017 at 3:54 pm

Looking for complexity is not the answer. Keep it simple is the answer:

1) Extend Bart down the peninsula to San Jose, so the loop around the bay is closed. In parallel modernize this system to bring it up to todays or better tomorrow's standard. Is this asking too much in high tech silicon valley?

2) Disentangle traffic modes, especially motorized from non-motorized traffic modes. Alternative and simple modes of getting around town such as bicycling and walking/running are too dangerous. Everybody has family and friends who have been hurt walking or bicycling. Make our towns attractive for these healthy and inexpensive modes of transportation.

No need to look for futuristic systems that are untested, expensive and slow to build. We need practical solutions now that work for everyone before we drown in traffic.

17 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Oct 19, 2017 at 4:48 pm

@NO TECHFAN - I have a hard time believing that any plan to extend BART down the peninsula would be simple by any definition of "simple". More likely, it will be as complicated as bringing HSR down the peninsula and look how "simple" that has been.

Simple would be designating two lanes of Shoreline Blvd between the downtown train station and Google to be bus and carpool only then run a constant stream of old fashioned buses in those lanes. Use electric busses if you want to be environmentally friendly.

4 people like this
Posted by NO TECHFAN
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Oct 19, 2017 at 5:03 pm

@resident: With your solution you are only thinking of Google - a typical view in Silicon Valley, just thinking locally. That is why we are in this traffic mess. Every city and company for themselves. Nothing seems coordinated and orchestrated among the many participants.

A better solution would be to pick-up on the bus idea and have all companies and cities band together and promote a world class all-around-the-bay bus infrastructure - and yes, electric to be a least a little futuristic... Maybe with some Tesla buses thrown in the mix...

14 people like this
Posted by Tom
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Oct 19, 2017 at 5:12 pm

Extending Light Rail from Ellis Street/Hiway 101 (Moffett Field) through Nasa Ames into North Shoreline is the answer.

This Light Rail will be a direct link to Caltrain in Mountain View and BART in Milpitas. It will not only benefit North Shoreline workers and new residents, but also Shoreline Amphitheater concertgoers!

Years ago Mountain View paid 20 million dollars to bring Light Rail to the Castro Street Station. Let's build on that investment.

11 people like this
Posted by Wondering
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Oct 19, 2017 at 9:00 pm

Caltrain and Bart make sense. The VTA doesn't. I constantly see VTA's massive double busses going down El Camino with a maximum of four to five people - the exception being once or twice a day. They would be wise to use 12-16 person vans, which would be much cheaper and could be scheduled much more frequently if necessary at the few more busy times. Taking any lane in MV for exclusive car pooling or VTA is a losing proposition. Busses are a 19th century technology except for the local MV public transportation loop, which some seem to find attractive because it actually goes where people want to go. Even those are relatively empty.

I doubt there is even one location in MV for an elevated line that wouldn't be a big invasion of privacy, or invade the skyline of an entire area. I think the engineers at this meeting were thinking ahead for the Waymo style transportation, and that seems like the real winner here for a lot of our more local transportation woes.

Before we spend multi-millions on a project that will be out of date before it's even built, we need to look at upcoming modes of transportation that are adaptable to our current roads. Oh, and maybe we could stop crowding our roads by building such massive housing, and instead encourage other cities to take up their share towards the Peninsula housing effort.

12 people like this
Posted by Juan
a resident of Rengstorff Park
on Oct 19, 2017 at 9:50 pm

Juan is a registered user.

Waste of money! Let some other suckers pay the R&D cost for this star trek transportation system that 99% chance will fail (just look at average startup failure rate).

7 people like this
Posted by Peter Muller
a resident of another community
on Oct 20, 2017 at 8:35 am

As President of the Advanced Transit Association I would like to point out that there are a number of technologies similar to those offered by Baertsch and Furman that are already in public service and commercially available around the world. While we encourage the City to foster the growth of local technologies, many of their fears can be allayed by paying more attention to what is being done elsewhere, which includes a project with 75 miles of track, over a hundred stations and more than a thousand vehicles.

3 people like this
Posted by Jeff
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Oct 20, 2017 at 3:10 pm

@NO TECHFAN -- "Extend Bart down the peninsula to San Jose, so the loop around the bay is closed."

Well, around half of the Bay.

@Peter Muller's comment is to the point. Anyone who thinks that some futuristic magic solution is going to happen or touts "simply do x" misses the many examples around the world of successful efforts that combine old and new technologies into well-designed systems.

5 people like this
Posted by Oldtimer
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Oct 20, 2017 at 3:30 pm

Traffic looks grim. Housing is going up, in clever Google-Mountain View everything is being built as close as possible to downtown and Google. This leads to more traffic as everyone seems to be commuting by car. This leads to longer commutes from the folks outside - the poor ones who can't afford a KenDeLeon house - and more clogging of the roads around our towns. This means Mountain View will try to build even more housing (the logic of our city council) and the spiral continues.

The only think that could get us out of this mindless trap we are building continuously - especially in Mountain View - is some well thought out transport system FOR EVERYONE BY EVERYONE. With this I mean all cities around the bay and all major employer should pull together and design a practical and functional system that stacks up to the high tech credentials we usually like to take credit for in Silicon Valley.

Feasible? Not sure, but I really think this is the only way to go. Otherwise we drown in traffic congestion.

6 people like this
Posted by Googler
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Oct 20, 2017 at 4:00 pm

@Oldtimer: You should be grateful for the tech companies. They provide good jobs and the employees pay tax here. The city is right to build more housing, this way we can live closer to work which leads to less pollution. I don't think it is the mandate of the companies to organize transport for all, they already provide transportation for their employees to get us off the road. You are asking too much of the Tech companies. They do not have to be here but can leave if they so decide. So watch out what you are asking for.

3 people like this
Posted by William Hitchens
a resident of Waverly Park
on Oct 20, 2017 at 4:45 pm

William Hitchens is a registered user.

I totally agree with Tom's post above: "Extending Light Rail from Ellis Street/Hiway 101 (Moffett Field) through Nasa Ames [to North Bayshore] is the answer."

All of the high tech foofaraw options discussed in the article, including pod cars and autonomous transit, are just very expensive pipe dreams (which I, a former telecom startup staff scientist, very cynically call "typical start-up spin, buzz, and hype dreams". Start-ups, by the very nature of their need to raise megabucks of cash and to attract customers, almost always grossly overstate the performance and benefits of their unproven technologies. It's part of the high tech startup game/dance with investors and customers.

To move people from the MV Caltrain/Light Rail station to North Bayshore without clogging existing roads, go with a proven boring low tech solution. Light rail is proven, very boring, and under-utilized. Run a light rail spur from Ellis St. to a bridge across Stevens Creek in North Bayshore. Run light rail shuttles back and forth from the bridge to Ellis St. Make the bridge accessible for shuttle buses, bicycles, and pedestrians and NOT for automobiles.

The rails are there and the cost is sunk, except thru NASA Ames. Use them!!! It may be ugly, but it will work.

3 people like this
Posted by Me
a resident of Shoreline West
on Oct 20, 2017 at 7:42 pm

why would "Extending Light Rail" work?

A simple bus shuttle from caltrain to shoreline with dedicated bus lanes would do the same and would cost a lot less to implement. If that actually gets enough people we could perhaps justify investment in light rail.

4 people like this
Posted by Here we go again
a resident of Bailey Park
on Oct 20, 2017 at 9:08 pm

[Post removed due to disrespectful comment or offensive language]

3 people like this
Posted by Gary
a resident of Sylvan Park
on Oct 22, 2017 at 7:43 pm

Gary is a registered user.

George Jetson took his own aerocar to work. Where are the aerocars?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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