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.