Then and Now

One thing that really jumped out after visiting DC was the juxtaposition. The Metro was full of ads for defense contractors and government IT solutions providers on Sunday afternoon, and the drive home down 101 on Sunday night was chockablock with billboards pitching developer jobs and infrastructure management solutions. I’ve moved from one industry town to another, and that industry’s gravity pulls everything into its orbit somehow. In a lot of ways, to be honest, because all the things I marveled at in California in 2002 – pervasive free wifi, GSM phones, gourmet burger places and craft beer options and Apple technology everywhere – all that has come to the DMV, pretty much. 

Now it’s time to start looking the other direction. Because there are things that Silicon Valley needs to be going to school on. And one of the big ones is that for better or worse, you can’t stop pretending like all these towns up and down the Peninsula are anything but boroughs of one big city. Forget about parsing out Redwood City and Palo Alto and Menlo Park and Sunnyvale and accept the truth: San Francisco is 800,000 people, San Jose is 1.1 million people, and they both border a city of 1.5 million people that just happens to be divided into two counties and a bunch of trifling municipalities for no apparent reason. 

Next big thing: when DC expanded into Arlington and Tyson’s, it did it by building train lines and growing around them, and in a pinch running the train into where the growth had already happened. Say what you like about Metro, but it’s out there running a train every six minutes at rush hour, sometimes more where the lines overlap. In Washington DC, you couldn’t get away with a transit line that only put up one train every 90 minutes on the weekend or once an hour between 10 and 4. Caltrain is commuter rail that tries to pretend it’s transit, and it suffers miserably in the effort. And yet people insist on trying to build around a Caltrain line as if it were transit for anything other than commute hours, and that development is highly imperfect at best. Apple isn’t on the Caltrain line. Facebook isn’t on the Caltrain line. Google isn’t on the Caltrain line.  Maybe if you decamped to San Jose…where you not only have Caltrain, but Capital Corridor and ACE and the future BART down from the East Bay and the VTA…

Hold up.

VTA light rail is currently something that runs every 15 minutes at rush hour, every 30 minutes otherwise, and knocks off at 10 PM. It runs at street level through much of San Jose, but has its own right-of-way in the northern part of the county. And it runs right through a whole lot of space that’s developed as office park at best, with precious little housing and no other amenities.

Here’s the thing about my old neighborhood in Arlington: the 25-story apartment towers are clustered within five blocks of the Orange Line stations and then taper right off. But they’re not only walking distance to the trains, every single one of them has (or is directly adjacent to) some kind of deli or mini-market or other retail necessity right there. You don’t need a car at all. Famously, I was walkable to two CVS stores, a mall with a movie theater and a full size grocery store. And the easy draw, the thing that made it attractive, was that you’d have a Metro train every twelve minutes, in either direction, every day from 5 AM to 1 AM. This was not the case when they started building the Orange Line under Wilson Boulevard in the 1970s, and people at first wanted to know why they wouldn’t just build down the middle of I-66. But they didn’t. They built it and the development grew up around it.

The biggest feature of construction in Mountain View right now is the growth of these blocks of 4-story apartments, rental or condo, all along El Camino Real from Adobe Creek to 85. Probably only four stories so they don’t have to switch away from wood construction in case of earthquakes. But here’s the thing: they’re on the road. They aren’t on any train system. What transit options they have basically boils down to the 22/522 bus line on VTA, or calling some sort of ride share company (of the sort that has demonstrably grown San Francisco traffic out of control). This new dense housing is going to do nothing to alleviate traffic problems, because the thing about urban development isn’t that you have dense housing, it’s that you have dense everything. Dense housing without transit just means bodies stacked like cordwood and roads that don’t move.

So it’s time to take the bullet and build along the VTA in the north. Build your 15-story luxury apartments if you must, but every single one has to have a drugstore or a taqueria or a dry-cleaners or something worthwhile in it, such that you don’t have to hop in the car for every little thing. And you’re going to have to run more train cars, and you’re going to have to run them more than every half an hour, and you’re going to have to run them past 10 PM. Because “Silicon Valley” is functionally the seventh largest city in the United States, and a city that size has to have trains that run more than twice an hour and don’t shut it down before prime time television ends.

I was at the airport, I was in downtown, I was all along my old patch in Arlington and I was all along route 7 all the way to Reston. And I only needed to call a cab twice: once to go all the way to Leesburg and once to speed home from the bar past 1 AM. You’re only going to build a workable urban environment when you don’t need to use a car anymore, whether you’re driving it or not, and anyone who tells you Uber or Waymo are the answer can pound sand. See the transit, be the transit, use the transit. There’s no sustainable alternative.

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