Sustainable Cities Collective has re-launched as Smart Cities Dive! Click here to learn more!

Silicon Valley: From Suburbia to Eco-Utopia (part 1)

The Paseo de San Pedro in Downtown San Jose, California (photo: Patrick Lydon | soceicity)

The Paseo de San Pedro in Downtown San Jose, California (photo: Patrick Lydon | soceicity)

This article is the first of a 5-part series on the city of San Jose's sustainable transportation goals, based on Sociecity's April 12, 2012 interview with Hans Larsen, the city's Director of Transportation.

San Jose, California – It's only 11:25 am yet, so the smell of grilled sandwiches hasn't quite saturated the cold air in this building. I am sitting at Cafe Too, a surprisingly chic space inside of a circa-1892 Romanesque sandstone masterpiece which is also home to the San Jose Museum of Art. The building, one of the lone historical edifices in the surrounding blocks, seems to defy much of what San Jose has become.

San Jose — billed as the Capital of Silicon Valley — is in the middle of one of the great innovation centers of the modern world to be sure, but when it comes to sustainable development, the city has traditionally been a perfect example of what not to do.

Arial View of suburban development in San Jose, California (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Arial View of suburban development in San Jose, California (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Which is one of the reasons why I am meeting today with Hans Larsen, San Jose's newly appointed Director of Transportation. Hans isn't new to the job, having served as Acting Director of the department since 2009, and being involved with the city's transportation planning since 1985. Hans has some rather large plans brewing for the city's transportation system, and necessarily so; bringing a city that was built for the car into the age of modern eco-friendly transportation is probably one of the most difficult tasks a guy like Hans could think of facing.

I sit down on one of the simple leather couches in the cafe and Hans gets right to the point.

San Jose's challenge is that we are interested in being a leading sustainable city, but… we are coming from an environment that was literally built around the car. So how do you transform suburbia into a more sustainable model. There are not many leaders who have to come at it form that angle.

Hans shows me a few pages from the new San Jose City Master Plan, commenting on the transportation goals and San Jose's goal of building over 70 walkable, mixed-use urban 'villages' within the city.

The plan looks nice on paper, I tell Hans. I mean, the goal is great, but what are the challenges in terms of both enforcing it, and actually making it happen?

In reply, Hans first points me to some charts showing transportation modal share (the percentage of trips taken using different kinds of transportation).

"…on the transportaion side, this is where we are now," he points to a chart showing how 80% of people drive in cars by themselves to get from place to place.

San Jose Master Plan - Transportation Use (courtesy of the City of San Jose)

San Jose Master Plan - Transportation Use Table (courtesy of the City of San Jose)

We want that to be less than 40 percent by the year 2040. So it's a big increase in transit, walking, biking.

No kidding.

In a meeting just last month, Hans noted that a passionate San Jose councilman named Sam Liccardo focused on making sure there were performance measurements for alternative transportation goals for biking, walking, and transit. When it comes to new development, Liccardo wants the city to consciously ask themselves "are we getting more people walking, biking, taking transit?"

But is the current status quo too far away from the ultimate goal? Hans puts the onus primarily on re-envisioning land use to fit with transportation infrastructure.

We need to change our land use. Right now, all the jobs are in the north, the housing is in the south, and you've got 10-15 mile distances in between the two. That's difficult to you know, to walk, bike, and not really conducive to transit. So to mix up the land use to put jobs where the houses are and houses where the jobs are, and creating – one of the elements of this plan – 70 urban villages in San Jose that are designed to be mixed-use communities where you have jobs, housing, retail, recreation, social needs all within a compact community. It's that land use change that's really going to drive a lot of the mode shift, building communities where walking and biking are the most convenient ways. So it's the land use, and also changing the transportation system and having more infrastructure, particularly for biking and transit, so we have programs oriented towards that.

I point out to Hans that they city also has many venerable 'older' plans for transportation oriented development that have not seemed to pan out. "In North San Jose for instance, along the light rail corridor, " I tell him  "there's a great looking plan, but it hasn't happened, so how do you make sure it happens?"

Hans notes that the plan for North San Jose was put together as a 30 year master plan for the area.

The North San Jose plan brings [in theory] 32,000 new housing units into what is primarily a job center, and also intensifies the kind of office-buildings that go in there, converting from 1-3 story tilt-up configurations to more of a 10-20 story built environment. One of the challenges is just market forces.

In this respect, San Jose is in much the same situation as any other American city today. While we may have realized our follies in developing transportation systems based almost solely on the car, our change of heart comes at a poor time economically.

Good thing then, that bike infrastructure is cheap.


Continue to Part 2