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Transforming Suburbia into Eco-Utopia (part 2)

This is the second of a 3-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.

"We're trying to create downtown San Jose as the 'urban center' of Silicon Valley" says Hans Larsen, Director of Transportation for the City of San Jose.

…the new generation doesn't want to drive a 50 mile commute, to be wedded to a car, they'd rather spend their time doing other things, living close to where they work, being able to walk, bike, and/or have an easy transit trip.

I mention to Hans that, if we were to generalize, there are age groups engaged with this issue: the young group, maybe just graduated college, they want the hip, urban environment; then there are those who grew up in the valley with a house, and a car, and you couldn't pull them out of their cars if you wanted to; they are perfectly happy to have their job, to drive home, and to have their yard.

A couple walks through San Jose's South First Street Arts District (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

A couple walks through San Jose's South First Street Arts District (photo: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Hans enthusiastically interjects "that generation are a bunch of empty-nesters, that have the yard, the maintenance, and they are interested in coming to an urban environment where things are close and they can enjoy the cultural amenities in the community."

"Someone like my grandmother" I respond to Hans, taking a break to spoon some sausage soup into my mouth with a slurp "she lives near tons of shopping, only ¼ mile away at the Pruneyard, yet can't get to it because she can't drive. Most people her age don't want to walk across the 8-lane street that separates them from the shopping centers. It feels dangerous."

"It probably is," Hans remarks.

But if you've been to any major U.S. City with infrastructure built after the 1930s, you'll know that San Jose is not alone here. In most of these cities, sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike lanes aren't much more than an afterthought, a technical formality built alongside roads without much thought to where they are going or to what surrounds them.

Walk around a "technically-correct" neighborhood in San Jose, California — sidewalks and all — and you're likely to be hugely out-numbered by vehicles.

Interestingly, if you take a stroll in a neighborhood that breaks all of the technical rules — no sidewalks, small street widths, no designated street parking — such as the one pictured below in Seoul, South Korea, and people usually will far outnumber vehicles.

Perhaps we've gotten the "rules" all wrong? Along with building a technically-perfect-yet-mis-guided infrastructure, we have essentially removed the ability for our youth and our elders to be self-sufficient in getting themselves around to do very basic things.

Car-oriented street near Cafe Crema in San Jose, California, and people-oriented street near Rogpa Cafe in Seoul, South Korea (photos: Patrick Lydon | sociecity)

Even though San Jose is laden with a robust system of car oriented strip malls, Hans maintains that these are actually a very important resource that can help in creating a more sustainable, walkable city. I'm curious as to how, exactly, that logic works.

"…there are opportunities to build those up," says Hans.

To put in a high rise, you know, a senior residential tower, and bring in a larger diverse set of services there. Of the 70 urban villages we have, many of them are looking at transforming these larger strip shopping centers, or the regional malls, to have those become mini-downtowns or communities."

Those words are tremendous, mostly because they signal a 180-degree turn from the city's planning goals over the past 70+ years. To be sure, Hans and his colleagues at City Hall have played no small part in crafting this plan, yet the driving force behind it can likely be traced to one of the biggest city-wide community input initiatives in San Jose's history.

The Alameda / San Carlos Street - San Jose General Plan (Courtesy, City of San Jose)

The Alameda / San Carlos Street - San Jose General Plan (Courtesy, City of San Jose)

The development of real, walkable "urban villages" is a concept now firmly in place as part of San Jose's Envision 2040 general plan, an initiative in which more than 5,000 citizens helped the city come up with the most important targets for San Jose's growth over the next three decades.

Among the development goals identified by the city and it's citizens, squarely in the top five are:

  • Creating Urban Villages
  • Environmental Leadership, and
  • Increasing Transit Ridership

I ask how bicycling as a major transportation mechanism fits into this general plan, and Hans maintains it is a city-wide concern and priority. "The city has seen a decade of budget shortfalls, but even with limited funds for simple things like road maintenance, there are ways to get creative."

San Jose plans to bring multiple new bike lanes into the Downtown core by the end of the summer, and much of the work won't cost the city much more than standard street maintenance. It works, as Hans tells me, by grouping bike-lane striping in with maintenance.

One of the interesting things we've done with the downtown bike plan, is that we've aligned our maintenance needs with bike system development. We're actually going to be sealing those downtown streets (3rd, 4th, 10th, and 11th streets) which are due for maintenance, and so it's an opportunity to essentially have a blank slate on how to re-stripe the street after you are done with re-surfacing.

The city plans to use this tactic to add multiple bicycle lanes city-wide, with the first of the lanes concentrated downtown in preparation for the city's first bicycle share system, which will be installed later this summer.


Continue to Part 3