By Benjamin Fried and Cynthia Nikitin

California’s San Mateo County is fighting a battle against traffic. As in many other American communities, longer commutes and worsening air quality are taking a toll here. Local businesses, school districts, law enforcement agencies, and hospitals are finding it more difficult to retain quality employees, especially since the area faces an unrelenting housing squeeze. Even in the aftermath of the dotcom bust–which hit these towns on the peninsula south of San Francisco especially hard–congestion worsens and housing costs continue to escalate.

Traffic-plagued communities can reduce congestion and create robust, walkable downtowns supported by transit.

The conventional solution would be to tack on more road capacity, perpetuating the vicious cycle of ever-escalating supply and demand. But here that cycle has come to an abrupt end. Instead, the San Mateo County Transit District (SamTrans) asked PPS to help them make transit an attractive alternative to driving. Beginning in 2001, PPS has been guiding the development of a new vision for San Mateo County as a series of public space destinations linked by transit. A broad coalition, from business groups to traffic engineers, has joined together in this venture, and there are more partnerships in the works. The result is a groundbreaking model that demonstrates how traffic-plagued communities can reduce congestion and create robust, walkable downtowns supported by transit.

With commuter rail stations and bus stops located in several downtowns in San Mateo County, transit should be a popular option. The problem is walking to the transit stops. Each rail station and bus stop is situated alongside El Camino Real, an historic road-turned-drab asphalt strip that most pedestrians would rather avoid. SamTrans realized that boosting ridership on its trains and buses depended on not only improving transit stops, but also making El Camino Real a more inviting place for people.

Today, most pedestrians would rather avoid El Camino Real…

…yet it could become a walkable boulevard connecting people to transit stations and public spaces.

“We’re sitting in the center of what I believe is one of the most beautiful places on earth,” said Mike Scanlon, SamTrans’ general manager, in a recent issue of Governing magazine. “And we’ve got this butt-ugly road that goes right through it, with hodgepodge development and sleazy types of things — it’s a major disconnect, an elephant in the room.”

El Camino Real passes through the hearts of twelve cities in San Mateo County. The first step towards transforming the road was to approach stakeholders in these cities and ask for their input. Samceda, an organization that represents local business interests, and its subsidiary, the Peninsula Policy Partnership (P3), acted as the liaison between PPS and local communities, fostering a bottom-up decision making process.

“It’s growing out of the desires of the community rather than being imposed on the community,” said Samceda/P3 President Deberah Bringelson. “I think that’s extremely important and the key to success.”

These strategies will fundamentally change how the Peninsula Corridor works, replacing the big box pattern of development with clusters of mixed-use destinations linked by transit.

With local businesses, nonprofits, and public officials on board, SamTrans and PPS approached the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) to join the effort. The cooperation of Caltrans was a crucial step towards realizing the project, which became known as the Peninsula Corridor Plan.

The Plan is based on four related strategies:

  • Turning Transit Stops and Stations into “Places”
    San Mateo’s commuter rail stations and bus stops should be attractive, mixed-use destinations that give people an extra incentive to take transit.
  • Transforming El Camino Real into a Grand Boulevard
    As the common link between the towns of San Mateo County, El Camino Real can be reborn as a walkable boulevard with housing, retail, and transit stops that connect a series of improved public spaces throughout the region.
  • Creating Balanced Access
    When transit facilities are designed and located with only automobile access in mind, they become isolated from town centers. A balanced approach takes pedestrians and bicyclists into consideration and improves connections between transit stops and other civic destinations.
  • Adding Housing and Creating a Lively Downtown Mix
    With San Mateo County facing a severe lack of affordable housing, the Peninsula Corridor Plan presents an excellent opportunity to create new mixed use residential neighborhoods near transit stations and downtowns.

Implementing these strategies will fundamentally change how the Peninsula Corridor works, replacing the disperse big box pattern of development with clusters of mixed-use destinations linked by transit. Local governments have always been attracted to the sales and property tax revenue provided by big box retailers. Under the Peninsula Corridor Plan, that revenue will not only be matched by the new development along El Camino Real, but fewer car trips will be required and more land will be available for housing.

To make transit an attractive alternative to driving, bus stops have to be more than just waiting areas…

…they should be attractive, mixed-use destinations.

This vision for San Mateo County received a huge boost from the Transportation Equity Act recently passed by Congress, which earmarked $3.5 million for the “Grand Boulevard Initiative” to revitalize El Camino Real. Now PPS, Samceda, and P3 are embarking on a campaign to increase public awareness of the Initiative and build the political will to make it a reality.

PPS is also reaching out to new partners who stand to gain from the rebirth of El Camino Real as a grand boulevard. Affordable housing advocates, for instance, are a natural ally. And public health authorities should rally around the Initiative because it promotes walkable streets that encourage physical activity and reduce air pollution from traffic.

The most important constituency to win over is of course the public who use El Camino Real on a daily basis. That’s where the beauty of Placemaking becomes apparent. Local residents have contributed to the Peninsula Corridor Plan from the very start, so there is already a segment of the population that feels invested in the idea of a Grand Boulevard. That group will surely grow as the process moves forward and the people of San Mateo County are encouraged to shape a more livable peninsula.

Placemaking Pioneer:
New Jersey Transit

Today, forward-thinking communities are taking advantage of bus stops, light-rail transfer centers, and train stations as catalysts for revitalizing surrounding areas. This was not always the case. When PPS began its work on train stations in the early 90s, few transit agencies and local officials saw the potential of public transportation to create great places. One of the pioneers was NJ TRANSIT, which in 1992 asked PPS to help transform several train stations into vital public places.

Tom Downs, then the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Transportation, sought out PPS because he believed that whatever could be seen from a station–looking in any direction was the responsibility of the transit agency. He recognized that the success of public transit depended on people viewing the stations positively, accessing them comfortably, and finding other things to do besides waiting on the platform.

Through the NJ TRANSIT Station Renewal Program, PPS improved five stations and helped make the case for more changes in the future. For instance, ridership at the Netherwood Station in the city of Plainfield increased 40% after improvements to its historic station, catalyzing an expansion of the downtown business district. The initial projects were so successful that PPS returned to New Jersey in 1999 for an expanded program called ‘Transit Friendly Communities,’ funded by the Federal Highway Administration, that brought Placemaking improvements to eleven more stations and nearby downtowns.

This groundbreaking partnership continues today. This summer, PPS is training dozens of NJ TRANSIT employees how to turn their train stations into active places that serve both local communities and the agency’s goals of higher ridership.