Happy Anniversary to One of the Nation's Least Successful Public Transit Systems

Even if you’re not an urban planner, chances are you know that if you spend several billion dollars constructing a public transit system, and millions of dollars annually to maintain it, it’s important that people actually use it. But in California’s Silicon Valley, home to the world’s brightest engineering minds, the county’s light rail system is not only outrageously expensive, but almost no one rides it.

According to San Jose’s Mercury News, the local light rail system, run by the Valley Transportation Association, ranks among the nation’s worst public transit programs. At its 25th anniversary recently, the celebrations remained pretty tepid; fewer than one percent of the local residents use the rail, and with good reason. Or more to the point, reasons.

The first may very well be that the vast area the VTA rail serves is far too spread out to be thoroughly accessed by a tracked mode of transportation. The rail was originally built in anticipation of the dense urban sprawl expected with the proliferation of the area’s booming tech industry.  But Santa Clara Valley managed to retain a suburban landscape that spread farther outward as it grew, instead of clustering on top of itself.  It’s inherently difficult for a rail system reach all those enclaves, making it convenient for a few, but useless for most.

MORE: Will Buses Save the World's Second Most Polluted City?

But even if a train-based system could hit all pockets of commercial and residential activity, the trains themselves move at a speed that’s far from “automotive” and closer to something like  “molasses.” Through downtown San Jose, for instance, the rail mopes along at just 10 mph.

According to a report in the Journal of Public Transportation, one of the criteria for a successful light rail system is that it’s supposed to be a faster option than local buses. In Silicon Valley, it’s not even faster than riding your own bike, or for some, jogging.

The shame really lies with the costs to taxpayers. According to Atlantic Cities, it costs the VTA almost $12 to carry one passenger round trip on its light rail− that’s 83 percent more than the US average− and local taxpayers shoulder the burden for almost all of it.

To the VTA’s credit, its bus system seems to do a better job of servicing commuters.  But still, that’s not stopping it from undergoing another light rail expansion, down to Netflix headquarters in Los Gatos. At $175 million, the plan is expected to net just 200 new riders.

There’s also some evidence that  rail systems may not necessarily be any better for the environment than passenger-car subways. What might make the most sense for an area as vast as the Silicon Valley is pumping some of those expansion dollars into a beefed-up and smarter bus system− one that utilizes hybrid engines or biofuels, and one where more remote locations receive regular service, but by smaller vehicles that use less power.

Light rails are successfully used in other parts of the country, ones that are more densely populated and come with complementary forms of public transit. As we look to green our commutes, it's important that we not only remain willing to try new options, but also willing to concede when one of those options just doesn't work out.

What eco-friendly improvements would you like to see in your own city’s public transit system?  Let us know in the Comments.

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A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and medical writer.  In addition to reporting the weekend news on TakePart, she volunteers as a webeditor for locally-based nonprofits and works as a freelance feature writer for TimeOutLA.com. Email Andri | @andritweets | TakePart.com