[supplied title]

what Silicon Valley could have looked like

A few days ago, The Atlantic Cities ran a piece featuring designer Alfred Twu's visualizations of "What Silicon Valley Might Look Like If All of Its Employees Actually Lived There". These are imaginary designs, of course, but they show how dense the region could be if future development were aimed at bringing in more residents and reducing the number of people who commute from San Francisco and elsewhere.

What people might not know is that there was a brief moment when the southern Bay Area could have been developed more densely in the first place. During the 1950s, the Bay Area Rapid Transit Commission investigated the possibilities for building rapid transit in the Bay Area (as one might guess from the title of the commission). Their work ultimately led to the construction of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in place today.

Back when I was a grad student in history, I did some research into the early BART planning process and ended up writing a paper on how the West Bay counties - Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Marin - ended up dropping out before any BART development got started. I don't have time to get into all the details here, but briefly: the BART Commission asked the firm Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Hall, and MacDonald (PBHM) to produce a report examining the possibilities of rapid transit for the nine Bay Area counties.

This report came out in 1956 and recommended a multi-stage development schedule.1 The first stage would have covered the urban core (SF-Oakland-Alameda-Berkeley) and stretched into Contra Costa, Alameda, Marin, and San Mateo counties. The Peninsula endpoint would have been Palo Alto. The second stage of development would have brought BART to Santa Clara County and San Jose. Obviously, only some of these plans were implemented and even now BART barely touches San Mateo county.

One of the guiding ideas behind the 1956 PBHM report and the whole early BART planning process was that rapid transit would be used principally to relieve highway congestion rather than shape new development. That might seem like an odd way to look at things, but as far as I could tell from my research, the majority of people involved in planning BART didn't think that (suburban) people would ride rapid transit without the external motivation of congested highways.

So the justification for leaving out the South Bay in the first stage of BART construction was that the area still lacked the population needed to generate the kind of car traffic that BART would then relieve. At the time, Santa Clara County was still fairly agricultural: population growth in San Jose and what would become known as Silicon Valley was just starting to take off. The PBHM report actually considered highway construction to be preferable to rapid transit in Santa Clara County in the near-term.

Karl Belser, the Santa Clara County Planning Director, saw things differently. I'm just going to quote from my paper here:

Presenting a view of rapid transit at odds with PBHM's assumptions, Belser stated that the county had already exhausted its most logical alignments for highway building and was “scraping the bottom of the barrel for added freeway lanes.”2 Instead, the county’s future growth and prosperity depended on the immediate construction of both rapid transit and highways. Belser anticipated a county population of 750,000 by 1965 and one million by 1975; PBHM’s figures projected a high of around 1.1 million only in 1990. Belser called for the “three way linkage of the San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland area by rapid transit as the means of welding these three major population concentrations together into one great metropolitan complex.” Advocating a realistic approach to planning, he pointed out that even the first stage of construction could take over ten years to complete. By that time Santa Clara clearly would need rapid transit. Furthermore, if constructed at present the line would pass through “relatively open country” without having to deal with existing development and high land costs. Now Belser came to the core of his disagreement with PBHM: freeway and rapid transit

are dynamically competitive and it is difficult enough to overcome tradition and habit without having such bents built into the physical pattern. In northern Santa Clara County and southern Alameda County the possibility of changing the direction of development and orienting it specifically to the transit system is still open. It would be possible to provide a type of urban living facility which would be primarily based on the transit system for mobility. This would…be a sort of assured patronage for the long range use of the facility…Such a new direction needs to be understood and planned for at the earliest possible time in a rapidly developing area such as ours.

Drawing comparisons with Europe – especially Paris – he thought that his county still had the chance to use transit to help build multiple-unit housing for people with lower incomes who could not afford cars – the very people many BART advocates simply ignored. Projecting future growth heavily oriented towards manufacturing, Belser worried that, “if industry locates itself hit of miss without regard to rapid transit, it becomes impossible, as it is today in Los Angeles, to locate effective desire lines on which to locate the line…Thus if the lines of the system were defined now it would be possible through proper parallel planning to connect areas of residence with areas of employment.” [end quotation from my paper]

Pretty much none of what Belser envisioned actually came to pass and in 1970, with Santa Clara County's car-oriented pattern well in place, Belser published an article called "The Making of Slurban America" lamenting what happened to the county.3

  1. Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Hall, and MacDonald, Regional Rapid Transit: A Report to the Bay Area Rapid Transit Commission 1953-1955, 1956. 

  2. Karl Belser, “Rapid Transit Extension to San Jose An Address Made By Karl J. Belser,” 11 Sep 1956, BART Commission Progress Reports, A18-1.1, California State Archives. All of the Belser quotes in this post are from this same document. 

  3. Karl J. Belser, "The Making of Slurban America," Cry California, 5 (Fall 1970): 1-21.