Backers Say a Monorail Could Help Silicon Valley
With Palo Alto streets jammed, officials are listening
Diana Walsh, Chronicle Staff Writer Sunday, January 7, 2001

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The techno-wizards of Silicon Valley have turbocharged everything but their own traffic.

While impatient engineers labor to shave seconds from Internet connections, they creep along their local freeways at horse-and-buggy speeds.

Now a group of Palo Alto residents has caught the attention of City Hall with a proposal to install high-tech public transportation -- a monorail system that will let riders bypass the traffic-clogged streets below on their way to the office.

Think Disneyland's monorail, but with smaller, driverless cars and "whisper- quiet'' rides.

The group is asking Palo Alto officials, local businesses and Stanford University to support a "personal rapid transit" (PRT) plan that would link the Peninsula's Caltrain to dozens of office buildings at the Stanford Research Park on Page Mill Road through an elevated, two-mile, electric-rail loop.

"I think it's a big winner," said Joe Kott, Palo Alto's chief transportation official, who first learned of the proposal six weeks ago in a meeting with the group.

Kott, who has heard about PRT systems for years while at transit conferences, is so intrigued by the futuristic people-mover that he plans to hold a public discussion of the proposal Friday in Palo Alto City Hall.

At first glimpse, the monorail seems like a fantastical Buck Rogers approach to transit. But Cities21, the group pushing the plan, has put a lot of thought and details into its 14-page proposal.

Passengers would hop on board a personal electric cab accommodating up to three passengers, name their destination (initially one of five stations) and arrive there four minutes later, bypassing all other stations along the way.

The PRT cars would travel at average speeds of 30 mph, but could run up to 80 mph and accommodate as many as 7,200 trips per hour, the group says.

"Most surprisingly in the Bay Area, our transit technology is still mid- 20th century, and we really need to be thinking about 21st century technology, " said Kott. "We have a sophisticated private sector and a very sophisticated population -- an idea like this is not outlandish in a place like Palo Alto."

He's not alone in City Hall.

"As a kid, I always thought that in 2001 this is the kind of space-age travel that would exist -- but we're still using the technology Ford brought us: the car," said Palo Alto Councilwoman Nancy Lytle. "At first blush, it sounds well worth our considering."

According to Steve Raney, a Palo Alto native and force behind Cities21, a personal rapid transit system would bypass the lengthy fights over land rights and high costs that plague traditional surface-level transit initiatives. The system would be elevated 16 feet, and supporters believe that Page Mill's existing sidewalk and bike lane rights of way could easily accommodate the monorail's 22-inch pillars.

Of course, this is Palo Alto, where issues like leaf blowers can take on outsized importance and where critics lurk in the wings for such confrontations. Skeptics might harp on the visual impact of raised rails and platforms, the additional noise from the system, the cost of the system itself and the lack of successful tests elsewhere.

Installing the system -- at an estimated $10 million per mile -- is cheap by Bay Area standards. And it's a fraction of the cost per mile to extend BART to San Francisco International Airport.

By avoiding the need for new and expensive rights of way, the PRT proposal offers a way to retrofit modern transit into existing commercial districts. Moreover, there's some hope that the corporations that benefit from shorter employee commutes may be willing to defray costs.

So far, the companies, which haven't seen the proposal, are taking a wait- and-see approach.

"We've always been behind commute alternatives," said Martha Maris, manager of Bay Area public affairs for Hewlett Packard, which employs 2,300 people at the Page Mill Road business park. As for supporting the monorail, "it's hard to say," she said. "We really have to see more information about it."

Kathleen Franger, a Hewlett Packard employee who has seen the time of her 30-mile commute from San Jose to Palo Alto double in just two years, was tickled when told of the proposal.

"It sounds like a neat opportunity. . . . Anything that eases the congestion would be great," said Franger, who spends an hour to 90 minutes each way in her car.

There's also the minor issue of convincing officials at Stanford University,

which actually owns all of the land along the Page Mill corridor. The academics aren't dismissing it, but some say the technology works best at the Magic Kingdom.

"It sounds a little fantastic, but given the environment we live in, we probably shouldn't dismiss anything offhand," said Andy Coe, Stanford's director of community relations. Still, Coe said, "it sounds like a long shot."

Existing shuttles to Caltrain run only during peak hours and are too low- tech to appeal to what the Cities21 proposal refers to as "affluent technologists" who now arrive at work in "a cushy, cocoon-like experience of their fine German sedans."

Raney cites transit studies showing that people don't use current public transit because it doesn't get them close enough to where they want to go. And with the Bay Area job market expected to grow by more than a million jobs in the next 20 years, Raney figured somebody had to do something, and quick.

"Traffic is going to come to a standstill. On 101, we're at the breaking point already," he said. "It's pretty apparent that we need to take a 10- to 20-year view to planning and the current paradigm of the office parks and transportation really don't cut it."

If the Page Mill loop is put in place and proves successful, backers hope to expand the elevated rail lines up to the Stanford Medical Center, over to Stanford Shopping Center and to venture capital rich Sand Hill Road.

But convincing the public that the system will work is difficult. A similar system doesn't exist anywhere in the world, although many cities, including Cincinnati and Seattle, are studying monorail lines and Sweden is looking at a major installation with about 600 stations. Enthusiasts of the proposal argue that the Bay Area is the perfect place to experiment with new technology.

Cities21 chose the Page Mill corridor as a test site because it has a wide roadway with plenty of side space and no residents to object to it. In addition, it's only a mile from the train station. Plus, the Page Mill corridor is chock-a-block with high-tech employees -- 23,000 at approximately 160 companies -- all potentially interested in a new solution to their commutes.

"I've looked at revolutionary technology where the old way dies out and a new way comes into being. That always happens when people are extremely unhappy with the old way, and that's exactly what we are seeing here," said Jeral Poskey, a first-year business student at Stanford and a member of Cities21. "The frustration level in the Bay Area about traffic and congestion and how they affect quality of life make this an ideal situation for a new transportation system."

But what if they build the monorail and it's a technological disaster? Tear it down, said Raney.

"It's not like it would be a huge engineering disaster. It's not like taking down a dam," he said. "If you had to take it down -- it's not like the stations are Grand Central Station or anything. You could just take it down and cut your losses."

E-mail Diana Walsh at dwalsh@sfchronicle.com.