By Paul Bendix
To 'Save Menlo' ? Save CaltrainUploaded: Aug 7, 2014
Aboard Caltrain's 4:56 evening southbound a fellow passenger approaches to talk about the rail line. We agree it's a great thing. He urges me to write more about it, work with Friends of Caltrain. We are in sync about everything -- except the utility of this discussion. We are preaching to the choir. Caltrain's more than 50,000 daily riders don't need convincing. But hundreds of thousands of voters up and down the Peninsula do...many in Menlo Park.
One of the curious aspects of the Save Menlo effort is its disconnect from regional planning and regional transit. Blocking office construction, its supporters say, benefits the community with a "shift in commuter traffic away from downtown Menlo Park," to quote the current Almanac.
Consider this "benefit." First, how many of these commuters are projected to be driving? There's a reason why offices near train stations are called "transit friendly." Surely Menlo Park can learn from the region. How many workers drive to offices near the Pleasant Hill BART station, for example?
The second question about less offices...is who benefits. The man who talked to me on Caltrain? The twentysomethings and thirtysomethings in downtown apartments who comprise much of Silicon Valley's workforce? It's splendid to "save Menlo" for middle-aged property owners, but what about the young professionals who make that property so valuable?
The third question...well, I have to be patient here. For the next issue seems obvious to me, but clearly not to everyone. This question: when we take traffic away from downtown Menlo Park...where does the traffic go? Doesn't it go somewhere else? More to the point, does it encourage suburban sprawl in places like Tracy? Does driving to and from "somewhere else" raise ozone levels somewhere else, such as the San Joaquin Valley with its epidemic of childhood asthma?
Which brings us back to my rush hour conversation. Making the region livable is a puzzle with moving parts...one of which is Caltrain. To strengthen commuter rail service, we all need to get involved. Friends of Caltrain is a good start. Registering to vote and many young transient professionals don't is another.