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Understanding traffic in Silicon Valley

Understanding traffic in Silicon Valley - cars bumper to bumperUnderstanding traffic is an important consideration for home hunters in Silicon Valley. This is true both as a time issue and also as a health issue if the property is located in areas with heavy traffic nearby. It can also be a noise issue.

Traffic concerns and impacts in Santa Clara County often falls into one of these broad categories:

  • commute traffic (time to work – often longer in the afternoon than in the morning)
  • beach traffic (near the highways that lead to the coast)
  • air traffic  (helicopters and planes, how often, how low)
  • school traffic (it can be slow going if the route  takes a driver past multiple schools)
  • “cut through” traffic (the road may be a 25 mph zone, but it may be very active at certain times of the day, and there may be speeding issues)


Slow commuting

In the San Jose area, we have a tremendous amount of rush hour traffic for workplaces and learning institutions.  Major roadways leading to downtown San Jose create one cluster of commute traffic. Highways and freeways leading to tech centers in Cupertino, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Palo Alto, Santa Clara and nearby areas are another giant clot of people trying to get to their destination in the morning, or slogging their way home in the longer evening commute.  Additionally, there are high tech centers in North San Jose, Milpitas, and Fremont that have a magnetic attraction for cars in the morning and an expulsion of them in the evening.

Many commuters would love to bike to work at Google or Apple and avoid being in any vehicle other than the two wheeled variety. Being in biking distance to any large workplace will usually make that residential location more valuable. Cupertino is particularly prized as it has both close employment centers and strong schools – hence the high prices.

For those with flexible work hours, some of the clogged roads experience can be avoided or minimized by having an earlier schedule.

There are some high tech employers not in the usual clusters and commutes to those locations can be a dream by comparison. A few:

  • AMD, formerly Xilinx, is in the Cambrian area of San Jose.
  • Netflix is in Los Gatos
  • Several companies are located in the Edenvale area of San Jose (part of the Santa Teresa district not far from Evergreen and the Silver Creek area)

Please see also this post: Silicon Valley commute traffic

Beach traffic

The flow of traffic to the coast is easy to figure out once you’ve experienced it: if the weather is nice (primarily in Summer, but sometimes in Spring or Fall),  beachgoers hear the siren’s song and get on the roads to Santa Cruz, Half Moon Bay, and Watsonville / Monterey / Carmel.  The main times to look for it going to the shore are Friday afternoons, and weekend or holidays from 9 or 10 am to about 2 pm. The traffic crawling back over the coastal range often picks up by 4 pm and can be brutal at 5 or 6.

Cities and towns impacted significantly by beach traffic include Los Gatos, Saratoga, and Gilroy. Areas near these will also feel the impact, but not as directly.

The only other major thing to watch for is a heat wave. If it hits 100 in  the Santa Clara Valley (or anywhere inland), the simple weekend rule goes out the window, and you can find beach traffic mid-week, too.

From Los Gatos to Santa Cruz it’s often about 30 minutes with no traffic. If the roads are choked with cars which are barely moving, it can take a painfully long time to cross The Hill, well more than 1 hour.

My best beachgoing advice:

  • It is always a good idea to pack food and water (and make sure everyone is comfortable for the next hour plus) just in case. Accidents can happen, flat tires can happen,  slow motorhomes can happen and what seemed like clear sailing can sometimes turn into a long journey. Best to not do it needing a rest stop or food desperately.
  • Go early and pack layers. If you go before the fog lifts you will be miserably cold, but the drive will be a breeze.  You can always visit Gayle’s Bakery in Capitola or any favorite eatery for food or hot cocoa while you wait for the weather to improve.
  • Similarly, leave around 3 or 3:30 to miss the bulk of ocean lovers all trying to get home in time for dinner. Crowded freeways full of hungry people are best to be avoid!
  • Lastly, please stay on the main roads. Mapping programs love to route autos through downtown Los Gatos and it can become a dangerous gridlock.

Traffic and noise

Home sellers may have grown used to the sounds from the pre-school or swim center next door – or any other place that generates a higher volume of sound. It’s best if you can visit that area at different times of the day and the week to increase your odds of experiencing the extra sound. In some cases, though, it may be only seasonal (for instance, if the house is close to a baseball or football field, it may not by loud year round).

So, too, with airplane traffic. The main San Jose airport has flights landing and taking off in one direction most of the time (south to north), but with certain weather patterns, they reverse.  A couple of times a year there is incredibly loud noise from fighter jets, such as the Blue Angels, going to and from Moffett Field. (Those are REALLY loud in parts of Santa Clara!)

Helicopter traffic in Los Gatos seems oddly common, and I’ve written about it elsewhere a couple of times. Sometimes it’s a chopper following a freeway for traffic reports. Other times it’s an emergency vehicle taking someone to a hospital (Good Samaritan, which is on the border of San Jose and LG, or El Camino Hospital of Los Gatos, on the West side of town). Other times we’ve seen them practicing fire fighting with buckets of water. And we’ve seen military and coast guard birds flying between Moffett Field and Monterey.  (And once in a while there is a police chopper, too, of course.)

Weather can also effect noise from freeway traffic. If your home is fairly close to a freeway or highway, it may be quieter in clear weather and louder in noisy weather. The sound seems to bounce back down with low overcast at times.

There are some websites that track and measure sound volume, such as How Loud. Many of these sites focus on things like freeway or air traffic, and may miss other sources of noise, such as with a ballgame, school events, church events, etc. And of course it doesn’t know about loud neighbors, such as auto body and repair shops.

School traffic

School traffic can be fairly easy to figure out since all schools are mapped and most or all of them publish their calendars online. In my part of the county, Blossom Hill Road is a busy street that goes directly past some schools and within a block or so of others.  Needless to say, it’s imperative to slow down and watch for kids (and sometimes their family entourage with siblings in strollers and pets on leash). It can be chaotic. If you have a 4 or 5 mile trip but have to drive past multiple schools to get where you’re going, bad luck with the lights and students crossing roads can nearly double your drive, so plan accordingly.

Cut through traffic

Cut through traffic happens anywhere, and it’s not hard to see where it might happen. Where you see major roads (for instance, running East-West), look on a map and see what’s parallel to them and which go a long distance. Then you can imagine that if that street were blocked for any reason, the cars would likely take the alternate route. This may be even more true where the roads are straight and have few stop signs.

Google or Bing both have street views and it’s wise to check them. If you find those areas to have yellow lines in residential areas, that may be a red flag for traffic of possibly speeding. Are there speed humps, roundabouts, or other traffic mitigation measures in place? Those were added in Blossom Manor, a Los Gatos neighborhood, and they seem to have helped. The roads are not so straight and it’s not so easy to zip through to cut between Blossom Hill Road and Los Gatos-Almaden Road now.