If you drive from San Jose, California, toward San Francisco along El Camino Real, a historic road that was once used for travel between Spanish missions, you’ll see an endless stretch of strip malls and parking lots, semi-urban sprawl extending nearly the entire route between the two major cities. The street, which is typically six lanes wide, isn’t a place people want to walk alongside. But it could be the best place for solving the Bay Area’s ongoing housing crisis—and a model for how to reimagine underused commercial strips in other areas that desperately need new apartments.
By one calculation, there’s room for a quarter-million new apartments on the street, which could be built without displacing any existing homes. In the five most populated Bay Area counties, in total, there are 700 miles of major arterial streets with room for up to 1.37 million new homes.
“There’s a lot of underutilized land there,” says Peter Calthorpe, a Berkeley-based urban planner who cofounded Urban Footprint, a company with a software tool that calculated the potential for the space. “Old strip commercial is now overbuilt, underused, undervalued, largely because we shop online. We don’t go cruising down the strip anymore to get what we need.”
That’s not to say that no one ever goes to the old strip malls; if you want to get good Indian food or shop at a Korean supermarket, the low-slung buildings are a good place to find them. But new mixed-use buildings could keep retail space on the ground level while adding floors of apartments on top.
On the street itself, some lanes of traffic could be dedicated to public transit, and wide sidewalks could make room for café seating with separated bike lanes on the side. In the late 1980s, Calthorpe was the first planner to define transit-oriented development—the idea that compact, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods should be built around train stations. But he says that wide streets like El Camino could be used in a different way.
“The reality that I see these days is that transit is too expensive to build in a ubiquitous way, especially if you use BART [rapid transit] or light rail systems,” he says. “Light rail’s now $100 million a mile. So the idea that you’re going to be able to come close enough to capture a large percentage of our populations in sprawling metropolitan areas just doesn’t seem logical.”
Instead, he says, some traffic lanes on streets like El Camino can be converted to bus rapid transit, letting buses quickly travel from stop to stop. And the lanes could eventually be used by autonomous vans that pick up passengers on demand, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (This may not be so far in the future; Singapore began testing autonomous buses on city streets last year.) “When you think about where you could put [bus rapid transit] or [autonomous rapid transit] as it emerges, it’s on the big arterial corridors,” Calthorpe says. “That’s where you have the space to steal the lane.”
It’s also where housing could be added with the least disruption. California needs to build millions of new housing units to meet demand so the cost of housing can come down; Governor Gavin Newsom pledged to build 3.5 million homes by 2025, but only around 100,000 homes are being built each year. In the Bay Area, six times more new jobs were added in 2020 than new homes. It can be incredibly difficult to get new construction approved and permitted—and current residents often try to block new, taller buildings.
Even rebuilding strip malls faces resistance—others that have also been advocating to add taller buildings to El Camino Real have struggled. But building in commercial areas may be less challenging politically because it can avoid some of the arguments like new housing might displace residents or lead to gentrification in older neighborhoods. Calthorpe argues that because cities are likely to still find it difficult to change zoning to allow developers to build mixed-used buildings along major commercial streets, changes would have to happen at the state level.
Because of the proximity to fast, convenient transit—and to major employers in Silicon Valley—the new housing could also shrink commutes and reduce congestion on roads. Because apartments are more efficient than single-family houses, people living in new units would use 39% less energy than people living in an average home in the area, use 62% less water, and spend roughly half as much on utility bills and transportation. With major streets redesigned to be places where people want to spend time, they could also become places where people living nearby would want to walk to, rather than getting in a car to run every errand.
“It’s a beautiful, comprehensive way to come at a systemic problem because it solves the transportation problem,” he says. “It solves the workforce-housing problem, it solves affordable housing. And it’s a big solution in terms of carbon and climate change.”
It’s something that Calthorpe believes should also happen in other parts of the country, as commercial spaces continue to change and housing needs grow. “That strip commercial land is not coming back,” he says. “Amazon and the rest of online shopping is just going to be more and more normative. And so we have a lot of underutilized land out there that could play a really healthy role for housing and transit.”