The San Diego Trolley
There are several ways to judge public transit. Our recent Fact Check zeroed in on one measure, called the farebox recovery ratio, which measures cost effectiveness.
Here’s UCLA researcher Juan Matute on that metric:
… Matute also said judging the line entirely by its financial performance reveals the priorities of its planners.
“There’s a very businesslike focus about operating and always making sure there’s a return on investment,” he said. “In other parts of the state, transit is seen as a social service that connects people to jobs. That’s just not going to show up in (farebox recovery ratio).”
Bicycling advocate Sam Ollinger thinks other assessments should factor into the discussion:
I would determine “best” based on how close the Metropolitan Transit System is in meeting its own stated mission. And farebox recovery or the return on investment is based on only one element of MTS’ mission statement:
“Obtaining maximum benefit for every dollar spent.”
The entire mission statement adopted by the SDMTS is:
“to enhance the personal mobility of San Diego metropolitan area residents and visitors by:
- Obtaining maximum benefit for every dollar spent.
- Being the community’s major public transportation advocate.
- Increasing public transportation usage per capita.
- Taking a customer-oriented approach.
- Offering high-quality public transportation services.
- Responding to the community’s socioeconomic interests.”
What metrics does MTS use to determine success based on those other elements of the mission statement? Is the decision to expand the trolley line to University City and not into the older/mid-city parts of the city meeting the stated mission of “responding to the community’s socioeconomic interests?” How is MTS increasing public transportation usage per capita?
And if ROI was the only measurement worth crowing about, how does the San Diego Association of Governments’ purchase of the SR-125 fit into that? Considering that it was a poorly performing piece of infrastructure and, if I understand the issue correctly, a not previously proposed purchase within SANDAG’s own 2050 RTP.
Several commenters suggested other issues to consider:
SANDAG should calculate the cost of the air pollution prevented by the blue line (up to $1,600 per person annually according to this report) and factor that into the blue line’s ROI.
(The blue line) is the worst maintained of the lines. The only line still using the old cars, track alignment that can throw you out of your seat, electronic signage unreadable, fare vending machines only recently upgraded to something that works. It seems the other lines get the attention in order to attract new customers but the blue line is “good enough” for them.
So, the trolley goes to a lot of good places. However, it grades very poorly in communities served. The blue line is about as inaccessible as possible for residents from San Ysidro, Chula Vista and National City. Most of the green lines stops are not easily accessible to nearby residents: Grantville and Morena basically stop in industrial areas; the stops in Mission Valley miss Hotel Circle, and are not within walking distance to a high percentage of a seemingly densely populated area; and much like the eastern portion of the Green Line, the mid-coast extension south of UC San Diego will have its stops on the side of the freeway. Ironically the orange line, which appears to actually go through a lot of communities rather than around them, serves basically only one good destination: downtown. Nearly our entire system was built on or next to railroad and freeway right-of-ways. Very cost effective, but very ineffective in terms of being accessible to communities. …
The problem with our system practically requiring a portion of most trips to be on bus or in car is that negates the main benefit of the trolley. The trolley benefits from a dedicated route that doesn’t get clogged up with traffic. So, you could laugh at commuters in the cars slugging through the streets and freeways during rush hour, except it’s highly likely that you’re going to have to take a portion of your own trip in a car or a bus and then you’re slogging through the muck right along with them.
San Diego can build a great, walkable, transit-oriented core, but not until major changes are made to how land use decisions are made, parking requirements are liberalized, and until the trolley connects to residential neighborhoods. Build a line from downtown to Hillcrest and North Park, and run a spur from the mid-coast corridor down Grand Avenue to Pacific Beach and watch ridership and revenue vastly increase, but sticking with the status quo of avoiding residential neighborhoods and building massive parking lots around stations won’t change anything for the trolley.
Comments and excerpts have been edited for clarity, and links were added. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us here.
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