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I recently heard about a business traveler who reported that he is able to schedule four meetings in one day in Australia, five when he is in Europe, and only three when he is in the U.S., even though travel speeds are higher in the U.S. than in Australia or Europe. The reason is that the people he meets in the U.S. are further away from each other than the people he meets in Australia and Europe.

This story illustrates that it’s not the travel itself that is important to people, but rather what the travel allows them to do. I wonder how many meetings that business traveler would be able to schedule while in the San Diego region compared to San Jose, San Francisco, Portland or Denver.

When people talk about quality of life in the San Diego region, the obvious attributes that come to mind are its beautiful climate, recreational amenities, a healthy innovation economy, and a laid back southern California lifestyle that is appealing to young and old alike. One of the few dark spots on our local quality of life is traffic delays and the amount of time we are stuck in them.

Statistics from the recently published 2011 San Diego Regional Quality of Life Dashboard partly reveal why traffic is such a hot topic in this region:

  • we drive a total of 80 million miles daily in San Diego County (the equivalent of 133 trips to the moon)
  • 76 percent of commuters drive to work alone, while only 3 percent take public transportation
  • San Diegans who commute to work in their cars each spend 37 extra hours per year in traffic delays (a week’s worth of vacation time)

The good news is that in the past few years the number of miles we each drive daily has declined. The bad news is that this is mostly due to the impacts of the recession. In the depths of the economic downturn, fewer people traveling for work, fewer consumer goods being moved from place to place and less construction resulted in less traffic on the highways at peak hours, and fewer delays.

While this situation had some benefits to commuters and the environment (less time on the highways means fewer air pollutants being emitted), as the economy recovers, we are likely to see travel increasing and with it, traffic delays, fuel expenditures, and worsened air quality, unless we do something differently.

Right now, the region has an opportunity to rethink transportation in the form of the update to our Regional Transportation Plan (RTP). SANDAG, our metropolitan planning agency, has been working diligently on the RTP and its performance measures during the past year. A draft of the plan will be released this spring for public comment.

For the first time ever, SANDAG is required to include a Sustainable Communities Strategy (SCS) in the RTP update. The SCS encourages better coordinated land use and transportation planning to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One of the questions that arises when we create new plans to address our growth challenges is how will we know if our plans and policies are working as we implement them.

SANDAG has made a good effort to identify performance measures for the SCS and the RTP that will be meaningful to transportation policy makers and experts (trip times, mode shares, smog-forming pollutants) and others that may resonate with some members of the public (number of fatal collisions, daily hours of delay, percent of homes within a half mile of transit stop).

While the SCS and the proposed performance measures are a step in the right direction, they fall short of providing an inspiring vision and road map to create improved access, and a more sustainable economy and healthy environment in the region.

After all, transportation is not an end itself. It is a means to an end. We need transportation so that people or businesses can access services, jobs, schools, friends and families when they want or need to. We need a transportation system that reduces traffic delays, saves fuel, increases energy security, and improves air quality for those who live next to the highways.

Ultimately, mothers want to ensure their children will be safe biking or walking to school and will breathe clean air while doing so. Business people want to know they can get to their jobs or appointments in a timely fashion, and the elderly need accessible, cost-effective transportation to do their grocery shopping or get to the doctor’s office.

If we keep these ends in mind, we open ourselves up to myriad possibilities of how we can meet those needs. Metropolitan regions from Curitiba, Brazil, to Pasadena to Toronto are demonstrating new approaches to getting people and businesses connected to the services they need.

Whether through better land use planning and transit oriented development, tele-commuting or tele-medicine, or the use of mobile applications for electronic ticketing and payment, new technologies and policy innovations can create seamless, convenient and cleaner mobility options. These opportunities can also create new jobs and markets in the transportation/mobility sector.

The San Diego region, with its robust IT and telecommunications industry and other intellectual and entrepreneurial assets, is primed to be a leader in this sector. But first, we need to set out an ambitious vision of where we want to go, and how we’ll know when we get there. Goals, benchmarks and the appropriate performance measures that are relevant to everyday lives will help drive change for the region.

Ann Tartre is a resident of Encinitas and Executive Director of Equinox Center. She will participate in a February 24 panel organized by Move San Diego to discuss performance measures for the San Diego region’s transportation plan.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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