Projects like SANDAG-funded bike lanes and the opening of new bus rapid transit routes look good on paper.

They give the impression that San Diego is making progress toward building livable communities with less dependence on cars.

But the people of our city and region shouldn’t be fooled. Despite these transportation alternatives, do we have a sufficient transit network, particularly in the urban core? Ask anyone who has compared our system with others – the answer is no.

Our region’s elected officials continue to support a “freeways-first” Regional Transportation Plan. This calls for widening freeways – including to accommodate the new rapid buses – even though additional lanes only relieve congestion for two to four years.

San Diegans know this from past experience. For example, I-5, now up to 12 lanes wide in some locations like Sorrento Valley, still faces recurring congestion.

Economically, our dependence on cars harms the region. We’re not in the auto manufacturing industry, nor do we produce fuel. It represents money leaving our regional economy when there are proven alternatives.

Not only does San Diego’s cars-first model increase traffic congestion and strain family budgets, but the lack of transportation alternatives is negatively impacting our health.

Health professionals and planners have documented how car-centric communities are killing us. Cars and trucks contribute to our region’s continuing failing grade for air quality from the American Lung Association. This leads to higher rates of asthma, cancer and other diseases particularly for sensitive populations within our urban neighborhoods.

We can reduce obesity rates if our communities have the infrastructure to promote walking and biking. Effective transit networks reduce the need for cars, reduce the negative human health impacts of emissions and boost the local economy.

Buried in the current 2050 Regional Transit Plan – and largely ignored in its implementation – is an Urban Transit Strategy that calls for double tracking the Coaster route, light rail development and an effective transit network in the urban core. Before the plan was adopted, the Cleveland National Forest Foundation proposed the 50-10 Transit Plan.

It simply proposes our region speed up the transit development we already have planned, finishing it in 10 years instead of 40. Acting against environmental law, SANDAG refuses to consider this alternative, brushing aside members of the public who want this progress with false claims that there isn’t money in the budget.

In December 2012, a Superior Court judge ruled that by adopting the 2050 plan, SANDAG acted with “a prejudicial abuse of discretion” and used a “kick the can down the road” approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. SANDAG refused to change and appealed the decision.

But we don’t have to accept SANDAG’s publicity-minded cheering behind bus rapid transit and similar car-centric projects. We should be asking why they’re spending billions of dollars on freeway projects that don’t work to reduce congestion, hurt our economy, are bad for our health and are destroying our environment.

Why isn’t our region adopting a “transit first” policy when survey results show a majority of San Diegans want a working system?

We need our leaders to serve us like it is 2014, not 1965. We can’t pave our way to the future.

Jack Shu is president of the Cleveland National Forest Foundation. Shu’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

Catherine Green

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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